Sometimes, it’s perplexing to reconcile the public’s perception of what we do and what we think we do.
In the past month, we’ve reported on a couple of traffic fatalities; people want an explanation for a blocked road or police presence, so we write a report that answers the public’s questions of what happened.
But there’s no easy or right way to report such events; I was reminded of that when a reader said a report seemed desensitized to tragedy and that the loved one who died should not be remembered for a traffic accident; her legacy should be more than that.
Unfortunately, unless the reporter has an acquaintance or a contact who can share fond memories of the person on deadline, there’s little opportunity for including such sentiments in the news report.
Readers can help us correct that, to some degree, by offering comments on our Facebook or at crestviewbulletin.com, and we can edit the online article to include some of those comments — because all human life is precious, and no one should be remembered solely for their death.
Although we stay detached as journalists, I hope we are never desensitized.
Nearly five years ago, around 6 p.m. on a Friday in Daphne, Ala., I covered murder for the first time. Everyone else at the Daphne Bulletin, one of two newspapers I managed, had taken off for the weekend when the press release rolled in: a search team found the body of a missing 21-year-old near the wastewater treatment plant.
Daphne’s a lot like Crestview — the largest city in the county; not much major crime; and a place locals say is great to raise your kids in — and there hadn’t been a murder in years. The reporters’ schedules were maxed out, but this was an important development in a case the community cared about, so I drove to the scene.
A local television reporter arrived and met up with a police officer; the dialogue is hard to recall, but I remember how they gripped each other’s hands and flashed wide smiles upon greeting.
It was something you’d see at a fraternal society’s lodge meeting, not a crime scene, I thought.
It seemed wrong.
A woman in her prime was raped, likely killed and disposed of, and treated like garbage. I lived in the area my whole life and didn’t know the girl, but was sick on the inside and couldn’t imagine this event, or any gruesome act, as just another day on the job.
Passion for the case developed initially, but it didn’t affect the goal of neutrality. My standards were stricter than other news outlets’, so we didn’t use the word murder or any other legal terms unless authorities used them. The mainstream media’s rush to judgment a year prior in the Duke lacrosse case, which became a false accusation of rape, taught unforgettable lessons.
But I digress.
In such times, all you can strive for is accuracy and fairness, but reactions will differ. Readers will say more details were needed; fewer details were needed; the article seemed sterile; the article seemed sensational; there should have been more coverage; there should have been less coverage; there should have been no coverage.
Eight years in the business now, and news events involving harm between neighbors or sudden deaths still faze me.
Now, perhaps that cop and TV reporter five years ago needed to be chummy to make those kinds of nights bearable — after all, they say, you have to laugh to keep from crying — but if someone violates another person’s human dignity, I’d rather mark the occasion with solemnity.
Last week, we had to report the cold facts about a traffic fatality. Following the initial report, I posted on Facebook that the person’s family was in our thoughts and prayers. It’s not something you see every day from a news organization, but social media is still experimental for us; it offers greater flexibility and freedom with those kinds of things.
Besides, we’re not the New York Times, and it’s a relatively small, close-knit region. One traffic accident claimed a woman’s life, and we have to report it, but 5,000 Facebook fans could see the status message that, in its own small way, recognized her dignity.
I hope that kind of status message can become policy when these incidents arise — because all human life is precious.