Posts Tagged grief

Repost: Our Experiences, Our Subjects Follow Us

I first published this post on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s been rolling around among the knots in my stomach today, after a yet more devastating and senseless shooting in metro Denver. I am rerunning these events in my head once again.

April 20, 2009

Here is a professional truth:

We carry every story, good and bad, with us. It’s the result of the empathy we need to do our journalism job fully. All the good journalists I know feel their stories to the bone despite professional detachment and analytical scrutiny.

Today is the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the story that has followed me most intensely for a decade. I write this exactly ten years after Eric and Dylan went bowling.

First, perspective.

My career has been filled with wonderful stories. I have been overwhelmed by fascination and joy, happiness and friendship. My life has been changed for the better by most of my subjects. The good has outnumbered the bad by tenfold.

I have also seen horrors beyond Columbine. I’ve tiptoed around the bodies left by drug gangs and corrupt cops in Rio, looked into the eyes of sudden widow in India, and faced the grief of the family members of the Oklahoma City bombing. I’ve listened quietly to people tell me of personal losses and fears, and I have seen the aftermath of scores of fatal crashes and deadly fires.

That’s the job.

And though we feel all these things, you would have to add up the background pain of a hundred journalists to equal that of any of the victims of an act as senseless and violent as Columbine.

Not long after the event my colleagues at the university wisely took the opportunity to discuss stress and trauma issues among journalists. It’s a valuable discussion. But at the time it smacked of too much self pity to me. By comparison to our subjects, I felt, our pain was trivial. But trivial as it may be, I now look back on how that story changed me. I have yet more empathy for the victims in any story.

For them multiply what I experience by 100.

Or 1,000.

Columbine Docs

Dr. Chris Colwell, center, the emergency physician who tended to the wounded and dying at Columbine High School immediately following last Tuesday’s shootings, stares blankly beside paramedics as the names of the thirteen victims killed in the shootings are read at a memorial service in Littleton, Colo., Sunday, April 25, 1999. The victims were eulogized by Vice President Gore, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, and the Rev. Franklin Graham. © Kevin Moloney, 1999

I felt the first blow of the story days after photographing the tortured faces of terrified parents and shell-shocked students. On my way out of a big public memorial service the weekend after the shooting I came across the first paramedic team on the scene. The small group stood under an umbrella at the back of the huge crowd — not in a place of honor as I would have hoped. There gazing blankly at the space above the stage were the men and women who held the dead, dying and injured.

I snapped two poorly composed frames, crumpled to my knees and sobbed for five minutes. I gathered my wits and went off to develop film and send my images to New York.

I am sure that catharsis helped me get through the next months of covering the story again and again, listening to the harrowing details from survivors and steeling myself to the growing hostility from the larger community.

That hostility is another difference from all the other stories I’ve covered. Our heavy presence, rush to deadlines and competitive streaks left a foul taste in the mouths of anyone who watched it happen. Within days the surrounding community, which had no connection to the story beyond proximity, let its discomfort with our process be known.

In a few cases we deserved it. Our behavior was terrible in spots, and all it takes is one nasty action to create a rumor, a stereotype, an expectation. But all the good and sensitive journalistic behavior I saw was trumped by the bad.

Not only was this story tough in subject matter, but we had a very tense relationship with the subjects.

All these emotions well up in me at every subsequent Columbine stop — the funerals, the shot-up school tours, the exhibition of the weapons, the ticking anniversaries. It caught me this year as I heard the father of victim Rachel Scott speak about his daughter.

The reactions vary, from a jaw clenched to soreness, to sleepless nights like last night. But my expectations of subjects have also changed.

In August 2007 I was in Price, Utah, to cover the ongoing tragedy of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine. My jaw clenches now whenever I imagine covering a community struck by tragedy. I wrongly anticipate excessive resistance if not outright hostility.

I walked out of my motel room on the first morning I was on the story to find a new tire flat. I looked around it and found no nails, no holes. Rather than my assumption being that a seal or a valve had broken, I instantly jumped to the completely irrational conclusion that someone in town had taken it upon themselves to go empty a few tires in the lot of one of the journalist motels.

I was, of course, wrong. And, despite losing nine local miners and rescue workers, the community was no more difficult to interact with than any other.

Miner Bodie Allred, right, cousin of missing miner Kerry Allred, embraces a friend at the memorial viewing in Price, Utah, for Dale Ray Black, one of the rescuers killed trying to free Kerry Allred and five others n the nearby Crandall Canyon mine. © Kevin Moloney, 2007

Miner Bodie Allred, right, cousin of missing miner Kerry Allred, embraces a friend at the memorial viewing in Price, Utah, for Dale Ray Black, one of the rescuers killed trying to free Kerry Allred and five others in the nearby Crandall Canyon mine. © Kevin Moloney, 2007

Over all the other tragedies I’ve seen, perhaps it is because Columbine was so senseless and unexpected that it has stayed with me. Drug wars in Rio and untimely death in India can unfortunately be expected. Crashes and fires happen every day. In 1999 a school shooting in an affluent suburb with such a toll of dead and injured was not expected. Unfortunately now stories like that are just another part of the tragedy landscape.

