The Worst Work of Journalism

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.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Page Two

Jaw Meet Floor

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Small President

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Cuba Diaries

Sunday, March 13, 2016

An Alphabet of Maladies

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Healthcare Confusion Act

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Freedom from Speech

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Too Big to Fire

Friday, June 19, 2015

More Probable Than Not

Thursday, May 14, 2015

It's Been Said

" 'The enemy of the people,'" was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017 ... It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase 'enemy of the people,' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of 'annihilating such individuals' who disagreed with the supreme leader."
Arizona republican Sen. Jeff Flake speaking on the floor today.

There are 4 Comments

  1. Bruce

    Absolutely true, and well put. What always surprised me is that more say yes than no. But knowing that never did anything for that sick feeling when you ring the doorbell.

  2. Nancy Mengel Baird


    So well conceived and so well written. I never thought about the reporter’s side of the equation. I will never look at reporters the same way.

    Time for me to subscribe and stop mooching!

  3. Frank

    We have to raise the bar on how to desribe these tragadies. For start, let’s drop the word “closure” in our closing stand ups. It’s somethng a grief councillor would say and sounds shallow. For the survivors, a deep wound has opened up in their life which will never be closed. Closure just wraps up the story for the 6 PM news. Lets also retire that other favorite cliche’, about the shock in this quiet, close knit community. I worked with a reporter who once asked the mother of a young girl killed by a speeding police car, “How do you feel about losing your child like this, AND JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS?” Wow! Nice going, Sean.

  4. Carol

    Beautifully written and every word true. There isn’t a reporter alive who WANTS to knock or ask or hover, but we do it for all the reasons you outlined. I just find ironic that the same society that is quick to dehumanize reporters craves all the gory details of the end product.

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