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American Journalism Review
"How Do You Feel?"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1995

"How Do You Feel?"   

It's the assignment reporters dread: interviewing the victims of tragedy. Supporters of the practice say it puts a human face on disaster and offers therapy for the grieving. Critics say such reporting is insensitive, exploitative and unnecessary.

By Fawn Germer
Fawn Germer is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.      

Related reading:
   » When Tragedy Hits Home

"We're sorry your son/daughter/ husband/wife was killed, but if you've got just a minute, we've got just a few questions."

"How do you feeeeeel?"

Lights on, cameras rolling, mikes in the faces of the grieving. This is the most devastating moment in their lives, just another story to the pack.

Yet while it may appear that journalists pounce on victims and their families and friends without mercy, many are bothered by these stories.


"Who is this? What's going on?"

They didn't know. The FBI hadn't called.

Jonathan Moses wanted to know how they felt, but they didn't even know their son was dead. Three hours earlier, their son had killed himself after holding his coworkers hostage in the Boca Raton bank where he worked.

"I'm sorry," said Moses, then a reporting intern at the Miami Herald. "Please accept my condolences."

Nearly eight years later, after stints at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, Moses hasn't shaken that encounter.

"It's hard just making a call like that when they know," says Moses, who now attends Columbia University Law School. "It is an absolute nightmare to make a call like that when they don't."

Whether it's a dead cop, dead cheerleader, dead bank teller, dead soldier or dead baby, there's a reporter somewhere digging for quotes, hoping for an exclusive, often just wanting to get it over with.

Edna Buchanan knows the burden of this kind of reporting better than anyone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning police reporter, who now works full time writing books, covered more than 5,000 violent deaths in her 18 years at the Miami Herald.

Buchanan had the drill down. When a family member would curse at her or hang up, she'd wait 60 seconds, pick up the phone and call again. By then, the person had changed his or her mind or a more receptive family member would answer the phone.

"This is Edna Buchanan at the Miami Herald," she would say. "We were cut off." She usually got her interview.

While many reporters loathe doing these stories, they say such pieces give meaning to tragedy. If the reader or viewer gets to know the victim as a real person, what happened doesn't get lost in the statistics of murders or plane crashes. Nowhere was that more evident than in Oklahoma City in April, when media from around the world descended to capture the grief after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Supporters of the practice say talking about the event is sometimes therapeutic for survivors. Talking to the media is one way they can connect with the outside world and share their grief.

But there are those inside and outside the profession who are revolted by such interviews, who see them as unnecessary, insensitive assaults that simply compound the grief of the afflicted. They dismiss the supposedly beneficial aspects of grief reporting as rationalizations for stories whose only purpose is to sell newspapers or drive up ratings.

Many reporters complain that overeager editors and the pressure of competition force them to pounce too soon. Who can afford to give a family a day or two to get a grip if the competition isn't likely to wait?

So, like Buchanan, everyone has a technique. Some go so far as to send flowers or cards. One reporter shares a slice of personal tragedy she experienced, often prompting the survivor to empathize. Another says she will make the call, and if the survivor declines the interview she will say, "How are you getting along?" She writes her notes in longhand so the sound of a clicking keyboard doesn't alarm the person. When they are finished she says, "I know this interview was hard for you but I think it will tell our readers a little about (insert name). Let me know what you think of the story."

Some reporters hate these stories so much they won't even try to get the interview. They simply tell the editor the family refused to talk.

But Buchanan says these stories are important to the families and the community.

"This is the one moment in time where they have a podium where what they have to say is important and people will listen," she says. "It's really important to give them the chance to reconsider because they might immediately regret hanging up or someone in the room might say, 'You should have talked to the reporter.' If they hang up again, I don't give a third chance. But more than half the time, they'd do it on the second try."

In 1981, as Miami's homicide rate soared, Buchanan insisted on covering every murder and telling the story of every victim. In her view, this is one kind of reporting that tells society what it has become. "It is important for these victims to know that what happened does matter," she says. "It's not only their tragedy, it's a tragedy for all of us."

Minutes after the December 1993 massacre, reporters wanted to know how Mel Kohlberg felt. His wife Margaret had just been gunned down in a Colorado restaurant along with three teens who worked with her. Photographers and reporters were swarming.

