I spoke to Pitts about the story that he and producer Jack Renaud put together for tonight's broadcast. Specifically, I wanted to know how they found the people featured in the story.
"All you have to do is show up in a place like this and they walk over to you and tell you their story," says Pitts. "People are in such desperate need of help that they are willing to talk to anyone who might help their cause."
It's a different dynamic, he says, than in some other situations, where there are people who want to talk to you largely out of a desire to be on television. The people in Pearlington, he says, seem to have lost that impulse. But they're still happy to see the press. "When we got out of this car we saw this one guy who seemed very edgy," says Pitts. "He thought we were from FEMA. But when we said we were from CBS he broke into this big smile."
In addition to simply talking to the people they found on the street, Pitts and Renaud looked for ideas at "PearlMart," which is a clothing store/grocery store/shower area/gathering place that has been established in an old grade school gymnasium. It was there they were told about Max and Gloria Dunwoody, who made it into the report. Max has emphysema, and his wheelchair was too small for his FEMA trailer. The CBS News team felt he was a good human face for the story of Pearlington, a town that Pitts says seems to have been left to languish by the federal government.
In a sense, Pitts and Renaud were lucky to have an information clearinghouse like PearlMart available to them. According to CBS National Editor Bill Felling, reporters often rely on a "serendipitous factor" in order to find the best way to tell a story – in other words, they embark on traditional shoe leather reporting and hope that one of the people they talk to either turns out to be or leads them to an interesting subject.