Can you be a human being and a good police reporter? What was the interview you dreaded the most when you became a police reporter?
I'm willing to bet the answer is the interview with a person who has suffered a horrible loss. Even after 25 years in this business, I knew I had to face that fear when I went on the police beat. Who was I to intrude on people suffering the depths of grief? Six years later, my perspective is much different.
This month, I called the grandmother of a little boy who had been struck and killed in a school crosswalk. My stomach did not knot up. Another reporter had done a lengthy interview with the grandmother before I spoke with her to check on funeral arrangements and on the spelling of her grandson’s name. I offered my condolences; she thanked me for my interest. There was nothing profound about the conversation, but I could be confident I had not added to her sorrow.
Reporters who do this learn to handle it, but I think the popular perception – that they become hardened to suffering – is incorrect. Consciously or not, we learn that we are human enough to conduct these conversations honestly and in a way that may even help the interviewee feel the world cares about the departed loved one.
It's interesting to me that reporters seem to feel guilty about their human qualities. I conducted an interviewing workshop at one paper where a reporter talked about interviewing a Marine – a tough-looking fellow – who dissolved into tears as he talked about the death of his child, who had leukemia. The reporter confessed the man's story moved her so much that she “compromised” journalistic values and cried during the interview. She may have been surprised when her colleagues in the room then agreed that as long as her tears were honest and not a ploy to endear herself to the Marine, she had not “compromised” anything.
You don't have to leave your humanity at the door. Keeping that in mind — without feeling “compromised” — may actually make you a better journalist.
A good resource: The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma [www.dartcenter.org] offers information for reporters covering crime, war and disaster, including interviewing tips. [www.dartcenter.org/quick_tips/interviewing.php]