"I thought, 'I am going to see nothing but TV lights and microphones in my face for the next two weeks,' " he says. "But they were absolutely caring and sensitive."

By sharing his grief, he knew his loss would mean something.

"People need to know how angry these kinds of senseless acts make you. If people aren't exposed to those personal feelings, they say 'Oh, great, another shooting.' Just like, 'Oh, great, another cloudy day.' If we are going to hope to have harmony in our lives, we need to share in the emotions of the people who have suffered significant losses."

Some explain this kind of reporting by saying it can prevent tragedy from repeating itself. It might make a drunk think twice before driving. It might teach mothers to watch their children a little more closely.

That was what the reporters told Patricia Spradling.

It was cool the September 1992 morning Spradling forgot her two-year-old son Eric in her van in the parking lot at work in Loveland, Colorado. By the time the boy was discovered, it was a hot day and his temperature was 108 degrees. Everyone in the media wanted to know how she felt about her son's death.

he phone did not stop ringing. The Spradlings would not answer it. Reporters sent letters asking for the story. The Spradlings needed more space than the press would give them, especially while prosecutors were investigating to determine whether charges should be filed against her.

"When you lose somebody, that's the most devastating thing you'll ever have to deal with in your whole life," Patricia Spradling says. "You're not in your normal state of mind. You're not thinking clearly. The press is not your priority. We were so devastated and nothing was making sense to us. It felt like we were just another story."

The calls kept coming.

"There are other stories out there, other things the public needs to know about and can benefit from besides expanding on someone's grief," she says. "I'm not saying the public didn't need to know what happened to Eric. But it was very hard. We heard it on the radio. We saw it on television. It was there in the newspapers. You have to remember that these are real people you are reporting about. You have always got to remember that."

~he told her story only after it was announced that no charges would be filed, so other parents might learn from the tragedy.

But others actually seek out the media. That's what happened when Alie Berrelez vanished.

The five-year-old disappeared from the front of her family's Englewood, Colorado, apartment in May 1993. The family sought coverage to find out what happened.

"We wanted to use the media to tell the public that Alie was missing and if anyone saw her they should say something," says the girl's grandmother, Leticia Berrelez. "We had no idea where Alie had been taken or anything that was going on with her. We just wanted everybody to help us look. To do that, we had to have the media's help."

Days later, a bloodhound led police to her body, which had been stuffed in a duffel bag and abandoned in a mountain canyon.

It's something you just don't say to a Miami Herald editor. It just isn't done.

Reporter Tracie Cone's editor wanted to send her to talk to a seven-year-old boy hours after he'd watched his father drown. The boy and his dad had been canoeing when the boat tipped. Both were dumped into the water. The boy could swim, the father couldn't. So the little boy stood there on the shore and watched his father go down.

"This is a real Tracie Cone," her editor said, assigning her to get an interview with the boy to ask what it was like.

"I can't do that story," Cone replied. She'd never turned down a story in her life.

"What do you mean you can't do that? Why can't you do that?" She burst into tears. "Because it's tooooo saaaaad." And that was how, after four-and-a-half years, Cone ended her career as a police reporter.

"Every day your whole job was to interview people on the absolute worst days of their lives and write about the absolute saddest things that happened to them in their lives," says Cone, who switched to writing news features. She now writes for the San Jose Mercury News' Sunday magazine.

"There had been this incredible frustration and sadness welling up. I think it's one of the reasons reporters often drink so much. They are carrying around the problems of the world... People think reporters don't care, but how can you listen to all of these stories of tragedy and sadness and not be worried about it?"

Some reporters carry the distaste over these stories for decades.

It was Thanksgiving eve in 1969 when word came down that Mary Mamon had been sentenced to life in a high-profile suburban Philadelphia murder case. The Inquirer city editor approached the area where David J. Umansky sat. He instructed one of the reporters to go ask the woman's parents how they felt, knowing their daughter was going to spend the rest of her life in prison. "I'm off in an hour," the reporter replied. "You going to pay me overtime?"

