Saturday, November 8, 2008

On Being a News Person

Sometimes its tough being in the media. We have a habit of trivializing people's lives, turning a violent death into a "good story" or "radio magic." I recently heard the latter term after two people were killed in a wrong-way crash on I-5. I imagine police officers showing up at doorsteps, people falling to their knees, screaming in anguish as their lives are turned upside down. I picture the raw grief of family members, and wonder what the last moments of the lives of their loved ones was like. Did they know they were about to die? Did they see the ferocious headlights zooming closer in the rain? Then here we are, in the safety of the newsroom, excited by the prospect of "something happening" we can report on. Recently when a man was hit by a van and left in critical condition in West Seattle, we joked that "too bad it wasn't a bus." It would have made a better story.

I wonder what these families would think if they saw us talk about the death of their loved ones like this. I think its important to always remember the humanity, the sacredness of each human life as we tell a story. When we take the time to think, "this was a human being", the compassion shows in our voices.

But its hard to always feel sadness for every person who dies. We are confronted with so much death and destruction as journalists that sometimes its easier to joke than to recognize the loss of life.

David witnessed the loss of life one rainy evening in downtown Seattle. He was in the middle of a crosswalk when a pedestrian feet away from him was struck by a car. He saw this person go flying. He saw the paramedics try to pump the life back into this man. He saw the lone tennis shoe flung a block and a half from the scene. He saw the cops gather up this man's belongings and put them in a pink plastic bag. David always gets tremendously sad when he hears of loss of life in a car accident, or pedestrian accident. He helps me find my humanity when remembering these lives, these people just going about their business, who never knew they'd become a news story.


Neo said...

I never really took the time to see it in the light of a journalist. Must be a hard thing to do, the matter of fact tone in the voice when a story of death is on the news. I was personally in one of those car wrecks, in the back seat, head injury left it out of my mind but my best friend did die... I am quite fortunate to be alive today as I suffered the same injury that killed my friend.

Travis said...

The humor can be tough to explain, but it happens in police departments, medical examiner's offices, even emergency rooms and fire houses... we see so much death, experience so much tragedy first hand... the only way to survive ourselves and keep going is the macabre humor.

That said, there is a very fine line between callousness and gallows humor. My dad is a policeman and he's always said that most of the time you should be able to do your job, even joke privately about what you see. But every few months a case (or a story) better hit you. It had better touch you, make you cry, make you stop and think exactly what you are thinking in this post Kristin. Because if you don't feel that every so often you are losing your own humanity and you'd better find a new line of work before its too late.

Colleen said...

I agree with Travis, is it a coping mechanism. It is terrible and I catch myself sometimes before saying something completely out of line, but that never stops someone else from saying it. The fact that you can put yourself in their family's shoes or the victim's shoes will make you a better story teller. It's the reason why (and pardon me here men because I know plenty who are also like this) women were so important in the newsroom (when they were finally allowed). The fact that rape victim's stories weren't told from their perspective until a woman said, 'hey! they have a story too' is a testament to our ability to empathize. Cry if you want to, it'll make you a better person and journalist.

Dan-Eric Slocum said...

It is a coping mechanism.

I can't count the number of times I've been asked over the years, "Isn't the news depressing for you?"

YES!!!!!!!!! VERY!!!!!!!!! Are you kidding?

And so we cope with death and tragedy and horror with humor.

Paula said...

Good points, all. It doesn't help that you guys have just seconds to report these situations, as news. I often think about those details, when I hear such a story on the news. Anyways, I wonder why it is even "news" if someone is struck and killed on the freeway - I almost wonder if it should be a private, dignified family matter. And of course I always wonder why a lot of the good news is not "newsworthy".