Reporters who’ve been at this business for long have seen their share of bad things.
Dead bodies. Grieving relatives. Homes in ashes or in heaps of rubble. Lives upended in a second.
Often reporters are on the scene of a disaster or crime right after police and medics. Once in a while, we arrive at the same time, or even beat them to the scene. Other times, we’re there in the long, painful grieving process afterwards, for the funerals, the rebuilding, and the recriminations.
These things have a way of staying with you. I can hardly remember the details of any town council or school board meeting I covered in 1990, my first year as a reporter, but I will never forget standing at the scene of a head-on wreck that year that killed two well-known local brothers on their way home from work. I can still see the wife of one of the men pull up, race toward the side of the smashed truck, then collapse in tears in the arms of a burly sheriff’s deputy who caught her, a deputy who knew both of the dead men well.
All I could do was turn away briefly, to give her just a tiny shred of privacy in the midst of her very public grief.
The worst story I ever covered was the 2006 case of a man in rural Pennsylvania who attacked a small Amish school. He let the boys go, then cold-bloodedly executed the girls, shooting them one by one, before killing himself. I was part of the team of reporters who covered the incident for People magazine. I didn’t go the scene of the shooting itself, but rather interviewed family, friends, and leaders of the Amish community in the days after.
Their quiet dignity in the face of such anguish still brings a tear to my eye. As the father of two young sons at the time, I could barely imagine their pain but I could so easily see myself in their places. It took years before I quit dreaming about it.
Reporters who do this kind of thing regularly pay a price. They’re subject to depression. They drink too much. They develop a thick outer crust that sometimes stops being armor and becomes a prison. I had a friend who hanged himself in a tree at the edge of a quiet lake in Texas. I don’t know for sure what demons he was dealing with on that day, but he had seen a lot in his career and it can’t have helped.
Why do we do it? Because these are the ultimate human stories. Life and death, the capricious whims of nature, survival and triumph, tragedy and tears define our stories for as far back in history as we know. People want to know what happened to their neighbors and friends, and to their communities.
I think a lot of people in the public misunderstand what we do and why. Certainly Dana Loesch doesn’t get it.
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it,” the spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association said last week in remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, nodding to the reporters assembled in the back of the room. “Now I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many in the legacy media in the back.”
No, Dana, we don’t love mass shootings. We don’t love tragedy or horror. I don’t know a single reporter who wouldn’t trade ratings for the safety and happiness of the people they cover.
We cry when people cry. We suffer when they suffer. We have children, spouses, parents and loved ones, and we know how fragile life can be. Sometimes, as with the firestorms of last fall and the 2014 earthquake, we’re living through that disaster and experiencing terror and loss right along with the people we’re writing about.
Just like doctors, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, counselors, pastors, soldiers, and all the other people who voluntarily work in the midst of chaos, journalists do it because we get satisfaction out of doing important work. Our role is to bear witness, to tell you what we see and what we learn so you can better understand your world.
I won’t apologize for having enjoyed my career, even the parts that left a scar, but I will never stop crying when people die.