Very few journalists get called in the middle of the night by ABC’s “Good Morning America” asking them to cover an unfolding disaster story. Even fewer are juniors in college.
“It was midnight, I had just gotten in bed,” said West Virginia University student Justin Weaver, now a senior. “I was about to fall asleep, and I got a call, and it was ‘Good Morning America’ again. I had class the next day and everything, but this was important.”
Weaver, a broadcast journalism major, had already worked for the program a week and a half earlier when they had contacted his school looking for someone to cover the Sago mine disaster unfolding an hour and a half away.
“This was a place that I had been … so I knew the area,” Weaver said. “And also my father’s a coal miner, so I knew what these people were thinking.”
The next time, “Good Morning America” was calling about another mine disaster, this one in Melville, W.Va. Weaver packed his suitcase with water, granola bars and an atlas and drove south.
“I was really the sole leadership for ABC or ‘Good Morning America’ down there,” Weaver said, as other ABC crews did not arrive for 17 hours. “I’m a college student, and here I am all of a sudden in charge of coordinating what’s going on. … It was a little overwhelming, but I got everything together, and I was really proud of myself.”
At the Sago mine disaster, Weaver had worked with Bonnie Stewart, assistant professor of journalism and the adviser for the West Virginia University student chapter of SPJ.
“Justin is an extremely poised reporter,” Stewart said. “He’s got a really good news sense for hard news, and he’s very sensitive to the feelings of the people he interviews.
“His father was working in the mines — not those mines — when he was out there reporting. … He knew what the people were going through, and he respected their wishes. And if they don’t want to talk, he’s not shoving the microphone in their face.”
Weaver produced three live shots at the second mine disaster, including the first interview with the governor about the tragedy in the state capital. He was familiar with the capital because he had interned at the West Virginia state legislature as an information specialist the previous year.
“He was making the decisions that a 30-year-old producer would normally make,” said John Dahlia, who was the news director at WDTV when Weaver worked there for his first internship as a high school sophomore. “ABC got a bargain with him.”
Dahlia had given Weaver his start in journalism years before the mine disaster at WDTV, when he pulled some strings to hire Weaver as an intern while he was in high school. The station was not supposed to take high school interns, but Dahlia was impressed by the sophomore’s persistence about wanting to work there. It paid off. The station had to create a sign-up sheet for reporters to work with Weaver because he was in such high demand.
The semester after his internship was completed, Dahlia gave Weaver the chance for another career first: covering his first big disaster story. He decided to hire his former intern to cover the aftermath of 9/11.
When Dahlia heard that he had two spots on a bus taking local firefighters and police officers to New York City to help after 9/11, he knew who he wanted to send with his full-time reporter.
“I immediately said, ‘Know what, let me send Justin,’” Dahlia said. “And I called his mom first, he was at school that day, and then I called his principal.”
They worked out an arrangement where Weaver would help with the story and do a presentation at school on his return.
“I was the photog on that shoot and helped what I could with writing stories,” Weaver said. “It was part of getting people familiar with New York City again.”
His next disaster experience was closer to home, although not as close as the mines would be. After Hurricane Katrina, Camp Dawson in West Virginia became home to hundreds of evacuees. Weaver took the 45-minute drive from the university to the military base and put together a radio package on how the children were faring, visiting them in a newly refurbished playroom.
Because other university students and classes were going to Camp Dawson, faculty decided to create The Katrina Project, a convergence class focusing on multimedia coverage of the disaster. Stewart taught the yearlong 400-level course, which put together a multimedia Web site of coverage that won a Regional First Place Mark of Excellence Award from SPJ. Weaver was one of the project’s leaders.
“All along Justin has been the undergraduate coordinator for getting stories formatted properly, getting them in, getting them read,” Stewart said. “And he’s been like my right-hand guy.”
Stewart, Weaver and two graduate students went to New Orleans three months after the hurricane to follow a family returning home for the first time.
“Going down there, I just realized what a ghost town the city had become,” Weaver said. “What interested me so much was that … there’s a small sliver of the city that was — not untouched, but not as damaged … but if you just traveled four or five streets over it was just an honest-to-God ghost town that looked like a war zone.
“I’ve never been anywhere in my life in the United States that looked like that.”
Because of his experiences, Weaver now considers himself a convergence journalist instead of a broadcast journalist.
“New Orleans was life-changing for me personally, and professionally as a reporter,” Weaver said. And less than two weeks after his return, he began his work for “Good Morning America” with the Sago mine disaster. “I wake up and national news is happening again in my backyard.”
Now Weaver is back at “Good Morning America,” as an intern in New York City for four months. He’s getting full credit at school for his internship — his fourth — and will graduate in May. He wants to work at the network level and also as a foreign correspondent.
“It’s really hard to believe how young he is,” Dahlia said. “I would say that he’s going to go very far. He’s probably going to go to network fairly quick.
“He’s called me a mentor before, but I think I’m learning from him. He’s a lot younger than me, obviously, but he’s very inspiring. …That’s why he is so successful today and at this age because he has that drive and that determination that you just don’t see in adults.”
Weaver said there are benefits to being a young journalist. But there is a lot to learn, and he said SPJ has helped in that education since he joined two years ago.
“I love all the resources that SPJ provides,” he said. “As a young reporter you think, ‘Well, how do I get this information?’”
Getting the information for the disaster stories was a challenge, he said.
“It is very difficult to walk up to people that you don’t know,” Weaver said. “You are dealing with people in these instances on the worst days of their lives.”
But he said he realized that the stories journalists tell are stories that have to be told. A month after the mine disasters, his father’s coal mine got new uniforms with safety features such as reflecting strips and lights as a result of new safety legislation.
“I was able to see the results of that work, that media attention, that focus that was to a point very overwhelming for a small town,” Weaver said. “I really believe in information. I think for the most part the more information that we can have, that people have access to, the better it is, because people can make their own decisions that way. I think it lends to our democracy.”