Mood swing

It had been two and a half years since I’d covered a killing.  In this case, it was a shooting rampage, fatally injuring three people at Kennesaw’s Penske facility.  “You’re on victims / family,” read the text message.  It was inevitable.  I’d worked five months at WXIA and had successfully avoided such stuff until Wednesday.

The desk had found the address of one of the victims who’d been shot dead by the gunman at Penske.  We drove up to the house in an unmarked vehicle.  A man in his thirties was working on his pickup truck in the driveway, the son of murder victim Van Springer.

Victim: Van Springer

Our car stopped.  I walked up and introduced myself.  He gave me a hard look.  I was matter-of-fact:  “Sorry for your loss.  You know  that this is news and we’re covering it.   If you, or somebody in your family would like to talk to me, we can portray Mr. Springer as someone substantial.  Right now, he’s a name on a list of  victims.”  My words sounded hollow to me.  I could only imagine how they sounded to him.

He wasn’t buying.   Some do, some don’t.  Some victim families want to speak publicly about their loved ones, suddenly thrust in the news because they died horribly.  Others react with anger, and the presence of the news media gives them an opportunity to lash out.  I considered myself fortunate that my unsuccessful conversation with the gentleman was still civil.

“Before I go, may I ask to see a photo of Mr. Springer?  It helps to give the victim a human face.”  I’ve never mastered the spiel in such circumstances.  I figure the less I say, the better.

The man’s gaze softened a bit.  “Let me go ask my wife.”  He disappeared into the house, then returned and said his wife would find a photo.  As I stood on the sidewalk, a crew from WGCL appeared.  Harry Samler walked up.  I told Harry that the family wasn’t interested in talking to us, but was digging up a photo.

Then the man piped up:  “If we talked to you, what would we say?”  Samler and I took turns explaining that a few words describing their loved one would help convey the depth of loss sustained.  “I realize that goes without saying.  But it gives the story context when we know something about the victim and it comes directly from somebody who loved him.”   Once again, the words seemed lacking.  You’d think that a guy with my experience would have a rock-solid spiel memorized for such circumstances.

The wife emerged with a photo.  She and her husband wanted to talk to us, she explained.  But they wanted to discuss it first with the widow, who was making funeral arrangements.  She suggested we check back a few hours later.

Then the mood shifted.

We returned a few hours later.  Nobody was home.  We parked a few houses away, waiting for the son and daughter-in-law to return.

A competitor drove up in a garish, brightly marked live truck and spotted our unmarked car.  We spoke; the competitor lacked the photo of Mr. Springer.  I spilled what I knew:  The family was considering talking on TV, and had already provided us with a photo.  They would probably return shortly.

(Why give such intel to a competitor?  Because they saw us staking out the house, and would figure it out anyway.  Plus, WGCL’s crew knew what I knew, so my info wasn’t “exclusive.”  I knew and liked the reporter and photog, and I like Karma.  Withholding such stuff would have made me secretive and squirrelly, and I’m not a big fan of such behavior when the info isn’t earth-shaking.)

A car drove up to the house.  The competitor pulled up to the house, anxious because their deadline was approaching.  Our car stayed back.

A man I hadn’t seen before appeared on the lawn with a cane.  The reporter emerged from the competitor’s truck.  The man began angrily waving his cane.  I couldn’t hear the conversation, but the communication was clear:  Leave us the hell alone.  The son and daughter-in-law, who were so gracious to me, entered the house and said nothing.  The competing reporter retreated to her live truck, which drove off.   “That was rough,” the photog told me later.

This scenario is typical.  Reporters must ask family members if they want to participate in stories about their murdered loved ones.  Sometimes they are grateful for the opportunity to speak publicly about their loss.  We won’t know until we ask.

Frequently, there is disagreement within the family.  Almost always, the most emotional voices prevail.  If one family member wants to lash out at the media, the other family members won’t stop them.  They already have enough on their plate.

And it almost doesn’t matter how talented or experienced or aggressive or sensitive the reporter is.  Because it’s the family’s call.

I finished that day with a dull headache.  Comparatively, my pain was minor.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

10 thoughts on “Mood swing

  1. Element

    One of the toughest and most undignified things we have to do. Sadly it has to be done though. Sounds like you handled it the right way Doug.

    Reply
  2. Jim

    Doug, nice job handling it the way you did. I HATE doing these things, but it has to happen. As you explained it, without this side, it’s easy to pretend there’s no real loss.

    As for sharing with a competitor, why don’t editors/News Dirctors/People back at the office get the fact that 85 percent of what one of us knows, we’ll all know, likely within an hour or so?

    To me, the trick is to know which 15 percent to guard, and to keep that part to yourself. The rest? It really won’t make much of a difference, except, as you noted, in the karma department.

    Reply
  3. Dan

    Thank you for sharing the part of the story the viewer doesn’t get to see. I hope it is a long time before you have to cover another story like this, a very long time.

    Reply
  4. JeremyK

    Approaching grieving family members, especially those who’ve lost a child, is one of the many aspects of this job that changed when I became a father. I couldn’t imagine losing one of my sons, and I hope potential interviewees find my sympathies to be genuine.

