Monday, December 13, 2004

Confessions of a Video Vulture

I'm lucky. I truly enjoy my work. For the past fifteen years, I've witnessed more froth and wonder than many do in a lifetime, thanks to the ever-present camera on my shoulder. But the job isn't without it's dark side...

...Like having to approach the families of murder victims in hopes of an interview. It's the least favorite part of my job, but sadly, it's something I've become quite adept at. My method is simple, park my rolling billboard as far away from the family's house as possible and walk up the driveway WITHOUT the camera. I'm usually met outside by a teary-eyed relative, wanting to know what the hell I'm doing on their property.

I apologize for intruding at such an insensitive time and explain the reasons for my visit. I offer condolences on my station's behalf and ask if there's anything they'd like to say to our viewers. Sometimes I'm asked to leave immediately, and I do, but more often than not the person will talk. It's not fair, they say, Johnny was so young, he was never given a chance, who could do such a thing? I stare at my feet as they wipe away their tears. Many times I'm on the verge of choking up too, but I forge ahead, asking if they would consent to an on-camera interview.

Surprisingly, many agree. Soon, I have the camera trained on them as they reluctantly answer my questions. I use to marvel at the number of people who will go on-camera and talk about their slain relatives before they are even buried, but not anymore. Enough years behind the lens has rendered me quite immune to surprise of any kind, and in a way that helps me get through such unsavory assignments.

But just WHY these victims of tragedy talk to a stranger with a camera still eludes me. Some understand that news of their loved one's demise will air anyway, and seek to straighten out the rumours and innuendo that swirl around such cases. Others are merely fullfilling their newly appointed roles as reluctant spokespersons in our media-soaked culture. But most of those who do talk, do so as if they have no choice, wrongly assuming the electronic media represents some kind of authority figure.
It's that belief that disturbs me most.

Their pained expressions stick with me. I'll never forget the large black man who sat on the porch of his public housing unit, swatting away flies as he told me about his ten year old daughter, who had been found beaten to death the day before. Or the frail young woman who balanced her baby on her hip, telling me that her younger brother's mile-long rap sheet was no reason for him to be gunned down in cold blood. Or the old couple who clutched the framed picture of their grand-daughter, and asked my camera why anyone would want to kill their baby.

I have no answers for these people, only questions. And sometimes, when the interview is over, the strangest thing happens. They'll thank me for being sensitive to their grief, for understanding their emotional state. I've held hands with some family members, shared hugs, even closed my eyes as they launched into prayer. And while the reason for my presence isn't entirely pure, my empathy is heartfelt. I've even kept in touch with a few, checking in on them when I'm in their neighborhood. It doesn't help their pain, but maybe it helps my guilt for intruding in their lives during such a horrific time.

Later, when I'm in my news car and heading back to the station, I turn the radio off and drive in silence. Despite how much tact I may have employed, I usually feel like a heel for succeeding in my hated task. I know my producers will be estatic over my bounty. They'll view my footage of crying relatives, family portraits and crime scene tape as just more fodder for their latest lead story. An editor will extract the most emotional moments and condense it to a tidy minute-fifteen report, ending with a slow-motion zoom of the deceased's once smiling, living face. Carefully groomed anchors will put on their most somber faces, and relate the facts of the latest homicide in the inner city. Ninety seconds later they'll move on to the next story, the tragedy immediately forgotten. But I don't forget, even though I sometimes try.

I used to be proud of being callous, wearing my hard candy shell like a newsman's badge of honor. Then I had kids. Children of your own have a funny way of re-examining your life. As a result, I'm a bit more feeling than I used to be. Recently when I was out of state on assignment, an elementary student got run over and killed by his own school bus. Thank GOD I wasn't around to respond to THAT story. Having children that same age, I doubt seriously I could have handled such a tragic scene. Call me a wimp if you want to - but far more important people call me 'Daddy', and I owe it to them not to be a totally heartless bastard.