Again, all of this reaction is trivial by comparison to the victims, or to those who have seen mountains of tragedy.

To see and hear the tales of journalists really haunted by what they have covered, watch in “Dying to Tell the Story” Don McCullin’s thousand-yard stare as he describes his war-dead subjects climbing out of his film filing cabinets at night and walking the halls of his English country home.

And listen to Paul Watson in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross describe his inner conversations with Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the dead man he photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

My point is not to show obsession with my reactions to one story. It is to make clear that no matter what stories we cover, we carry them with us forever after.

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Ten years after Columbine

Vast memorials at Robert F. Clement Park near the high school where 13 were killed last month still draw thousands of people moved by the tragedy. Here the curious and grieving pass the flower-covered truck of slain Columbine student John Tomlin.

Vast memorials at Robert F. Clement Park near the high school where 13 were killed on April 20, 1999, still drew thousands of people moved by the tragedy a month later. Here the curious and grieving pass the flower-covered truck of slain Columbine student John Tomlin.

A letter written to my students of the time, a couple weeks after the Columbine shootings:

May 4, 1999

Dear students,

Two weeks ago a horde descended upon Clement Park to cover the massacre at Columbine High School. There bereaved families and students found themselves face-to-face with more camera operators than I have seen anywhere, and that collision created a perfect laboratory for us to look at ourselves, the job we do and how the public reacts to our work.

Today was an interesting day for it seems to be the end of the initial media blitz. Monday tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma, killing an estimated 45 people. Off to the next disaster raced most of the out-of-towners, leaving Clement park to the curious visitors and shocked citizens that flock there daily.

Up through yesterday the public’s perception of the media had been steadily sliding downhill. The situations I’ll describe here are not the only reasons for the public disgust and distrust of the media. We’ve been building up public exhaustion with our behavior for years. The Columbine massacre just handily lays it all out before us.

The day this tragedy happened I raced out the door like all the other journalists in town and what I encountered near the scene of the shooting shook me. I spent that afternoon at an elementary school near Columbine where worried parents congregated in wait for their children. Their faces were a terrible sight. The radio and TV were reporting up to 25 dead, making the odds that their children had been injured or killed very real.

That’s a tough situation to photograph. Standing near someone that horrified and frightened makes my camera weigh a thousand pounds. People reacted to me in varying ways — some not noticing me at all, others seeming to understand why I was there. I was also scolded by one man who said, “get that camera out of my face.”

I waited a minute for him to cool down, and apologized to him.

Initially the media who were there acted as part the scene. I loaned my cell phone out to at least five parents or grandparents. I was constantly asked for updates, and I gave as much information as I could as graciously as possible. I handed out business cards, encouraging anyone to call if they had any questions at all. Later I did get a call from a pair of parents who when I last saw them on that day still hadn’t found their twin children. They thanked me for my concern and help at the scene, and happily told me their kids were safe.

But as the numbers of photographers increased, the separation between the subjects and the journalists grew. Crying children hid behind their friends and families. A few cursed the cameras. More photographers arrived, some greeting each other with back slaps and smiles. Some bragged about the “great pictures” they had gotten.

I stood and watched with the worried families. How callous that seems to someone in trouble — to see the media react to it as if it were just another excuse to exploit misery for ratings and contests and profit.

I know both sides of that story, though. I think the photographers there who did act that way were just blocking out the horror of the situation in a convenient way. Many of us do that after a few too many troubling scenes. We make the camera a block against reality and shoot pictures as if it were all a play laid out for us to photograph.

We in the media desperately need to realize that our subjects are watching us, too. We must behave in a sensitive manner around the grief-stricken. We need to show that we care and that we do this job because the public cares. We must be ambassadors.

At too many funerals I have seen photographers and videographers arrive in shorts and T-shirts as if they were at a baseball game. Being behind a camera does not mean we are separate from the scene. On the contrary, big equipment and tripods make us stand out like nothing else can.

Please be professionals. Dress for the situation. Wear a tie. Don’t march around with cigarettes dangling from your lips, or worse yet, with a huge dip of Skoal under your lip. If we expect the respect of our subjects, our viewers, and the public that grants us the rights on which we operate, we must be respectful to them.

Please never forget as you enter the working world of journalism that it is the First Amendment under which we operate. But free speech is not a right held too dear by much of the public. In their view, free speech is fine as long as it doesn’t speak badly about them. Free speech is dandy unless they find it offensive in any way.

The only example we need to see is the persistent attempts at a constitutional amendment against flag burning. Why do politicians brandish that idea about so often even if they don’t believe it would be constitutional? Because the public finds the burning of a flag deeply offensive even if it is free speech.

