Covering mass shootings and the resurrection of the dead

I know a lot of journalists and scientists – liberal and conservative – who believe in a personal God, the existence of an afterlife, and the power of prayer. This must be said in the aftermath of more and more mass killings. When a news anchor says to a suffering source, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to you,” it feels fitting and proper. I know atheists who say it too, not as a violation of their epistemology, but as an expression of solidarity with another human being.

After 25 people were murdered in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, there have been recurring debates about mental illness and the availability of guns.  More powerful, and at times just as acrimonious, have been the declarations and circumstances of religious faith.

The questions feel universal: What comfort could I possibly draw from the horrific death of a little child? Would I lose my faith? Would I, like Job in the Bible, argue with God? Could I gain consolation from belief in an afterlife, expressed in the common phrase that the loved one is now in “a better place?”
 
Giving comfort and consolation at times of horrible grief is a collective duty, the responsibility of all professionals:  first responders, doctors and nurses, the clergy, and, yes, journalists.

At such moment should journalists and commentators share their own religious faith?

After the church killings, considerations of the afterlife played out in an episode of Fox News, quoted by RawStory:

Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt asserted on Monday that the dozens of people killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas had gone to the right place to be shot because they were close to Jesus at the time of their death.

“We’ve been reporting this shouldn’t happen in a church,” Earhardt said during an interview with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). “But I was downstairs talking with some people that work here that we all talk about our faith and we share the same beliefs. We were saying there’s no other place we would want to go other than church.”
“Because I’m there asking for forgiveness,” she continued. “I feel very close to Christ when I’m there. So, I’m trying to look at some positives here and know that those people are with the Lord now and experiencing eternity and no more suffering, no more sadness anymore.”

Abbott agreed that there was a “necessity for us to come together under one God to purge evil and to rely upon the love that God provides.”

In contrast to the goodness of the victims, reports mentioned the atheism of the killer. Here is the New York Times: “ ‘He was always talking about how people who believe in God were stupid and trying to preach his atheism,’ one of his Facebook friends, Nina Rosa Nava, posted on the site, saying she unfriended him because of it.”

In the Roman Catholic eschatology – theories of the afterlife – that I grew up with, the killer spends an eternity in hellfire, the murdered basking in the love of God. This is difficult business for the journalist. It gets us into territories where fact-checking does little good. Who knows if we are headed for extinction or glory?  Who knows the deepest secrets of the heart?

The words journalism and immortality have never fit comfortably together, but I am thinking of a way that they could. But first a little background.

When I came into the news business 40 years ago, I encountered clichés that testified to the impermanence of the news product. The expression “yesterday’s news” indicated a failure to get on to the concerns of the day. The word “journalism” derives, after all, from the French word for “the day.”  The old joke was that today’s paper was tomorrow’s “bird cage liner” – a vehicle for capturing animal waste.

There is, however, a form of secular immortality — a life after death — that journalists can tap into, an expression of endurance created by the seeds of memory. I discovered an example not long ago when I dug through an old box of family photographs.  It was a small newspaper clipping, brown and crispy, from the Providence Journal in 1972.  It was a photograph — not a flattering one — of my fiancé Karen L. Major, with a short text announcing our upcoming nuptials.

I can even trace its provenance. It was once clipped out of the newspaper and taped on a refrigerator on Langdon Street in a mostly Italian neighborhood in north Providence. At some point it was taken down by my mother-in-law Jeannette and stored with other family treasures and memorabilia. Its existence was forgotten until my act of family archaeology.
 
The influential editor Michael Gartner once described such artifacts as “refrigerator journalism.” Think of the refrigerator door as an enduring family front page, pasted with soccer photos, Peanuts comic strips, school lunch notices, obits and wedding announcements, all the items that a family considered memorable. People clip stories — or print them — and KEEP them. It’s the keeping that creates the meaning.

That sense of keeping, for a lifetime if not an eternity, may be the best a journalist can provide when loved ones have passed. A great journalist and writer, Dudley Clendenin, remains in my heart when I read his book about his mother’s life and death in a nursing home, or when I read his sturdy New York Times essay about his impending death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. On his final visit to Florida, his farewell tour, he invited me to lunch and we talked candidly about what mortality had to offer. “I hope there’s no heaven,” he laughed in what was left of a mellifluous Southern voice, “because if there is my MOTHER will be there.”

If he craved a different form of immortality, I recommended Rabbi Harold Kushner whose comforting books suggest that if you did not believe in heaven there were other ways to conquer mortality: You can plant a tree, you can have a child, you can write a book. Dudley could check all three.

By now you deserve a nut paragraph, and here it is:  The most powerful act a journalist can perform for the dead — and their survivors — is to write a story that brings them back to life.

