Advice from the Other Side of the Notebook

Sometimes, stories leave you so speechless, it’s unfathomable you would ever be able write a blog post about them. But you have to. Not because blogging is required coursework, but because some stories demand to be shared.

Angela Anderson came to speak with my Reporting on Traumatic Events class. On July 4, 2012, two of Anderson’s children — 13-year-old Alexandra and 8-year-old Braydon — were fatally electrocuted while swimming in the Lake of the Ozarks.

Hearing Anderson speak about her experience with having the media eye turned onto her and her grieving family was truly enough to send shivers down my spine. Would I ever be able to do that? To cover that kind of breaking news? There has to be something truly terrifying in being a parent who has lost a child. I kept flashing back to my cousin’s funeral and the sight of my aunt half-sprinting out of mass and straight to her car. Could I ever be the reporter who asks for a comment from a parent who has just lost a child?

I’m not sure. My currently flipping stomach tells me no, but Anderson gave our class some first-hand advice that I will certainly take to heart.

The family is human.

In journalism, we have an unfortunate tendency to think of our sources as just that: sources. In traumatic event reporting, the media needs to be especially mindful of treating the humans who are sharing their stories as humans — boundaries, resilience, anger, speechlessness and all. This one is both the most self-explanatory and the most overlooked (in my opinion) in trauma reporting.

Follow-up is hugely important.

Frank Ochberg, acclaimed psychiatrist and Dart Center chairman emeritus, outlines three stages of trauma reporting, but it isn’t a sunny story. Act One is the event itself. The media converge onto the point of impact, and news coverage seems nonstop. Act Two is a focus on the victim’s aftermath. It is full of recovery profiles, cold news on page 6A. Act Three is simply emptiness. As Ochberg describes it, “Sometimes there is no healing after horror.”

There is more to the story.

Fact-checking and a variety of reliable sources are always important in strong news. Even more so in breaking news situations. Even more so in traumatic events reporting. There is the old journalism adage “Don’t be first; Be right.” There are few corrections more heartbreaking to print than those about the death of a child, a fatal car accident or some other traumatic coverage. Accuracy, clarity and correctly nuanced copy is rarely as important as when it concerns a grieving family and community.

Give everything time.

The media pack descends on a community after a traumatic event sometimes makes me think I want to be on the other side, fighting off lede-hungry reporters with a baseball bat. Every person wears grief differently, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t having a hard time grappling with a situation. Patience is key. Understand that a survivor or family member might not want to talk right now, but may share their story two months down the road.

And finally,

Do everything with compassion and consideration for the family.

As I’m reading through this list, I can see that these aren’t exclusive to the journalism world. These are principals we can apply to talking with friends, family members, people next to us on the subway. Talking about painful events is painful for all parties involved, and there is a grace that we can adopt into our conversations. I know I would appreciate it, and there’s a good chance you would too.

It was a heavy 75 minutes, and a truly eye-opening conversation about what it’s like to be on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. Angela, thank you for sharing your story.

Background reading: 

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