We must deal with our subjects honestly and fairly. We cannot be lazy with the facts. We must maintain the trust of the public we serve. As a journalist I am as afraid of suddenly being the subject of a news story (again) as I am afraid of an IRS audit. That isn’t because I have anything to hide or be ashamed of. Based on experiences on both sides of the act of journalism, I fear that the truth would not be properly portrayed. I fear that I would be a sound bite or quote delivered in a careless context.

On the second day of coverage of the Columbine story it was evident the community was already tired of the growing horde of journalists. At memorial services bands of parishioners began to form human walls even though the media were still being remarkably well-behaved at that point. The consequences of our voraciousness were becoming evident.

At Clement park, many mourners and groups of students were outnumbered by the media everywhere they went. The week wore on and anyone with any shaky connection to the event had been telephoned relentlessly, badgered at the door or offered large sums of money to appear on questionable TV shows.

I’ve heard of two disturbing incidents (surely there are more) — one in which one photographer laid on the ground in the middle of a huddle of crying Columbine students, blasting up at their bowed heads with a flash. In another tale, a photographer chases a disturbed, crying subject down the street, blasting away with a camera.

What must be the public perception of this behavior? Do they see our actions in the field as separate from the final product they see on the TV screen or in print? I think yes. Clement park is a wondrous, sprawling example of that. It is the media that has drawn all those people to send offerings from across the country, or to bring their children to lay flowers or teddy bears on the ever-expanding mounds.

The satellite trucks have made the area the epicenter of grief. We draw them with our images, but they are taken aback when our cameras flash in their tearing eyes. To the public our product is separate from our work.

It is unfortunate that the public misunderstands the concept of privacy. I have long wished that every citizen understood that when they are in a public place they don’t have “privacy.” But the public feels that the right to privacy is something more akin to “the right to be left alone.” This is the only way I can explain why people would flock to a place surrounded by satellite trucks to grieve, and be angry when a camera pops up in front of them.

Saturday an estimated 7,000 people crowded the west steps of the state capitol to protest the NRA’s annual meeting in Denver. Fewer journalists were on hand to cover the event, already more than a week after the shooting. A grieving Columbine father spoke, followed by a family who had lost a son in a shooting. During one father’s speech a counterprotestor was pushed to the ground in a scuffle not far the podium. Most of the photojournalists, all doing their job by capturing a potentially explosive situation, turned away for a few seconds to photograph police dragging the counterprotestor away.

The speaker bemoaned the press for “scrambling to photograph that,” rather than pay attention to him. The crowd erupted in a cheer that gave me a chill. None of the photographers had done anything less than their job in that case, but the giant crowd showed immediately how uncomfortable they were with our actions in general. And surely most of the crowd realizes that without media coverage of the rally, it would have no effect beyond their ranks. They needed us there.

Monday the students of Columbine High returned to classes at a nearby school. As Chatfield students left to make way for the Columbine kids, they passed the small row of journalists reporting from across the street. Insults were hurled from car windows by students who hadn’t even been involved in the incident. A small army of parents stood on the school’s side of the road to chase away any journalists who wished to cross. Another group gave out fliers to Columbine students advising them of their “rights with the press.”

We are shooting ourselves in the foot with our own behavior. Competition for ratings, or circulation, or publication fees makes many journalists forget about the consequences of their actions. Sensationalist coverage breeds more disgust, reduces the public trust and hurts us again.

A touching moment happens in a park full of journalists and the dog pile begins. A Current Affair makes more money when people watch its sensational coverage, and other TV outlets feel the need to follow suit in pursuit of profit. Freelance photographers trip over each other chasing tears, stake out offenders’ homes, and badger neighbors only on the odd chance that they’ll make a few extra bucks.

This profession is not about money nor about winning contests. Journalism is about telling stories — carefully and professionally. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about money, find another career that will make more money for you. If what you do in journalism ever becomes getting a picture or quote regardless of the effects on the innocent, find another career where you’re less likely to hurt someone.

This is not about money.

This is not about winning contests.

Causing pain or anger in the undeserving is not worth a picture or a sound bite with a news life of one day or less. Angering Pol Pot by brashly making a picture is one thing, angering and aggravating the innocent is another.

In the eyes of the media Columbine is now an old story. There are 45 new victims to cover in another state thanks to Mother Nature. Those journalists have raced off to that story leaving all the baggage of this one behind them, yet the families of the victims, their friends and classmates will be stuck with this story for the rest of their lives.

Please, as you enter the working world, think about what your subjects are seeing in you, and what they will remember about their experience with you after the flood lights have moved on. We need the support of the public to do our jobs well. We need the support of the public to guard our first amendment rights.

Journalism is a profession. Any field associated with that term bears a responsibility to the public — the medical profession, the legal profession, the education profession. From time to time we have the responsibility to expose the guilty with all our investigative talents. But we also have the responsibility to treat the innocent fairly and with careful, respectful consideration.

Let’s guard our professionalism. Know where that line falls.

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