Friday, July 20, 2012

Covering the Tragedies: Batman and Colorado

If you're like me, you woke up to news this morning about the shooting spree in the Colorado movie theater at the showing of the latest Batman movie.

But you might be surprised at my first thought. Rightly so, many other people would think, "How tragic, how awful, how senseless ...."

My first thought?

"Thank goodness I wasn't the reporter who got the midnight call to get out of bed and cover that story."

I will never miss covering those tragedies.

Unfortunately, I was usually the first one tapped for them. I had one summer in Philadelphia as an AP reporter where we had four different house fires in which children died. For a few months after that, I had repeated nightmares about those fire scenes. Those stories always affected me on a very deep and visceral level, and regardless of whether it was a house fire, a murder scene .... and in one case, a shooting spree like this one, only at Penn State University .... I cursed under my breath when I was tasked to cover it.

"But Heidi, I send you because you always come back with gold," one of my silver-tongued editors said when I once tried to protest.

I got to thinking about it, and I realized she was right, but it wasn't because I went into those stories gleefully. In fact, it probably was because I related so well to the victims and their families that I did hit the jackpot on quotes and details no other reporter unearthed.

Here are a few things I did:

I saw the victims as real people. I never viewed them as a "story," or as my ticket to a byline on the front pages across America. They were people who had experienced a tragedy, and it was my job to give others a window into it. My only motive was that in doing so, it might raise awareness about how things like this could be avoided in the future.

I come from a community of conservative Christianity, and I can tell you that my decision to become a journalist rattled a lot of friends. They disagreed with it because from their point of view, telling stories like this exploited others. I've never seen it that way. If I've had to cover a child abuse story, for example, I see it as shining a light on the actions of perpetrators and raising awareness of the plight of the innocents. If these things are not discussed and flayed for scrutiny, what hope is there of change?

I apologized to the victims for being there. The last person they wanted to see was a reporter. The first words out of my mouth at every scene were, "I'm sorry that I have to ask you this, and I know you probably don't want to talk to me. But I wonder if you would take a few minutes to answer my questions about what happened here."

Only one person ever said no.

And when she did, I walked away, waited at the end of the street for the police to come by and begged them for details. They gave me every single detail that no one else had because I'd treated the victim with respect. No other reporter had done that, they said.

And no, I wasn't manipulating people with my questions. I gave them the option of turning me away, and if things got to be too much for them, I often didn't use the material. The editors never knew that, but the stories were still golden and crystallized beautifully.

I put myself in the victims' shoes. I never covered a tragedy where I didn't imagine myself going through what the victim had just experienced. And then I just let them talk. I just looked into their eyes and said, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." And I was. And it was heart felt. And they knew it.

Often when the interviews were over, we'd hug and cry. I never apologized for that and still don't.

When you've been assigned something like this, stop thinking about your ego and your name in lights.

Be a human being.

And give people the space they need to tell you the story they need to tell.

I promise, you'll leave each experience enriched and changed for the better.


  1. What an amazing, heartfelt post. I've never had to cover this kind of event and I'm glad. I interviewed a news photog some years ago, who told stories of covering Vietnam during the war, and of being the first person -- even ahead of police and emergency personnel -- on the scene of an apparent suicide. I shudder to think what that must be like. Thanks for sharing your experience of this side of reporting.

  2. Thanks, David.

    For sure, it isn't a picnic. The reporters who go into those stories gleefully are never the ones who tell it like it is.