RIP: Reporting in Peace

When asked to write about a personal ethical dilemma I have faced in journalism, I struggled to find a specific example because I lack reporting experience. So, I thought about my classes over the past five years; what I have learned, what has been easy for me, and what has been hard for me. I realized my most difficult assignment wasn’t the longest paper or the hardest test. It was writing a fake obituary. That’s how I stumbled upon writing about death. I wanted to focus on features and obituaries, stories where the reporter really has to get to know who this person was. That is the most difficult part for me – asking the personal questions that I knew had to be asked. I explored the different ways journalists handle it, and ultimately discovered my own approach for the future.

It was Carlene Hempel’s Journalism 2 class here at Northeastern back in my second semester as a journalist. Our very first assignment was to write a fake obituary for a classmate. We had to contact their parents, siblings, best friends, and loved ones to get quotes. While usually I dove right into her assignments, I had a hard time starting this one. How could I start it? I wanted to make it authentic, but what questions would I ask? How can journalists get through to family members at such a delicate time? How do you keep all of the stakeholders happy? How can journalists intrude without being intrusive? I was uncomfortable on the phone and didn’t really break the surface of who my classmate was. I was disappointed in the obit that I wrote and thankful that it wasn’t real. After taking this ethics course, I asked myself if it was real how would I do it differently?

When covering death, there are all sorts of ethical principles in tension. A journalist has to be truthful (about who the person was, how he or she died, etc.) but also minimize harm for the deceased and his or her loved ones. A journalist has to get all of the information possible to inform the public and get the story but also not invade people’s privacy. A journalist has to independent and remain an outsider to the story but also have compassion to write about the person’s life and death in a respectful way. So with all of these things to consider how do you ethically cover death?

I have always wondered if journalists have the same problem as me, or if they just swallow their fear and approach the situation like any other story. Cristela Guerra gave me a little peace of mind when she came to our class and talked about a story she covered recently. Guerra is a reporter at the Boston Globe and wrote a beautiful feature about a high school girl, Emma Ryan, who died unexpectedly in Hull, Mass. Guerra went to the wake for her story. She talked about the difficulty she had at the wake trying to get people to talk without being intrusive, and the backlash she received after the story was published. The community was very tight-knit and not willing to talk at first. I related to this first hand since my family moved to Hull about three years ago. People are very private and very protective over their town. I called her about a week after she came to our class to get a little more insight on how she covered this story.

“No matter what you do you are an outsider,” Guerra said. “Even at 11 years into doing this I still get very nervous. It’s like the same way experienced actors get stage fright.”

Guerra says that she approached people with a soft, quiet voice and avoided intimidation. Guerra does have the benefit of being a sweet and likable person. I immediately felt comfortable talking to her, but channeling that at wakes and funerals to people facing tragedy is much harder to do. When one person declined to talk with her in the wake line, it sort of snowballed into everyone around her declining as well. I thought about what I would do if I had been in that wake line with a reporter asking me for a quote, and honestly I would have declined too. This seems to be the common reaction. I decided I would ask a handful of people what they thought about it. I polled 22 people and asked if they would be offended if a reporter asked them about the deceased in the wake line. The answers they could choose from included “yes”, “no”, “it depends on how close I am to the deceased,” and “other.” 15 people answered yes and only two said no. If this is a common theme, how do you break through to people as a reporter?

“Once people let you in, you’ve been accepted and when you’re accepted, that’s when you get the story,” Guerra said. “I try to think to myself ‘Let me find the right people and let me do this story well.’”

Guerra abides by “doing no harm.” I would compare her process to that of Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill’s ends-based thinking, choosing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Her ethical checklist includes doing no harm, being authentic, never lying to a source, always being accurate, and checking your implicit biased. Her list is much like the SPJ’s four fundamental principles. She takes all of her stakeholders, the deceased, the loved ones, the readers, and tries to do good by everyone, a hard task for any journalist.

“I put myself out there and still deal with repercussions and that’s fine. That’s our job and ultimately people appreciate it.”

After the interview with her, it made me feel a bit more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Covering death is hard. Does it get easier? How about for obit writers? That is their job, their beat. Kay Powell is considered one of the greatest obituary writers there is. She wrote feature obits every single day for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1996 to 2009. These obits were different – they weren’t about public figures but rather ordinary people. She says the paper took this approach to create a sense of community. These people whom she wrote about were not chosen for any specific reason or related to any specific tragedy. They were simply normal, everyday people (and occasionally planets).

“Everybody has at least one good story in them, and as good reporters we have to find it,” she said to me over the phone from her home in Georgia.

She retired in 2009 but since then was honored with a lifetime achievement award from The Society of Professional Obituary Writers and still has boxes and boxes of letters from families and fans who have been touched by her stories. Covering death was her life for a while. Through good interviewing, reporting, and fact-checking she was able to write an interesting obituary for anybody. Her approach is a bit more rule-based, from what I have learned while talking with her. She was accurate, named the cause of death, even suicide, and told me to “remember that an obit is still a news story.” Powell gave the family a voice. She let them say what they had to say r what they had rehearsed to say and then would open it up to the questions that she wanted to ask.

“You are there as a reporter not a sympathizer,” she said. “I told the honest story because you never know what the reader will connect to.”

Powell made a strong point about giving up control, which I thought was interesting because so did Guerra. Both of them told me to always give your sources the control. When they feel like they have control of the conversation, you will get more out of it.

“You leave the ball in their court,” Guerra said, “and leave it very open-ended.”

Once the person you are talking to feels like they have a sense of control, they start to talk. People are naturally going to be closed off to a reporter, but Powell says you have to give them time to open up.

“Behind anger is fear, and always deal with the fear not the anger,” she said.

After talking with Guerra and Powell, I took a look back at the code of ethics I made for myself and tried to apply it to how I will cover death. What I feel is most important is accuracy and minimizing harm, a combination of both Guerra and Powells’ approaches, a Golden Mean. I believe that compassion is necessary when writing about death but ineffective in excess. Accuracy will allow a truthful and respectful report of the deceased while minimizing harm is an effort to honor the deceased and not cause any more harm to the loved ones.I want to make sure I get it right.

As a journalist, I have the power to write the last story about someone else. It will take a long time for me to be comfortable in asking people about death but I will apply the tips I have learned while writing this post: get the story, be independent, be accurate, expect rejection, and let go of control. My favorite thing Kay Powell said in our interview is something I will put on the top of my ethical list when reporting on death:

“Report on how they lived, not how they died.”

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