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.
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.