Sad news requires humane reporting


By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

While reading and watching coverage of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., I was struck by the emotional impact it has on everyone involved, whether it’s first responders, the president of the United States or reporters.

As a father, I can understand the emotions that would lead President Barack Obama to wipe away tears or cut short his planned remarks, police and fire officials who entered the school to break into tears, and veteran journalists to choke up while trying to report the story.

I started to wonder how I would have been able to handle such a story.

My conclusion – I would not have been trained to adequately deal with the sources necessary to obtain the information needed to tell the stories behind the tragedy.

I’m talking about how to interview a victim of crime, a victim’s family, or first responders who have witnessed the aftermath of violence.

I’d know the questions to ask but not how to broach the subject in a manner sensitive to what victims had experienced and were attempting to understand themselves.

I think I got a good journalistic education in the 1970s at Butler University.

The experience helped me become a better writer, developed my understanding of the elements of news, and started the groundwork to deal with ethical questions that would arise.

But talk to a family member who has lost a child – no.

I recall no class that touched on how to interview sources involved in painful stories.

No tips on how to delve into grief while respecting the dignity of the victim and family.

No approaches to talk to police about the details of horror without appearing callous to the human lives lost.

Obviously the Newtown tragedy is an extreme example, but gathering information while being cognizant of human feelings comes into place every day.

The story can be about a traffic accident, the aftermath of flooding, or the loss of a job.

My training was more the sink-or-swim approach.

I had to deal with the issue when the story arose. I had nothing to draw on when I interviewed a Kentucky county official who knew as I did that he was going to be indicted by a grand jury the next day.

I’ve read the results of excellent journalists who apparently know how to get the story while showing compassion for the subject.

For each gem, I wonder how many reporters have had a door slammed in their face, heard that sudden silence in their ear when a source has abruptly ended a call, or been cursed as an unfeeling monster only interested in selling newspapers.

I haven’t looked at course descriptions for Indiana journalism schools recently, so maybe there already is such a class, but if not, I’d recommend the development of a course entitled: “How to interview people when the news is sad.”

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.