“We’re not interested.” The speaker was a plus-sized 40-ish woman wearing a baseball cap. She was with a group of her relatives, standing alongside a road that had been closed by fire personnel in rural Gilmer County. Three hours earlier, a house had a exploded, taking the life of one of their relatives.
The woman hadn’t heard my pitch, only my introduction. As soon as I identified myself, she sent the message: We’re not interested in talking to you or any other news folk about the 75-year old man who perished in the explosion.
A half-dozen other folks were with her. While the spokeswoman firmly told me to take a hike, the others stood and watched impassively. I sensed that they didn’t necessarily share her disdain. But I wasn’t about to ask them. Challenging the cap-wearing woman’s authority as family spokeswoman would have only provoked hostility. Under such circumstances, emotions are already running high. Too often, news folk become targets. Thus far, I’d avoided such treatment.
I retreated back to the scene of the explosion. After talking with the fire chief and gathering video of the smoldering ruins of the house, there wasn’t much left to do. I cast my eye back up the road to the cluster of relatives.
“If that woman leaves, those folks might talk to us,” I mused to photog Dan Reilly. The group was about 1/10th of a mile up the road. The spokeswoman was easy to spot. She was wearing a royal blue t-shirt, size XXXL.
“What, you want to stand here and wait for her to leave?” Reilly asked.
“It’s past lunchtime. She might.”
Within five minutes of that exchange, we saw the woman walk toward a car and disappear. The car drove off. She was no longer in sight. “Let’s go,” I said. Dan and I hoofed it up the road with a camera.
I tell journalism classes that reporters gather news three ways: They ask questions, they research, and they observe. Part of the “observe” part includes observing other reporters. We all do it.
Halfway up the road, I noticed a WAGA crew tailing us. With the spokeswoman gone, the cluster of relatives began to open up and agreed to chat with cameras rolling. A sister-in-law named Elvira was especially helpful.
We asked for a photo of the deceased, but nobody had one. “Not on a cell phone, even?” asked Patty Pan of WAGA. “Crystal might have one,” somebody said. You could wait til she comes back, they suggested.
I wanted to be gone by the time she returned, and told Patty about my previous encounter with her. Having gotten some usable interview material from Elvira, Reilly and I began to leave.
But Patty was tenacious. As we left, I turned and saw Patty walking behind us with Elvira. She had agreed to walk to her house to look for a photo of the deceased. This time, I chugged in the wake of my competitor, and got the photo for our story.
By the time we left, Reilly and WAGA photog Anthony Coppins were directing each other as they tried to un-wedge their live trucks from the dirt road leading to the wooded hollow where Elvira lived, a short distance from the explosion that took her brother-in-law’s life.