Journalists and Tragedy: A Passion for Excellence and a Compassion for People
"Here, Cahan, is a report that a man has murdered his wife, a rather bloody, hacked-up crime. We don't care about that. But there's a story in it. That man loved that woman well enough once to marry her, and now he has hated her enough to cut her all to pieces. If you can find out just what happened between that wedding and this murder, you will have a novel for yourself and a short story for me. Go on now, take your time, and get this tragedy, as a tragedy."
Lincoln Steffens in "The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens." Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York. 1958
When it comes to covering tragedies, few journalists receive such eloquent marching orders from their editor. But, what Lincoln Steffens asked of his reporter, Cahan, is the time-honored challenge every reporter both dreads and expects during his or her career.
The challenge of covering tragedies and interviewing victims or the family members of victims may be one of the hardest assignments a journalist ever faces. These individuals are suffering, and the presence of a reporter or photographer can re-victimize them.
There is little doubt that it is intrusive and invasive to approach someone at one of the worst moments of their life. At the same time it is often necessary to do just that to carry out the legitimate professional role that a journalist plays in a community. Reporters and photographers have a responsibility to seek out the truth about important events and issues and to report that information with fairness and accuracy. Journalists have a responsibility to provide information about the realities of our troubled times, no matter how painful or pathetic that reality might be.
Whether the story is about rape or incest, about murder or mayhem, about terrorist bombings or plane crashes, there is also a journalistic responsibility to make sure that facts are presented in context so they provide meaning and understanding. Sometimes, perhaps often, the only way a journalist can report meaningful information about significant events is by going to those most involved in a tragedy, by asking them questions and hearing their side of the story.
It is with such reporting--admittedly intrusive and invasive in its very nature--that we can bring a human side to the death of a teenager murdered in the streets, that we can reveal system failure in the plight of abused foster children, that we can reveal heroism in the efforts of the volunteers who leap forward to help others at times of tragedy.
It is this type of story, when we probe to ensure factual accuracy and to gain contextual authenticity, that journalists must be both ethical and excellent in their work. It is a marriage of journalistic passion and human compassion.
The mark of excellence in such reporting can be measured by the skills of observation, information gathering, interviewing, and writing that produce great storytelling. That mark of excellence should also be measured in terms of an ethical scale, by the degree of care a journalist applies to these stories, by the compassion and respect shown to those who are vulnerable.
The best reporters know how to follow Lincoln Steffens advice by both taking their time and telling a meaningful story about a tragedy. The best reporters tell us not only how it happened, but why it happened and what it means.