No ambulance chasing: Tread lightly on tragedies


By Jim Pumarlo

A family’s farm is devastated by a tornado. A reporter is on the scene moments afterward to record the events, including talking with family members.

A student commits suicide and, understandably, it’s a shock to many people. A story documents the community’s response; the family relives the episode, blow by blow.

A child is murdered. Within days, an interview with the grieving parent is published.

All three stories were handled during my tenure as editor of the Red Wing (Minnesota) Republican Eagle. All three dealt with tragedies and involved interviews with family, friends or others close to the situation. All three probably put people in an unfamiliar – and uncomfortable – spotlight.

Tragedies are some of the most readable stories but also the most difficult to write. It’s probably the toughest assignment for any reporter – rookie or veteran.

It’s difficult to predict how the people will respond – when approached for the story, during the interview and after it’s published for all to read. Anger, bitterness, remorse, guilt – people may react with any of these emotions.

A reporter from another newspaper, who was involved in such an incident, wrote about a letter to the editor his newspaper received describing the reaction of the family of a man killed in a car-truck collision. It was written by a member of the man’s family.

“To be honest,” the family member wrote, “our first reaction was anger and dismay that a reporter would violate our family’s privacy during a time of grief. The reporter, however, handled the contact with tact and concern that was not upsetting to our mother.

“The result was an article that provided your readers with some small comprehension of this man who died in the crash. For many readers who wondered why they were late to work, your paper let them know it was because a decent, hardworking man lost his life that day, and this man had a family that is now grieving its loss.

“A reporter’s job can be very difficult. Reporters are forced to confront the most unhappy circumstances on a daily basis. Our purpose in writing this letter is not to criticize, but perhaps to enlighten journalists to the immense impact that a seemingly insignificant article can have on the parties involved.

“On behalf of families everywhere who find themselves facing similar circumstances, we would like to let the press know that a small investment of empathy and time is what distinguishes someone who is a professional from someone who is just doing his job.”

The advice is well taken when pursuing any story, but especially when reporters are in the midst of a sensitive or tragic situation. Often how a story is pursued is equally important to how it is presented.

In this case, the reporter’s approach was professional and much appreciated by the individuals directly involved, and it resulted in a better story. That will reap benefits for himself, his newspaper and the readers.

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Com­mun­ity News Coverage” and other books.