1111 A Personal Reflection
(Note to readers: I’ve always said and still believe it untoward to talk about oneself on these pages even to the point where I generally decline even to write in the first person singular. But I’ve received a great many requests to discuss my own experiences in covering stories similar to the horrific shootings in Newtown, CT. So apologies in advance for this.)
You learn early on that reporting the news can be a tough job. My own first lesson in others’ personal tragedies happened one day in Hicksville on New York’s Long Island. I don’t remember whether it was 1965 or 1966, but one of those.
Long Island Railroad trains ran mostly at ground level in those days. And I was told to cover the scene of an accident in which a train struck a convertible with the top down and carrying five or six teenagers.
No survivors. No complete bodies. Have you ever seen a kid’s head lying ten feet from the rest of him? And with that story, I made up my mind that hereafter, I would be an “inside guy.”
But it didn’t matter. The Vietnam war was raging. The Pentagon regularly supplied lists of the dead and wounded Americans from the region. And our job was to call the families for reaction. Stupid. What did the suits EXPECT the reaction to be? Sometimes --infrequently-- we made the call before the Defense Department got around to visiting the homes and informing the family.
The Oklahoma bombing, the Atlanta bombing, the Long Island Railroad train shootings. Bernhard Goetz, Columbine, the World Trade Center. Then Virginia Tech, the Arizona mall, the Oregon mall, Aurora and now the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.
I stopped active reporting in 2007 but have friends and former colleagues at almost all that happened since.
The tragedies aside, these are frighteningly difficult stories to cover. There are an awful lot of moving parts -- and often formerly moving parts. Police and other investigating agencies, witnesses, hangers-on. And, of course, the victims. Children this most recent time, dead babies! You don’t know where to turn first. So you turn anywhere and start reporting about anything you can see or touch or smell or hear.
And everyone wants to be reported on. There’s never a shortage of flapping mouths. Gun control advocates, gun advocates, clergy, psychologists, former FBI profilers (where were you when you could have done some good?)
Should we interview the kids; stick a microphone and a camera lens in the face of a seven year old? (Yes.) Should we interview the clergy? (Probably if they’re active participants in the aftermath and can answer a yes or no question in under 1,000 words.) Should we interview the first responders? (Of course.) The cops, the medical examiners, the survivors, members of the community with no direct connection to what took place? (Yes.) Things to make this real to the rest of the world.
What purpose do we serve with marathon coverage? None. We do it because the infrastructure to do it is at hand. We do it because all the time people have “...just tuned in.”
It’s damned debilitating to do and it’s damned debilitating to watch. To an extent you can forge ahead as a reporter, just keep working. Don’t let it in. As a viewer or reader, after awhile, you just have to turn off the TV or the internet, or fold the newspaper and drop it in the trashcan.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2012