    Generally, I’ll ask for the interview by saying, “Would you be willing to tell us how you want people to remember your (relative)?” As Doug has said, there’s no standard response. Sometimes they’ll tell you everything. Sometimes, they’ll curse you out.

    Other factors ranging from emotions to circumstance play a role as well. Recently, I got an interview because I’m the Crime Stoppers reporter, and the mother of a murdered son wanted me to show her pain and her desire for the killer to be found. Another time, a relative said I was “just some guy from the suburbs, and you don’t really care about our pain.” I do care about their pain. But I don’t begrudge them one bit for not wanting me to put them on TV.

    Reply
  5. Steve

    Kudos to you for being sensitive and understanding regarding the family’s grief.

    If it were me in a similar situation, I don’t believe I’d want to talk to the press, either, and I’d appreciate anyone (press, friends, co-workers, etc.) being respectful of my privacy.

    Kudos again. Very professional of you IMHO.

    Reply
  6. Dirty Laundry

    Once again, LAF proves why LAF exists! Your “Mood swing” post is very insightful. I hope many non-news people will read it. (It may even help journalists garner more esteem with the general public – one can hope – although I won’t hold my breath – it’s been a downhill battle for many years now.)

    Reply
  7. Amani Channel

    You handled that well. Amazing you went so long without covering a crime reax story. If you try to empathize with family members you may find it easier to connect with them. It’s the worst part of the job, and I can’t say that I miss that aspect of it. I agree with @JeremyK, I would often preface the request with something like, “We’d like to know some of the good memories you have, so that we can share the human side of this story.”

    I remember one time, the sheriff’s office told all of the crews not to go by a house because the family was too distraught… I went anyway, and approached carefully. By the time I was done, I had an interview with the vics wife, and no one else showed up so our station had an exclusive. After they caught the suspect, the fam was already warmed up so it wasn’t a problem going back. It’s all in your approach.

    Reply
  8. Been There

    My family was involved in the Bluffton University baseball team bus tragedy. We were thrown into a maelstrom – completely blindsided by the events here in Atlanta. 99% of the media were very solicitous but one local station which shall remain unnamed behaved abominably at our suburban home outside Atlanta. They trudged thru our backyard and peeked into our deck windows. And after an erroneous televised report that afternoon said we would be bringing our son and another uninjured player to our home from Grady, the same station’s van moved to block our driveway. Despicable. I do appreciate the other side of news gathering from this blog. Unfortunately there are some in your profession who have forgotten their own humanity in the race for a headline grab.

    Reply
  9. DaleRussell

    Great post Doug. We have all been there. No one likes it. I have been amazed, over the years, at the people who have opened up their homes during times of personal struggle.

    I never fully understood it until I was on the other side. We lost our best friends in the ValueJet crash. I became the families connection to the media. I watched, from inside the family’s home as they went from being terrified of an AP reporter’s phone call to the family spending hours going over pictures to find the absolute best ones to give to the newspaper and TV, then the family gathering around the TV set at night to see their loved ones faces and hear what the anchors were saying, to doing interviews in their driveway with TV reporters. They read everything written and watched every TV broadcast.

    It was a fascinating journalistic lesson during a horrible personal time.

    I learned that for some, we provide a valuable service. We are writing the last story of their loved ones live. Their obituary. We are conveying how wonderful their loved ones are and why the community should want to know them.

    It reinforced what I learned talking to an AJC obit writer when my own mother died of cancer. I spent an hour on the phone with him so he would convey to everyone how special she was.

    I ended up teaching classes on this subject for RTNDF. I don’t have the course material but I’ll gladly share what I remember with any young journalist (or the public) who reads LAF. It is very similar to what you have written.

    If at all possible, call before showing up. Let the family know how sorry you are and how you would like to offer them the opportunity to let the community know how special their loved one is. It is their chance to tell their loved one’s story.

    If you are going out of town to a smaller community, consider using a go-between. The local sheriff, police chief, mayor. I’ve found that useful on a number of occasions.

    Do not show up in a live truck. Use your own car if you have to. We all get reimbursed for gas. Park the truck nearby.

    Don’t approach with cameras rolling. Don’t even bring them out until you have had a chance to talk with a family member. You may miss a great moment. Now, is not the time to worry about the competition or making the boss happy. This about honoring that family in front of you.

    Realize families can change their minds in mere minutes. Offer your card and cell phone number and say if they ever want to call and talk, you’ll be glad to help them share their story.

    No means no. No matter what a producer says. Your word is everything. If you say you will do something, do it.

    Your script will be one of the most important you ever write in your career. You are summing up someone’s life. That person’s family will hang on every word. They will keep a copy forever. No one else will tell that story for them ever again.
    Write it with your own loved ones in mind.

    Go home and have a stiff drink.

    Reply
  10. photog29

    What Dale said in the previous comment is truth-well-written. Doug, thanks for starting the discussion thoughtfully.

    Reply

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