The first “big” news story I covered took place in South Carolina. A 23-year old mother of two reported a carjacking with her kids still in the backseat. There were a handful of journalists on the scene that first night, all of them local.
The following morning, multiple languages were being spoken on the streets of a tiny town reminiscent of Mayberry. Media from around the world were fast descending on the small community of Union, as the search for the missing boys intensified.
Nine days later, at a hastily gathered press conference, the local sheriff announced the arrest of Susan Smith, who admitted driving her Mazda into a nearby lake and drowning her young children.
“This is the biggest story I’ll ever cover,” I thought to myself, as I watched her husband, David, sobbing and stumbling his way down a sidewalk, leaving his sons’ funeral service. The church door behind him stood open with just enough space to see a tiny white coffin, in which both boys lay.
During that week, as the story unfolded, the line between “thinking personally” and “covering professionally” was being drawn in pencil. One minute I was gathering news; the next, I was participating in it. Walking with volunteers through wooded searches, and helping attach posters of the missing boys to telephone poles, I was connected to the story, erasing and redrawing the journalistic boundaries as I desired. Because I struggled with the conflicting forces, it was a relief to go home when my job ended. I left the damage and brokenness behind me.
For the next 20 years, most of that with NBC News, I learned to reinforce that barrier while in front-row seats to stories on the world stage: ground zero for 9-11, the Middle East for the Gulf War, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In between, there were school shootings, hostage standoffs and high-profile rating juggernauts, like the search for Natalee Holloway and the murder trial of Casey Anthony. Buffered by the lens of my camera, I was mastering the disconnect that kept me at arm’s length. That pencil-thin line I learned to draw in Union County was now being scrawled with a thick, black marker.
A lot had changed for me, as I followed reports of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in the early hours of June 12. Having long since left the daily grind of television news, I wasn’t seeing the tragedy as potentially “the biggest story I’ll ever cover,” because I wasn’t going to be covering it. I was experiencing the events with my neighbors, colleagues and friends. Attending a vigil, not because of a press release, but drawn to it by a desire to support my reeling city.
In a crowd of nearly 10,000, I was standing with mourners instead of working media. It was unfamiliar territory, searching for my own opinion instead of sound bites. That journalistic barrier, no longer relevant, meant the lines I’d once drawn had faded.
There’s a sad playbook news organizations resort to when covering these “big” stories, and we’re now turning to an important page, where content within the 24-7 news cycle suddenly shifts. As the chaos subsides, and the search for understanding begins, the pressure to find something new can be a catalyst for speculation, exaggeration and potential manipulation. Some reporters searching for different angles enlist questionable “talking heads” who come out of nowhere. Others prey upon the vulnerability of those trying to escape unwanted attention.
A certain amount of personal intrusion is necessary for journalism in the public interest. When judicious, we can contrast the authentic and relevant from the counterfeit: the heart-felt pleas from loved ones, as opposed to self-indulgent opportunists leveraging a spotlight for their own purpose.
Experiencing this tragedy with my city, instead of covering it for the news, reminded me that these stories are not merely assignments with deadlines; they’re opportunities. They are glimpses into real lives that will continue to play out long after the headlines have changed, and the media have moved on.
While working, I created lines to divide me from the people I met in my stories, thinking it was better if we all stayed on our respective sides. But this tragedy brought that issue home and into clearer focus. Maybe we can’t change the playbook overnight. But we can change the way we draw our lines, allowing wisdom and compassion to cross over.