Monday, June 19, 2006

Leaving the Bereaved

I’ve said it before, a camera on your shoulder can get you into anywhere - it’s the getting out that can be tricky. Evidence of such permeates the discussion over at, where Australian photog-blogger Widescreen asks, 'How do you say sorry?'
"Today I shot an interview with a family where the mother was murdered 2 days ago. When I arrived and was greeted by the family, I said as I shook their hands, "Sorry for your loss..."
I feel ya, Widescreen. Tastefully wrapping up a teary interview with a freshly shell-shocked survivor can be delicate at best. There’s no pat answer I can give you, no adage or catch-phrase that will heal the wounds of a sleepless widow - or even make you feel better about setting up all those lights in her living room. Still, there is a right way and wrong way to conduct this visit and it has to do with just how you’re perceived by the newly bereaved. I’d like to say we all have the grace not to trample on the stricken, but the press in question regularly falls short of this particular glory. To be fair, it is the electronic interloper’s toughest gig: quizzing victims in the throes of torment without venturing into exploitation. I personally have witnessed the cathartic release of a deftly-executed, mournful chat. I’ve also seen photogs upset whole coffee tables in their lunge toward the zoom button, all because a red-faced woman dabbed her eyes for the first time all morning.

If that sounds crass, it is - but a refined sense of decorum is a luxury item not every news-gatherer thinks to pack - when we know we’re making the trip at all. Ask Cameragod:
"What’s worse is when you don’t get a heads up. I got told to meet the reporter at an address. Walked in to find a guy in bed dieing surrounded by his grieving family. They later sent a letter thanking us for a sympathetic and respectful story but commenting how funny my face was when I first arrived as I realized what was going on. They wanted us there to tell their story but if anyone had bothered to warn me I wouldn’t have bounced into the room saying “Hi how’s it going?"
OOF. That one hurts. Hopefully, I’ll be spared this particular scenario, as I feel like I’ve checked off most every other item on the Victim Interview checklist, some with pride, others with repugnance. I’ve swarmed wailing farm wives as they thrashed on the banks of a river that swallowed their loved one. I watched time stand still as a slain deputy’s teenage son stared holes through the family’s mobile home dust motes in debilitating disbelief. I chatted quietly with a lovely woman in her yard as she clutched her dead son’s high school graduation portrait, her fingertips a dark purple as they dug into the wooden frame. I’ve buried my eyes in my viewfinder to hide tears as a young wife’s voice breaks when describing her husband, who’d been struck down on the interstate hours before. None of them I’d count as my favorite moments behind the lens, and I’m sure I’ve got a few more in store if I continue to drive around town in a marked news car. I’ll try and keep my humanity stashed in my run-bag, nested in between the spare batteries and back-up microphones. As for interview-ending axioms, I’ll stick with winging it, knowing that, as one young poster points out, zoom lenses and good intentions are rarely enough:
"I feel kinda shi-tay being so fake, but walk in walk out of peoples lives so often ... I guess its part of the job.”
I guess...


Yingdog said...

I had a recent encounter with a mourning family myself. Just last week I drove up into the mountains for what came over the scanners as a suspicious 1144 of a 10 month old child. I hesitated, wondering if I would get chewed out by the desk for not going to it, but ultimately decided that I probably should. When I arrived on scene, there were four Sheriff's cars, and a Rural Fire vehicle there. I got out my gear and walked up to the nearest Sheriff that appeared to be "guarding" the perimeter. I asked him in a somber voice, "Hey, is this really a news-worthy event, or should I just take off?" He replied, "I can't comment." When I proded him further to find out if it was a tragic natural death, I got the same reply. To many, including me, when an officer won't tell you what's up, it's best to roll and just not turn the tape in if it's nothing. Well, I proceeded to roll on ariving family members, and even had a distraught father tell he'd, "Kick my butt outta here." As I stood off in the distance it occured to me several times that this job sometimes isn't all that fun. It also got me reflecting on the fatal I went to a few days before. After about 30 minutes of random shooting and standing around, a sergeant came over and told me it was a natural death. The infant died of SIDS, and what I saw was the arrival of all the family home to discover their child deceased. It kind of made me a little mad, because I feel like so much grief, including my own, could have been avoided with the first cop telling me, "it was a natural death", not "no comment." I guess seeing all this stuff in a two inch black and white square is part of the job, but I also think it's important to retain a sense of humanity. I mean, aren't we all human? If we stop thinking of ratings number as numbers, and start thinking of them as people, wouldn't that change the product we put out? I think there is an honest, humane, and ethical way to put out the news, but I think it sometimes gets lost in who can get it out there first for bragging rights. Well, I'll step off the soapbox now. I guess my only point when I started all of this was to say I know how you felt when you wrote this entry. It is part of the job to get the bereaved, but we can do it with dignity, and it's okay to feel something when we do it. I can only hope that I can have better grace around those saddened people the further along I get in my career. Thank you for voicing what so many of us feel, and to those families out there, I am sorry if we have caused you more pain than necessary.

Carolyn said...

My question is, why is it part of the job? Who decided that? The people in the newsroom who NEVER have to do it. What does it add to the piece? Now if the family wants to talk, and they contact the station to do so, that's one thing, but I am tired of the first reaction of the desk and the producers - let's get the crying relative. It's just crap.

You can't avoid shooting first and getting the story later though, as you say - and that cop should have told you right away what was up - that's part of the problem too.

My worst - and I still hear this scream in my dreams, and Stu, I think you were there - was a case in which a man had drowned, and the cops were dragging the river for the body, and for some ungodly reason had allowed the man's family - his children - right up close to watch. Well, when the rake hit the arm of the guy and pulled it out of the water, his daughter started screaming - as long as I live I will never forget that scream, it went on and on, she collapsed, it was awful. I looked at my photog and he said "Sometimes I hate this job."

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Carolyn. I worked as a photog, TV reporter and radioguy during my thirty years doing news. In the last twenty-five, I never interviewed a grieving relative/friend/victim . . . unless they approached me or my colleagues. Categorically refused, in fact. I must have worked for understanding bosses because they never insisted. But I'll not easily forget the time the media gangbang was gathered outside a local copshop waiting for the ID on a 15-year old murder victim so they could descend on his parents. A boy on his bike told one reporter he knew where the family lived. You would have thought the kid was Moses headed for the Promised Land as quickly as that crowd of photogs and reporters fell in behind him. I stayed with the cops, got the ID a few minutes later, filed and left.
The crying Mom led all the shows that night. Duh.

HockeyPat said...

As a viewer, I don't want to see it. It just hurts to watch.