Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A phone call

At 5:15 p.m. today, I got a phone call from the family of an 18-year old girl who died in a car collision Monday.
I'd written the story bare-bones from the state trooper's account, and jumped the story to an inside page with a black-and-white photo of the two cars - no blood or bodies; just the wreckage.
At the time, I told myself it was newsworthy and important to tell that someone died in a type of collision all too frequent in this area - driver runs off side of road, overcorrects and runs into obstacle/oncoming vehicle/off other side of road. One of my neighbors lost her daughter in a similar accident last month, and I hold this hope that someone might get the message from reading and seeing the danger.
For five minutes, two family members cursed me, accused me of upsetting the girl's mother, and promised that they would be there to take photos when my child gets in a car accident.
The cursing progressed. I said that I couldn't continue the conversation if that's how it was going to continue. I knew from how things were going that there wasn't a thing I could say that even would begin to address their concerns. They got more upset. Finally I told them that I couldn't argue with them and that I would have to hang up.
I still think I did the right thing in running the photo. I don't feel particularly satisfied or smug about it, and I didn't when I laid out the page.
I don't expect sympathy or agreement. If you have an opinion, feel free to say what you think.


Blogger Pamela said...

Oh FE, how awful for you to have to have them call and rail at you like that. You know they're hurting and wanting to hurt something or someone in return and you presented a visible target for them.

I, for one, do not think you crossed any lines or did anything wrong. Had you printed pictures of a more gruesome nature, then my opinion would be different.

Hope you're all right.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Miss Cellania said...

Sounds like standard operating procedure to me. The family will probably feel differently as time goes by; they are in a severe grief state right now. Trouble is, they won't bother to contact you again when they do.

I've been on the receiving end of extreme wrath over news stories on the radio. Not that I'm responsible, but I was usually the only one there to take the call. The family needs to vent, and you just happen to be a target. There are no winners in this case.

8:21 PM  
Blogger awaiting said...

It is your job to report the news. As sad as it is, death and car accidents are news. The fact that viewing the wreckage of a car and knowing that the accident was fatal may touch someone in a way that it causes them to be more careful when driving.

About a month ago, two of my classmates were traveling from a neighboring town after visiting their newborn babies who were hospitalized from premature birth. They were with the guy's mother as well. Almost home, they took a road and a trailer ahead of them detached from a van and they had a horrible crash. All three died, the man who was driving the van, left the scene.

Seeing the wreckage, made me stop and take a moment to appreciate my life and the life of my friends and family. It was such a tragic thing, but oftentimes we see people everyday, or pass them on the street and in the blink of an eye they can be gone.

Enough rambling,but it made me remember that accident.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous raincoaster said...

You did the right thing.

Remember, the parents are going to be upset by everything for awhile. That's their right.

But it's your responsibility to report the news, regardless of whether or not it is upsetting. Indeed, if you were confined to reporting only that which no-one found upsetting, it could be said that you had no meaningful role at all.

On my way to visit friends in a mountain valley recently, I passed a wreck by the side of the road. It was a large, black car, and it was twisted like a pretzel against the side of a mountain. Someone had sprayed it with the word "IMPAIRED". That's news. It's not easy.

But it's important.

4:44 AM  
Blogger lee said...

That's a tough one, isn't it? -getting a bollocking for just doing your job. Obviously they're just acting out of grief - and who knows how any of us might react if put in the same situation.

5:36 AM  
Blogger ziggi said...

I'm sorry to say I believe most newspapers survive on schadenfreude - that is the nature of the human beast. I guess it's your job to print the news, good or bad, and taking the flak is part and parcel of the job. Did you make it clear in you article that you were reporting it in an effort to try a prevent further incidences? Is it a particularly bad stretch of road?
As Pam so rightly says when people are hurting so badly they look for someone to blame and bash.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Laura Elizabeth said...

You were the punching bag the family needed for that day. The grief of losing a child is so devastating, so incomprehensible.

You did nothing wrong FE. Maybe this time the picture will spark someone to do something about that stretch of road - or at least remind others to slow down, to go carefully.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Carmenzta said...

FE, I don't think you did anything wrong. BUT I think that maybe the photo was too much. Even though your job is to report on the news, I really feel that the family's privacy and feelings should be protected, as well as the victim's memory, by just not including the pic.

