The Worst Work of Journalism
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Today at least a hundred reporters are doing the worst work of journalism. They are making phone calls and knocking on the doors of spouses, family, and friends of the 12 people killed yesterday in that shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard. This is when reporters are dismissed as ambulance chasers, vultures, and ghouls, but I never met a reporter on stories like this who didn’t want to be someplace else.
Journalism requires that you give a victim of murder a face and a voice. People should know who they were and what they did with their lives, so they know what a terrible thing the murderer did. It seems strange that this process needs to be repeated, but otherwise the dead are just numbers. To show them as human requires reporters to knock on the door, a moment that makes you want to be sick every time.
I started out on the police beat in a town where I had never lived. For a time all the new people I met late at night and in early morning hours were the friends and relatives of the dead. Some of them slammed the door, but a surprising number welcomed me in. The reporter becomes an anonymous priest and confessor. Some families will tell you anything. They’ll tell you too much and show you too much.
One time I interviewed a man who was cleaning his girlfriend’s brains out of the cookie jar. A former boyfriend had kicked his way into their kitchen and blasted her head with a shotgun. The man talked calmly and affectionately about her as he worked.
I interviewed a man who had lost his young daughter in a house fire. Her bedroom was in the basement and she had been unable to get up the stairs. The father went outside and busted out a basement window to get to her. He was dragging her through the window when she slipped away and died in the smoke. The two of us stood outside the basement window as he described it all to me and said what a great girl she had been.
Some families are unguarded. After a double-murder in Providence I went to the home of a 21-year-old girl killed sitting in a car with her boyfriend. We asked for a picture. Her father handed over a photo album and said take your pick, bring the album back later. We flipped through the book and it included nude photos of their adult daughter.
Reporters keep knocking on doors in part because they are working for bosses who won’t take someone else’s “no” for an answer. There’s always someone flogging a reporter saying, “you have to humanize this.” One time in upstate New York I was sent to cover the search for a little boy who had slipped beneath the ice on a river. His father stood in a circle of cops on the riverbank. I approached him to talk and he said no. I told the desk he wouldn’t talk and they said ask again. I asked again that day, and again the next and my bosses kept telling me to ask again. The third day I never asked and told the desk he had said no.
As a television reporter I became part of those instant encampments that spring up around mass shootings. As the routine goes, you do stories about the massacre, the heroes who stopped it, and you do profiles of the dead. You do this morning and night until you cover the first church services, at which time you can announce that the town is reaching “closure” and you can go home.
News organizations sometimes don’t know when to stop themselves. They keep at these stories beyond when there is anything new to say. It used to be that if you hung around Monday after the church service, the locals would start suggesting you leave. Then a national impatience began to spread. Over the years the time frame shortened until once when I covered a school shooting outside San Diego the locals were shouting obscenities at us before dark.
For a while it is possible to fool yourself into thinking an incident is so horrific that it couldn’t possibly happen again. As a reporter you hope that by covering it, by knocking on the doors and talking to the families, you can show the human loss. You think maybe our society would not allow it to happen again. But the Newtown School massacre was proof that no incident is so horrible that we will find a way to prevent the next one. Now we have the Washington Navy Yard.
Eventually I came to feel not just glad, but lucky when someone else was sent to cover the mass shooting. I had met the mothers, fathers and siblings many times before. I had knocked on the doors. The faces were new every time, but the story was always the same.