Does the public really have a “need to know?”
When there’s a major tragedy, reporters are almost inevitably dispatched to interview the families of victims. Have you ever questioned, “Why is their grief news?”
By Jennifer Holmes
Jennifer Holmes is a former reporter for the Detroit Free Press. She now works in corporate communications.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 6 (September 1989), pp. 2,5.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
I’ve read that humans’ ability to rationalize can mean the difference between death and survival. That helps explain my sudden but not unexpected demise from journalism two years ago; I was never able to rationalize descending upon tragedy victims like a self-righteous vulture. I felt – and still feel – that insinuating ourselves into the privacy of people’s pain against their will is wrong. As if the public had a “need to know” the depth of some poor soul’s agony.
The two Iraqi missiles that tore into the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf on Sunday night, May 17, 1987, were also the fatal blow to my foundering career at the Detroit Free Press.
My assignment was to sit vigil with the family of 20-year-old Kelly Robert Quick, an electronics technician, who was one of the eight Michigan sailors unaccounted for following the explosion. His father’s home was in a rural area near Flint, about 75 miles northwest of Detroit.
I called Robert Quick to ask if I might drive out and visit with him while he waited for word, and he told me no p; please. He hadn’t slept since Saturday night. He had spent all day yesterday giving interviews “for my boy” and he didn’t have anything left to give. He couldn’t control his crying. He said this apologetically, as if he were being stingy or rude – or a sissy. I assured him I understood and then blurted out something dopey and preacherish like, “God bless and protect your son.”
YOU FOOL! was the reaction I got from assistant city editor Andrea Ford when I told her. (Or maybe it was YOU IDIOT; I can’t remember which.) OF COURSE he said that. You NEVER give them ADVANCE WARNING. You have to take them BY SURPRISE.
But you see, I knew that.
Andrea continued to lecture me that, “Your job is not to concern yourself with what sources want or don’t want. Your job is to GET THE STORY.”
Then she added, “Too bad you did that. Now it’ll be that much harder to get in.”
I’m ashamed to say I went. I made two chicken-livered passes by the house before pulling in. Quick’s sister and lady friend tried to head me off in the driveway, politely explaining again why Robert Quick was unavailable. But as they spoke Quick appeared at the open door. He was dressed in slept-in-looking clothes and white socks. His face was pouched and blotchy.
“I suppose I could give you a short statement,” he said. As if to say, “You drove all this way, and it’s hot, and I know you’re just trying to do your job.” He held the screen door open for me to come in.
Why are people so kind to vultures? In 11 years as a reporter I never failed to be amazed when people would react so politely to an intrusion that warranted an “It’s none of your business” or, at the very least, “I’m sorry, but that’s personal.” Even when I was once told, “You can either leave now on your own or I’ll have you dragged out of town behind a goddamn cement truck,” it sounded reasonable.
Patiently he choked out the story he had been telling for two days: Kelly was a good boy; never gave anybody a lick of trouble. Loved cars and baseball. Wanted to join the Navy like Grandpa (who was now in the kitchen, answering the phone) so he could get an education in electronics.
Wrote home faithfully once a month to Mom and Dad at their separate addresses. Found naval sea cruises boring – nothing ever happened.
A reporter from another paper showed up and indicated that since I was in the house, he also had a right to be. Quick said OK, and let him in.
Once inside, the reporter ignored the family and began poking around in the back bedroom, as if he were a police officer with a badge at the scene of a crime. In a few minutes he reappeared with a photograph he had found in the bedroom. Could he take it? Thanks.
All the while the phone was ringing every five to 10 minutes. Each time it rang the family all jumped, knowing this could be… it. But it was never… it.
It was always the media! Have you heard anything? Is he dead yet?
I think this camel’s back broke when one of those calls was for me. It was from Andrea, angrily demanding to know why I hadn’t called in my story yet; didn’t I know when deadline was? Did I have enough notes for a story? OK, then, begin dictating them over the phone RIGHT NOW.
Was she serious?
When I said I could not tie up the family’s phone at a time like this, she said, “Why not?”
“Don’t they know?”
The Free Press apparently knew that Kelly Quick was dead and the family did not. Moreover, I was NOT to tell them, and NOT to leave the house, because “the officers in the white uniforms” were on their way to inform them. This was the BIG story, the one we couldn’t miss. How the Family Reacted When Told Their Son Was Really Dead.
I told my editor it was time for me to leave the Quick household; I’d call in my notes from a pay phone. She warned me not to leave unless I was “guaranteed” to get back in.
The nearest pay phone was six miles away. Once my notes were dictated, I drove back home – to my home, not Kelly Quick’s. And I never went back to the Free Press . . . except to resign. I knew I would never be able to stomach that situation again.
In retrospect, I would say it’s not necessary to throw away the baby with the bath water. But it is necessary to throw out the bath water, and that’s what I think reporters fail to do, too often.
For the sake of our souls – never mind the integrity of the newspaper – I think we have to screw up the courage to “Just Say No”. And I don’t think we should assume we’ll all be fired.
Not long ago, I noticed an editorial by the most recent executive editor of the Free Press, Heath Meriwether, in which he spoke openly to his troops about disaster coverage:
“Show compassion,” he said. “If the families don’t want to talk, or allow a photographer, respect that. Put yourselves in their shoes. Treat them the way you would want to be treated in such a situation.”
I rest my case.