A few decades ago, a little boy was abused to death by his mother and her lesbian lover here in Miami. I cannot get the picture of the dead little kid, which was scattered on all the newspapers and tv stations, out of my head to this day. I don't think in this type of thing anyone should publish pictures.

Just my 2 cents.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Homo Escapeons said...

People deal with grief in those well known stages and you got to be the scapegoat that day.
In a world of paparazzi and sensationalism you showed restraint and you appear to have stayed well within the boundaries of acceptable yet respectable visuals.
Geezuz, how many times have we seen the wreck that killed Lady Diana in mags, papers and on TV???
What about the 9/11 'falling man' that CNN was doing a story on.

How would you like to be the brother, mother or friend of a guy whose imminent death is captured and published in magazines around the world?

Listening to emotionally charged accusations is certainly a part of your job that few would enjoy..
unless your skin is as thick as the incomparable J.Jonah Jameson.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Within Without said...


I so feel for you and know what you're going through, and have dealt with exactly the same.

I'm with virtually everyone who has already commented above with very reasoned observations.

You said you pushed the piece inside, just a bare-bones account, and that's news. The pic, you said, wasn't horrific. That's news and worthy, almost any pic like that would be.

The family, I'm sure, when they saw the pic the next day looked at where the girl would have been in that would blow anybody away who had just had that kind of shock to their system.

In our biz, we touch peoples' lives in many wonderful ways but sometimes in terrible circumstances.

We can't pick and choose, we can just use reason and sound judgment and respect and fairness.

Sounds to me like you did exactly that here and then it sounds like you were compassionate even as they abused you on the phone, stopping it only once it reached extremes.

Good on ya.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Frontier Editor said...

Years ago, when I was a guest speaker at a college journalism class, I saw a happy girl in the class and asked her why she was conidering journalism. She said it would be a great chance to meet new people and make friends. I told her that she was in the wrong job because she was going to make far more people angry than happy.

Like HE observed, you get a thick skin in this job, but that doesn't stop the shock damage to your gut in instances like this.

Carmenzta, you hit the nail on the head about whether we should run photos with stories like this, and I respect your view on it. I don't pick photos for gratuitous effect, but I really felt in this case that the straight account of the wreck along with the mechanical end result was an object lesson in what happens in cases like this. It sounds cold and detached, and it probably is. I'm not making excuses for what I did, but I felt it was the right thing to do. Not the feel-good thing to do - just the right thing.
I don't get any feeling of superiority or loftiness from it, and I know it hits those involved in a horrible way. Maybe I'll end up in a circle of hell for doing it, but it was my decision.

Thanks for the comments. I wasn't looking for a pat on the back, just what other people feel about this so I can keep my head straight.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Cherrypie said...

I've come late to the party and anything really wroth saying has already been said, but as a trained bereavement counsellor I can see both side, neither are wrong and nothing you could have done would have been right. To have ignored it would have been wrong, to have underplayed it would have been wrong, to have given it too few or too many column inches would have been wrong. It sounds like you did your job professionally and sensitively.

I don't know if you have CRUSE Bereavement Care ( my organisation) over there but they are a good place to signpost people towards.

Missed you while I've been stuck in the office. I was a real Siouxsie Soux fan x

9:27 PM  
Blogger awaiting said...

"Circle of hell" just made me want to read Dante's Inferno again. :)

1:57 AM  
Blogger gautami tripathy said...

As already enough has been written about it, I do not have anything more to add to it. I too feel you did the right thing.

We do need to see pictures so that we are more careful in future.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Lazy said...

Do they tell dead baby jokes in your newsroom?

10:41 AM  
Blogger Frontier Editor said...

We're pretty fatalistic in our humor, Lazy, but the dead baby jokes kinda lose their charm after you have kids.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Carmenzta said...

FE, I think the very fact that you even asked the question shows that you are a caring, non-detached editor. That says a lot about you...All good!!!

12:17 PM  
Blogger jromer said...

we try to do our best whenever we can. unfortunately, not every response is really dealing with you, fronty. most responses come from fear or pain. also, grieving is a very private process and seeing someone else handle a piece of the tragedy that is causing one's grief is painful, no matter what a person's intention. they're hurt and angry at God and everybody for losing their child. you didn't mean any harm and you know that. maybe someday, when the edge of their pain wears off, they will see that too. sorry it got ugly. deep breath.

4:59 PM  

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