From my shelf, I just grabbed a cherished book, "Portraits 9/11/01," the collection of short feature obituaries published by the New York Times. I opened the book at random and my eyes fell on the grainy photo of Nestor Chevalier with the caption “Inseparable Brothers.”

Nestor Chevalier always let his kid brother, Maurice, tag along.  Though the brothers were five years apart, they were inseparable growing up in Washington Heights.  They worked out together at the gym, and danced to salsa at the nightclubs.  They even moved out of their mother’s house into an apartment of their own in the neighborhood.

“We were the best of friends,” Maurice said.  “We did everything together.”

Nestor Chevalier, 30, verified trades at Cantor Fitzgerald and had planned to marry his girlfriend of nine years, Lillian Fermin, in October 2001. He loved to tell stories about his life, often exaggerating the details for even bigger laughs. He found a rapt audience in his family and friends. In August, Maurice took Nestor to a salsa club to celebrate his big brother’s birthday.  Maurice danced all night.

“I miss him dearly,” Maurice said.

That, I should remind everyone, is just one 140-word portrait, a quarter-page from a coffee-table book that is 555 pages in length. Exactly 143 writers crafted these loving portraits of 1,910 souls who were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Some wrote with tears in their eyes. They first appeared serially in the newspaper over months, and were then collected in book form. In an introduction, Times editor Howell Raines wrote:

Nothing published in the New York Times during my twenty-four years on the newspaper has elicited a reader response like the ones we’ve gotten on ‘Portraits of Grief.’ Those who’ve been here longer say the same thing.  I’m convinced that the core of the portraits’ appeal lies in our metropolitan desk’s decision to cast these stories as snapshots of lives interrupted as they were being actively lived, rather than in the traditional obituary form.

I have looked at coverage of the recent shootings in Texas and Las Vegas and have admired the collective efforts of local and national journalists to report the crime but then to offer profiles of the victims. One common form is the photo gallery with each image giving way to a story about the life of a particular human being. It is worthy work, in some ways equal in value in a tortured community to that of first responders.

But I noticed a key difference between most these recent profiles and the ones created by the New York Times after 9/11. In the piece above about Nestor Chevalier, for example, the only reference to his death is that he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.  It does not have to say that he was one of 658 employees of the firm killed that day, or that corporate offices near the top of the World Trade Center were just above the “impact zone of the hijacked plane.”

Many of the recent profiles I saw surveyed the life of the victim, but also described or repeated some specific circumstances of their deaths. I would not be inclined to clip such stories out and tape them to the family refrigerator.

It may help a little to distinguish among five types of death stories:

1. The ones that come tied to a specific catastrophe, with reporting not only about the victim, but at times also about the killer and the circumstances of death.

2. Detailed summaries of the lives of famous or influential people who have died under any circumstances. For the most famous, the reporting of these pieces may be conducted in advance of the person’s death.

3. Family produced tributes – in the newspaper or online – often paid for by the family, with plenty of room to fit in many of the person’s perceived virtues and contributions. This form exists in the same category as the eulogy, but rarely with the hint of flawed humanity that one can dole out gently in a church.

4. The feature obituary, perfected by a journalist named Jim Nicholson for the Philadelphia Daily News. The writer chooses a seemingly “ordinary” person to reveal what makes them extraordinary. In 1986, for example, we learned from a headline that Marie Byrne had retired from the Tastykake Company, with much more for the refrigerator door:

Marie Byrne, a lovable Irish mother who took in neighborhood runaways but was tough enough to keep them and her own kids in line, died Sunday. She was 65 and lived in Havertown, Delaware County.

5.  “Potraits of  Grief”:  All news organizations should go back and study this form. With sadness, I predict we will need it, again and again, not just in the aftermath of mass shootings, but in any circumstance where multiple lives are lost simultaneously, in catastrophes, wars, accidents or natural disasters. The more bitter the circumstances of loss, the more consoling this form turns out to be. It is short, but fervent. It alludes to the general circumstances of death, but averts our eyes from the horrors. Through quotes of loved ones and character details, it returns the lost one to life.

Howell Raines described it more poetically:
 

Portraits of Grief reminds us of the democracy of death, an event that lies in the future of every person on the planet.  The scary force of that universal fact sometimes inspires in the most sober soul an impulse to flee into a carpe diem mood of headlong hedonism. I think, however, that the 1,910 stories reported in our paper and collected here … stir an entirely different feeling.  When I read them, I am filled with an awareness of the subtle nobility of everyday existence, of the ordered beauty of quotidian life for millions of Americans, of the unforced dedication with which our fellow citizens go about their duties as parents, life partners, employers or employees, as planters of community gardens, coaches of the young, joyful explorers of this great land and the world beyond its shores. These lives, bundled together so randomly into a union of loving memory by those terrible cataclysms of September 11, remind us of what Walt Whitman knew: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
 

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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