Throwback Thursday: On reporting, talking to victim’s families

With graduation upon many of us, we have got to start asking ourselves some big questions.  Not questions about what this degree can do for you, but what you can incorporate what you have learned from this degree.

The real world differs from the textbook students are taught from and with luck, our professors will give us insight to these experiences.  However, most of the time we will learn as we go and as we experience these situations for ourselves.

This is an eye-opening article from the editor of the Collegian in 1996 on realizations of the real world and how to cope with the daily situations we will be placed in.

– Jordyn Gunn, Online Editor

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On reporting, talking to victim’s families – The Mississippi Collegian – Sept. 23, 1996

In life sometimes there are things we must do, things we think we have to do, and things we do without even thinking about them.

Last weekend I was faced with something I had to do at work but didn’t think about it until circumstances made me.

I cover the cops beat at the Clarion-Ledger on the weekend.  This requires me to go to the scenes of some gruesome things, such as murders, robberies, and car accidents.

But I’m a trained reporter, so I never think much about it.  Until recently.

Last Friday I covered a car accident in Canton.  A twenty-year-old was killed.  He was younger than me.

To get to the scene, I had to get on the right shoulder of I-55 and drive past all of the traffic.  I felt bad passing up all of the tired people who were trying to get home from work during 5 p.m. rush hour.  But I justified it because I was the press.  I had to get the story.  It was something I did without thinking.

But people didn’t understand because they didn’t know me, who I was or what the heck I was doing passing them.

I got hollered at by several angry motorists and one typical trucker’s wife was even so brash to yell, “Hey, you stupid (insert bad word here)!  What the (another four-letter word) are you doing?  Don’t you know there’s a wreck up there?”

I nodded and wanted to stop and explain to her what I was doing, but I had to get to the scene.  Never in my life had I wished so much that the Clarion-Ledger had marked cars for their reporters to use.

So I went on passing everyone in my shoulder lane until a cop stopped me about a mile before I got to the accident.  He wasn’t very happy with me or what I was doing.

He asked me what was I possibly going to do for those people.  I told him I had to get the story and then he said that he knew that, but that I couldn’t help them in any way.

I thought about it.  At the time I supposed he was right, but it was still on my mind to get to the scene.  I had a job to do.

The police officer told me that I couldn’t get back on the shoulder and I had to stay in the right lane.

Finally, after driving about 5 mph for two miles, I made it to Canton.  I missed the actual accident scene, so I was left with telling a second-hand account and talked to some witnesses at local stores.  At this time nothing had been verified about the condition of the passengers.

I didn’t think about it.  Sometimes, and I guess this comes with being young, you feel invincible.  But the reality that one of these young men could die never really hit me until I had to face it.

I went to the Canton Police Department to talk to the officers who were on the scene.  The supervisor told me that they were at the Madison County Medical Center with the victims.

I got on the road again and went to the hospital.  Getting out of my car, I still wasn’t thinking.  This changed with a doctor’s announcement.

One of the young men was dead and they wouldn’t need the emergency helicopter to take him to the University of Mississippi Medical Center after all.  I watched a doctor come out of the emergency room to inform about thirty people that their son, brother, boyfriend and friend had died.

There were sobbing families and friend everywhere.  I think every one those three men knew were at that hospital.

I had two conflicting thoughts running through my mind.  One was from the reporter’s point of view.

The whole scenario was a cop reporter’s dream.  All of the people I needed to talk to were easily accessible and because of the tragedy, they were vulnerable and ready to pour their heart out.

This makes for a more human-angled account, instead of just: Joe Brown, 33, died yesterday in a car accident on Wood Drive.  It’s important to get facts from family members to make the story more memorable to the reader.  There are so many accidents and murders in Jackson today that one without human element turns into another statistic.

And from the Joe-off-the-street point of view, I felt like an intruder.  I just kept putting myself in their place.  I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone if someone I knew had just died.  But I had to.  It’s my job.

I tried to talk to the family members who were huddled together outside of the emergency room.  I gave up on this after they told me to go away when they realized I was a reporter.

I went outside to look for people to interview.  A sixteen-year-old boy was sitting on the steps outside the hospital crying so hard that his body was shaking.

I reluctantly went to talk to him.  When I reached him, he looked away because he didn’t want anyone to see him crying.

I talked to him for a little while, but couldn’t push the typical questions a reporter should ask.

At that moment everything seemed so clear.  My job and responsibilities melted away.  All I wanted to do was to make this person okay.

I didn’t ask any questions about his brother.  I just asked him where he went to school and if he played sports and was trying to tell him that it would all be okay.  I wanted to hear that everything would be okay.

After our conversation ended, I told him that I was sorry about his brother and walked off without even getting his name for my report.

I walked into the parking lot, took a few deep breaths and then walked right back in there and got the necessary, basic information from the cops and left.  I just couldn’t try again to talk to those grieving family members and friends inside.

Driving back from Canton, I knew that the editors wouldn’t like my decision.  And I knew that my story would probably be buried in the State/Metro section somewhere.  But I didn’t care.

And then I thought, maybe it just takes time to be indifferent to situations like these.  I hope I never reach that point.

Everything has a flip side.  Journalism is interviewing the friends and families of victims.  It’s just one of those things.  It’s something we must do.

Another cops reporter at the Ledger told me about the first wreck with fatality he covered.  He got to the scene and a man died in his arms.  He said that a week never goes by that he doesn’t think about it.  But he deals with it.  And he does his job well, with sensitivity.  And without thinking about it.

Maybe that’s the answer to that cop’s question, “What can I do for them?”

Reporters can find the important details to a story and make it the last communication a person has with the world before they are put to rest.  And who better to give those important details than the people who knew the victim best – their family and friends.

– Rebecca Burk, Collegian Editor 1996

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