The stories behind the stories
A crash course in journalism
In her parting column, our business writer, Ginger Christ, said she disliked covering crashes and fires. She’s not alone.
In the 13-plus years I’ve been at the Times-Gazette, I’ve yet to see reporters scrambling for the door when a serious injury crash or house fire comes across the scanner. In fact, I’ve never seen so many reporters suddenly remember that they had a pressing interview scheduled or an overdue writing assignment.
In all fairness, the reporters we have now are far more willing than their predecessors to go out on crashes and other catastrophes.
Regardless, I’m generally the one who ends up going. Years ago, it was decried that I should cover crashes because I’m the cops and courts reporter and, after all, cops investigate crashes. By the same token, my beat also has also come to include many of the social service agencies presumably because poor people, the mentally ill and those with substance abuse issues sometimes commit crimes. In that case, I should also be covering politics and business.
Covering catastrophic incidents isn’t something I look forward to. Yes, there are people who actually find that sort of thing gratifying, but I’ve never relished the sight of blood. (Particularly my own.)
But, if you’re going to survive in this business, you have to suck it in and go get the story.
And, if you’re going to thrive in this business, you have to do so with respect, decorum and compassion. That means keeping a low-profile at crash and fire scenes, i.e. staying out of the way, knowing how and when to get your information and even helping out when asked. Over the years I’ve helped carry victims, retrieve equipment, direct traffic or assist the Red Cross. I got flack for it once just after I started here. But there comes a time to put down the notebook and become part of the solution.
When I first came here in 1997, it was baptism by fire. We had 16 traffic fatalities in the county that year, many of them teenagers. For some time, it took its toll on me psychologically. I found myself going through stages — much like those people experience in coming to terms with the death of a loved one or in the grieving process., things like anger, denial, etc.
I tended to use defense mechanisms to distance myself.
About five years ago — maybe longer — I realized that this wasn’t right. It wasn’t healthy, for one thing. I recall seeing a face of a young man killed in a crash. Reflexively, I started blaming him, thinking “What the hell were you thinking, driving like a bat out of hell on icy roads?” That was typical of my internal reaction with the fatal and injury crashes I had covered.
Then, for some reason, I backed off on that thought and allowed my true feelings to run their course. I let myself to internally feel compassion for him and his family.
This has proven to be healthier psychologically. It’s also worked on an external level. I feel as though I’m able to write stories with more sensitivity for the victims’ families.