The city editor then tried Pat McKeown. "I won't do it," she said. Umansky remembers, "The guy was stunned. I don't think anyone in the history of American journalism said no to a city editor before. She said, 'You want me to ask what it feels like for your daughter to get a life sentence on Thanksgiving eve? No.' "

So the editor turned to yet another reporter and told him to talk to the family, then call Umansky. When the reporter checked in, he told Umansky he had gone straight to a bar, and planned to stay there. When the city editor grabbed the phone and asked what was happening, the reporter told him the family wasn't home.

"What struck me was that none of us wanted to do the story. We were sneaking around the issue, and Pat stood up and said she wasn't going to do it," says Umansky, now director of communications for the Smithsonian Institution.

Jacquelyn Mitchard did plenty of these stories, so many that some suggested dialing 1-800-DED-TEEN to reach her. She never saw the humor.

"Before I got there, I always felt like a vulture," the former Milwaukee Journal reporter says of her encounters with victims' families. "When I got there, I felt like a relative. Grief has a mass. You can't be around it without feeling its weight. So when you got there, you ceased being a reporter. You became a witness."

And that was a burden.

"Everything touched me," Mitchard, now a freelance journalist and author, says of her 18 years of reporting. "It never got easier. Every loss and tragedy was brand new. Ultimately, I think that's part of why newspapers are a young person's game. I admire people who do it. It takes the belief that you really do have a reason beyond the salacious to let people speak their grief. What we are trying to do is make sense of the things that none of us can ever make sense of."

At least that's the journalists' line.

Editors Sandra Mims Rowe and Gregory Favre both hated interviewing grieving relatives.

"There's not a reasonable person on the face of the earth who would like doing those stories," says Rowe, editor of the Oregonian. "But people really want to know how others feel about the most significant events in their lives. Part of the reason is we wonder how we would feel."

"It's the only way we can turn victims into real people, to give them personalities, to know more about them," says Favre, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee. "Crime is such an impersonal thing to begin with. When we depersonalize victims, we have an obligation to put some flesh on those folks. And if you don't ask, you're never going to find out."

What is important, both editors say, is how the asking is done.

"There are too many reporters and editors who haven't been there to have the empathy they need," Rowe says. "Perhaps they haven't lost anyone. They need to think it through enough to say, 'If I were in this person's place, how would I feel? What questions would I be able to handle? What would be offensive?' "

Favre thinks reporters should avoid contacting grieving relatives by telephone.

"It ought to be face to face," he says. "You owe it to them. Obviously, there will be times when you may be forced to do it by phone, but that has to be the exception to the rule."

Not every reporter is bothered by talking to the bereaved.

"For some people, this is the worst part of reporting," says Lynn Bartels, night police reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. "For me, it's not. I do like it. Part of it is curiosity. We're all just voyeurs at heart."

But there's more to it than that, she adds. Bartels says she gets caught up in the emotions of the tragedy and often cries with the people she interviews. What she loathes about this kind of reporting is the pressure to beat the competition and get the story.

"The pressure here is intense. You have two newspapers that are competing on the same deadline and the TV stations here are good. You have intense pressure to get it first and get it best."

Most grieving relatives cooperate in such situations, but not necessarily because they want to, says Joe Wheelan, news editor of the Denver bureau of the Associated Press.

"A lot of people aren't thinking clearly to begin with, and some people think they have to do this," he says. "They think they can't say no. When we interview people, we don't give them that option. It's, of course, implied that the person you are interviewing could just hang up and say, 'No comment' or 'I'd rather not talk now.' But when we interview people, I don't think we say, 'You have the option not to answer my questions.'.. That's just not done."

Particularly when everybody else is chasing the story.

Joe Avellar dreaded ringing the doorbell of Ronald Goldman's parents, but he had to do it. Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, had just been murdered, and so had Goldman.

"It was awful," said Avellar, then with KCBS in Los Angeles. "You have to go knock on the door of a family who has just lost their son in a terrible tragedy. I felt terrible the whole way up there when we were driving. The photographer and I had a conversation and we understood that neither of us wanted to be there, we were not going to ambush anybody, we were going to respect their loss and would leave if they asked us to."

They knocked. Standard routine. Sorry about your loss. Mind if we ask a few questions?

