USA TODAY reporter Oren Dorell, who died last week, was determined to serve readers no matter the risk. He never could resist getting the ‘real’ story.
I quickly discovered how courageous and passionate Oren Dorell was during his job interview to be a reporter at USA TODAY in late 2004. He had submitted story samples from being a police reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and I was taken with one about what it felt like to be shocked by a Taser.
He had submitted voluntarily to a Taser shock and wrote about what victims underwent when police used it on them. I asked him what it was like? “Excruciating,” he replied. “The most painful thing I ever did.” Why subject yourself to such pain? “How else can I describe to readers how it felt?” he said.
I knew then that he should work for us.
That was Oren: intrepid on assignment, passionate about his work and determined to serve readers at great personal risk. That was why we hired him in January 2005 and why I loved being his editor, colleague and friend for more than 13 years. He was so full of life, love and adventure in everything he did as a journalist, husband, father and friend, that I cannot believe he is gone. Oren, 53, died Friday night after a car struck the motorcycle he was riding in Washington, D.C. The driver of the car faces charges of second-degree murder, driving under the influence and leaving the scene of the collision.
Oren adored his wife Ginny and their two young sons, Malcolm and Leo. As someone who frequently broke bread with him, I witnessed how much he relished eating exotic food. As his longtime editor, I can attest how much he thrived on difficult assignments, preferably foreign travel. The riskier, the better. For Oren, the world was a series of intriguing mysteries he wanted to unravel to satisfy his insatiable curiosity and shed light for his readers, who always were in his thoughts.
“Don’t you think readers want to know about that …” he always began his defense when I cut some detail from a story. He often persuaded me to restore the material.
For Oren, danger was just a routine job hazard, whether covering the aftermath of a hurricane, the fighting in eastern Ukraine and Iraq, or a political uprising in Egypt. On one assignment about a hurricane, he decided to use a boat to get closer to a flood-stricken area and almost became a victim when the boat swamped. He shrugged it off, apologizing for getting his work equipment waterlogged.
Whenever he went to a foreign conflict zone, I always gave the same safety speech: Stay in regular contact, don’t venture near live fighting, remember that no story is worth putting your life in grave danger. Yet, he couldn’t resist the lure of getting to the “real” story.
When he was covering a conflict between Ukrainian national troops and Russian-backed separatists, I warned him repeatedly to stay away from the fighting in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Then one day I received a phone call from him and could hear rocket fire in the background.
“Where are you?” I shouted. “Pinned down inside the airport, where the two sides are firing,” he explained. “I told you not to go close to live fighting,” I yelled. “Well, the rebels said there is no fighting between 1 and 3 p.m., so I went then,” he said sheepishly. “I guess they didn’t observe the truce this time.”
Fortunately, Oren avoided personal injury. And he captured a jewel of a story. An elderly woman and her cat had become trapped in her tiny apartment in an otherwise deserted building near the airport and she was desperate to find a safe haven for both of them, as well as food and water. His moving story about the woman’s plight touched readers around the world. Local residents helped relocate her and her cat to a safer apartment, and readers donated money to help the woman. Oren went to great lengths to ensure that every penny went toward the welfare of the woman and her cat. I was never more proud of him as a journalist, and he was never happier to have made a difference for the better in someone’s life.
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That is what Oren was about. Journalism was a ticket for him to explore our vast world, as well as a calling to make the world a better, more understandable place. Readers always came first for him. He wanted to explain complex international issues, in an accurate and balanced manner. On occasion, he complained that a story by one of our freelance writers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unfair to Israel because it left out important context; other times he pointed out that a freelancer’s story was unfair to Palestinians by leaving out pertinent information.
More recently, he wrote analyses that explained complex and controversial foreign policy issues in ways that average readers could grasp, from U.S.-Russian relations, to the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump scrapped, to Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Oren’s tragic death is an unspeakable loss to his family and friends. It also is a huge loss to journalism and the enlightenment of readers. His passion, courage and love of adventure will always live in my heart.
Owen Ullmann, Managing Editor for Special Projects at USA TODAY, is a former World Editor for the newspaper and was Oren Dorell’s editor for many years.
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