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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Emotions run high in cases of tragedy

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Emotions run highest when individuals experience personal tragedy.

I appreciated Dickie Gardner being willing to talk to me as his stables burned to the ground last week. I can fully understand the emotions he must have felt knowing championship horses were in the ruins of the enterprise he'd worked so hard to build, and having to see his wife emotionally upset as well.

He'll obviously be back at the top of his field soon, but what he's going through, and the rebuilding process, is something no one should have to face.

The bad side of covering police beat is that I'm always the first media person to arrive at any incident scene. I see victims at their worst moments while the TV people who come in later, then falsely claim "exclusives", are interviewing many hours after the fact when things have calmed down. But they miss the spontaneity of immediacy.

I don't really feel comfortable with being the "nosy, intrusive" type of journalist. So I try to show some feeling in those cases. I'm not one to call families of deceased victims a few hours later asking, "How does it feel?" as some TV reporters do. That answer should be painfully obvious.

You'll see photos I've shot of rescue workers removing injured victims from wrecked cars, for example, but -- important point here -- I don't show the victims themselves. I've had to deal occasionally with one particular state trooper who doesn't seem to believe that.

A few people say, "We don't want this in the newspaper." That's often voiced in relation to a major event, such as a fire or accident, even if it occurred on a main street and was seen by potentially hundreds or thousands of people who will verbally spread the word and send photos made on their cell phones to their friends, relatives and neighbors. In fact, it surprises me how many people, including emergency workers themselves, now photograph breaking news on their phones or cameras and send us copies. Many media outlets actually solicit reader/viewer photos.

Those events are major, front page news, as many of our readers regularly let us know through calls, e-mails and single-copy sales. They have to be reported, tragic as those events may be. We can't leave out stories just because someone doesn't want to be identified or a few others may be emotionally upset by tragedy. If you don't like them, just skip over them. It's unlikely that anyone reads every single thing in a newspaper.

One of my rules of journalism, ingrained through 32 years in the business, is that we listen closely and give you, the readers, what you say you want -- and introduce new ideas of our own and from elsewhere that we think you'd like. But we don't dictate what you should want -- or take an approach to news coverage that reflects our individual, personal judgments and emotions rather than what the public needs or wants to know. That's a thin line which should never be crossed.

Another of my rules is that newspapers should reflect reality, both in coverage and attitude toward that coverage. We can't paint a rosy face on a canvas of life that sometimes isn't so pretty.

When I'm putting together the front page (the part of my job I love most) on or after tragic events, I'm very much keeping in mind the feelings of those affected. In most cases I was actually at those scenes, so I can "feel" the event.

Life, and the depiction of it, can sometimes be rough. But we can be good to those we cover as much as possible while still fully covering those tragedies.

David Melson covers police beat and designs front pages for the Times-Gazette. Your responses welcome: dmelson@t-g.com.

David Melson
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