"A friend of the family said, 'Don't you guys ever go away?' I said, 'We'll go away right now.' And that was that. They were going to see us as vultures regardless. What was important to me is that we could walk away with our own self-respect and dignity intact. If I didn't harass somebody into giving an interview, that's fine. I can live with that."

Some reporters acknowledge the cynicism that exists in the news business. There is a dance that is done to get the story. Today's victim is old news tomorrow. Some will take extraordinary, if not underhanded, measures to get the story.

"I bring flowers," says Todd Bensman, day police reporter for the Dallas Morning News. "I've done that a couple of times. It's completely transparent, but usually, when you get to the door, if they see you've got flowers they can possibly mistake you for being a friend of the family. You can get in the door. Once you're in, you can take it from there."

Bensman recalls doing that when a mother of three left her children with their grandmother. The grandmother set the house on fire killing herself and the children.

"That night I had to interview the mother, who was in shock. I figured it would be a tough one, so I brought the flowers. I managed to get in the door with that, get a few comments before they figured who I was. Then they kicked me out. At least I got something."

This is hardly his favorite part of his job.

"I hate it. Absolutely hate it. I know I am intruding on something that is incredibly private and personal. It's my job to do it, but I hate doing it. I can feel palpably that I am an unwanted intruder. I've had people screaming right in my face, practically splattering me with tears. I've had to hang on to my emotions."

He approached with the camera rolling. The Seattle television reporter just knocked on the door, asked if she was the woman's sister and said, "I'm sorry to tell you. She's been shot to death in a police raid."

The woman fell apart right in front of the camera. Great story. The reporter built his entire piece around that woman's grief.

dt aired on a Saturday night and Gail Neubert, then the news director of the station, was incensed.

"Sometimes it happens, through no fault of your own, that you end up telling somebody something you thought they knew," she says. "This wasn't the case. He went to the door with the camera rolling. He knew he was going to be informing this woman about her sister and he wanted to capture it on tape. "

Another time a reporter said to a photographer, "Let's see if we can find the mom of the crispy critters" while at the scene of a house fire.

Both reporters were disciplined, but that sense of violation and intrusion never left Neubert, who exited the business after 16 years and now works in public relations. Neubert wonders whether grief stories need to be done at all.

"Now that I watch as a viewer, these things really get to me," she says. "Why do you have to talk to the mother of the child who was hit by the car? It seems like an unnecessary intrusion. It's painful. What does it add to the story? People think viewers, listeners and readers all want this stuff. I don't think they do. "

Stephanie Sund's story belongs to Stephanie Sund.

Remember that, she says. It's not yours, it doesn't belong to your readers, your viewers or anybody else. She is not required to talk.

Sund was gunned down by an ex-boyfriend in 1992 as she desperately reached for the front door of the Fort Collins, Colorado, police department. She was shot in the back three times in her futile attempt to get help.

It didn't take long for the media to find her.

She was unconscious in the intensive care unit. "They were pounding on the hospital doors," she says. "Reporters ride on a public misperception of their authority. They wear this 'authority' like a badge on their chest, like it's the authority to intrude on peoples' lives. 'I've got a camera. Let me in.' "

Sund remembers having 15 to 20 photographers following her through the arraignment, trial and sentencing of her assailant.

"Some of them cared. But others were incredibly unprofessional, callous, uneducated and naive about domestic violence and stalking," says Sund, who is active in the fight to protect abused women. "They acted like they had a right to my story."

She said reporters fixated on the "titillating details" of a sensational finale to an abusive relationship. They didn't ask the hard questions: Why had the police told her she was imagining things when, two days before the shooting, she played the answering machine tape of her ex-boyfriend's vow to kill her? Why didn't the law protect women like her? Instead, they wanted the juice.

"You will always get a neighbor who will say, 'But he was such a nice guy,' " Sund says. "The story always stops there. But if you are going to do these stories, you have to look further. You have to give the victims time to deal with what happened. If you have had tragedy in your own life, don't use that as leverage to get someone to talk. Don't say you understand, because you don't."

But her experience had to stand for something, she is told. Others had to learn from what happened to her.

"I agree," she says. "But with all of the hard questions left unanswered, what did it stand for? Just another tragedy. Just another story." l



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