The Need For Journalists To Be “Nice”

27 02 2010

Journalists catch an easy reputation as pushy, overly aggressive and insensitive.

And that’s just in the morning meeting.

Yet I know that I have run across more than a few of my professional colleagues, especially when out in the field on traumatic or stressful stories, and have found them unspeakably aggressive or even rude.

Two of the toughest hombres in modern cinema. And they were nice...until it was time to not be nice.

Especially with people (we could call them interview subjects but I’ll stick with people) who may be going through terrible days, maybe even the “worst day of their life”.

Knocking on doors is the most depised part of reporting. If there is a murder or a death that merits a news crew to come out, reporting means knocking on the doors of neighbors to learn a little bit more about the victim or the victim’s family.

I can’t stand knocking on doors.

We all strive to tell great stories.

We all also understand knocking on doors can lead to telling great stories.

On January 12th, I was assigned to Washington to cover the death of Patricia Blum, 67. Her husband, James Blum, 70, admitted to investigators he killed his wife.

Open and shut, 75-second story about a murder? Not quite.

After knocking on doors, we met a pair of neighbors who filled out the story in fairly rich and descriptive fashion. One spoke about her own neighborly battles over shoveling sidewalks and other property issues. The other didn’t have as much to say but they did open up. I stood on the wood floors of their foyer, tracking in snow and playing with their 14-year-old dog. Friendly people.

Three weeks later, a fire at this second neighbor’s house left behind considerable damage and sent this older couple to live at the home of one of their grown children for some time. I had gotten an e-mail from the daughter to let me know her parents were okay and that they enjoyed talking with me. Made my day, especially when I found out they were not roughed up too bad.

I write this because, under the guise of inflexible deadlines for the newscast and more demands from the office for more “output”, feeling overwhemled when out in the field is a danger in our business. In 14 years of working in TV news, I have known quite a few colleagues who “had the chops” to be at a major market or even a network but they got burned out on deadlines and knocking on doors.

Just be nice when you’re out in the field, I always tell journalism students when I talk with them at the University of Iowa every few months. By doing so, you represent yourself well and also can set yourself up for a fantastic story sometime down the road.

I can always point to my first Saturday working my first “official” job in TV news. September 13, 1997 in Topeka.

In the late afternoon on a sun-drenched Saturday, I was sent out to cover a car crash on the east side of the city, off I-70, the Kansas Turnpike. When I got to the scene, I had come across one of the most horrific sights I had ever seen. A mangled SUV that hit an embankment. As I tried, often unsuccessfully, to shoot the video in a way that was not graphic, I couldn’t help but think of the family affected by this. (Mind you, I’m a 22-year-old, three months out of college, and full of the hubris that young men always possess. It’s why our car insurance rates are sky high).

A day later, I found out the person who perished in that awful crash had been a local basketball star in Topeka and that he was driving home from the University of Kansas. He was only 18 and just a couple of weeks into college. Valedictorian, no less. Big dreams. Big future.

All taken out in just moments.

For months, I kept thinking about his family and how they would try and go through that. In early January of 1998, I spotted the young man’s parents while I was covering a high school basketball game. They didn’t want to talk at that point, which I certainly understand. Yet I, gently, kept in contact and, weeks later, they agreed to an on-camera interview to talk about their son’s legacy.

The story aired in February of 1998 and I was extremely proud of the piece. I’d even say that story landed me my next job in the business, as a sports anchor/reporter in Eau Claire. The parents’ reaction to the piece is what I remembered the most. They, graciously, took this broke reporter out for lunch weeks after it aired.

I decided, in the days before the lunch, to dub down ALL of their son’s highlights from the four years he was a starter on the high school basketball team. Between the highlights, the sound bites and the feature stories in the archives, that came to about 35 minutes of video. Seeing the look on their faces when I handed them the VHS tapes is forever burned into my memory.

It’s been almost 13 years since I covered that terrible story but I walk away knowing that, maybe, I helped bring a little smile to a grieving family.

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