'We spoke from the heart': how a former journalist influenced coverage of his family members' killings
Will Corporon left broadcast journalism nearly 20 years ago. Though he loved news, he felt compelled to make a career change. The 24/7 demands of TV kept him away from his family far too much, and he gravitated to insurance and financial services.
On April 13, when his father and nephew were killed outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, his news instincts kicked back in.
But not at first.
There was too much else to deal with: The what-the-hellish shock of a phone call from his brother-in-law Len Losen, as Will, wife Heather and five of their blended family’s children had arrived in Tulsa for daughter Alli’s cheerleading competition. The maddeningly incomplete early information — that the beloved man who his family called “Popeye” and his community knew as Dr. William Lewis Corporon — had been shot, but nothing further. The second call from Will’s mother Melinda, 20 minutes or so later, telling him his father was dead and no one at that moment knew the status of Will’s 14-year-old nephew Reat Underwood, who had also been shot and was rushed away by ambulance.
Will and Heather moved quickly, leaving their older children in Tulsa with Heather’s mom, grabbing toddler Olivia and heading out, first for their home in Northwest Arkansas to make arrangements for the children’s needs in the uncertain week ahead. En route, the next assault of sorrow: In a call that Will describes as "sad but sad times a thousand," they learned that Reat, too, was gone.
Heather Corporon's training as a nurse led her to take charge in her own way, packing, organizing, comforting — and driving, often with one hand on the wheel and the other holding Will's.
On that three-hour slog from their Arkansas home to what he describes as "a big pile of human suffering" in Kansas City, Will Corporon realized he had a job to do, and called on skills he'd honed in the 10 years he spent as a TV photographer, producer, assignment editor and news director. The killings of his kin had become a national, even international, story and he would make certain it was told right.
Will's family told him the Overland Park Hospital's public relations department was working on a news release and wanted him to review it. The draft contained no victim identifications and few details, an earnest effort by the hospital to give the family time to share the news with their closest circle first.
But from the passenger seat of a Ford Expedition, with little Olivia watching Barney videos in back, Will took a different tack and began coordinating his family's coverage -- his way. With their approval, he rewrote the release and filled it with details that mattered most to the family:
It is with deep sadness that we confirm the tragic loss of Dr. William Lewis Corporon and Reat Griffin Underwood (Losen) who died as a result of the injuries they sustained in today's shooting at the Jewish Community Center. Dr. Corporon was Reat's Grandfather, whom he loved very much.
Dr. Corporon leaves behind his wife of 49 years and a loving and devoted family and extended family. Dr. Corporon practiced family medicine in Marlow and Duncan, Oklahoma from 1976 through 2003, when he and his wife moved to the Kansas City area to be closer to their grandchildren. He was a well-loved physician in the Johnson County community, cherished his family and more than anything had a passion for caring for others.
Reat was a 14 year-old Freshman at Blue Valley High School - a school he loved. Reat participated in debate, theatre and had a beautiful voice. Reat had a passion for life, and touched so many people in his young age. Reat was an Eagle Scout and loved spending time camping and hunting with his Grandfather, Father, and brother. Both Reat and Dr. Corporon were very proud supporters of the University of Oklahoma and it's sports teams.
We would like to thank our friends, family and our church, the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, and school community for the outpouring of love and support during this very difficult time. We take comfort knowing they are together in Heaven.
We ask for privacy as we mourn the loss of our beloved Dr. Corporon and Reat.
Thank you very much,
Will Corporon, Son and Uncle
At the same time, he dispatched his mother, brother and sister to find the best possible photos of Popeye and Reat, preferably together, and email them to him. On his iPad, he began editing and distributing those photos to the many news outlets whose email requests had been forwarded to him by the hospital PR staff. According to Will, "Within minutes those beautiful photos of my dad and his beloved grandson were being shown on every channel in the country and around the world. It happened that fast."
Will and his sister Mindy, Reat's mother, took the same proactive approach to speaking to the media. When I saw coverage of him addressing reporters, I realized that this man was the same Will Corporon I'd met in a Poynter seminar in the early '90s, when he was news director of KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
I watched news anchors comment about the family's stoicism, grace and faith, and I wondered how Will got through it all. And as I thought about what an important story he had to share with journalists, he was thinking the same thing, and reached out to me.
We talked at length, he shared journal entries he's writing that might become a book, and he responded to a list of questions I emailed him for this story. He also granted me permission to edit his answers for clarity and brevity:
Jill: Would you share more about your decision to get in front of the story quickly – to provide details and distribute photos?
Will: I decided that if we were going to get something public it needed to immediately begin to tell their story — the victims' story — and not the perp's. At that point, I had little to no info about him and didn't want any, frankly. So I added personal info to the release and at the same time asked my brother, sister, and mom to email me pictures of Dad and Reat asap. They had a few in their phones ... .
Knowing the media has deadlines — knowing television needs pictures — knowing journalists need "human stories," I knew we could not hide and try to be private. We had to provide information or the media would do whatever they had to in order to get their own pictures and stories. And that would not be good. Then our privacy could be compromised. The dignity of of my Father and Reat would be compromised.
Jill: You mentioned to me that several of the occasions in which you and your sister Mindy — Reat’s mother — spoke publicly, it was spontaneous, not something you planned. What led you to be as available and candid as you were?
Will: We wanted to portray our father and son/nephew/grandson in the best possible light. There is no way to do that given the circumstances without showing our grief. You can't have one without the other. So there was no forethought to how we portrayed ourselves. We were just honest. We spoke from the heart.
As far as availability, I fielded calls from newspapers and local TV and networks. We were somewhat selective. I chose "CBS Evening News" on the Monday after the Sunday murders. I enjoyed the conversation with the producer, Ryan. I also liked that the story was going to be the lead and was going to focus on our family. Lastly, the correspondent was Dean Reynolds. I have respected his work since I started my journalism career back in the 1980s. My sister chose to be on the "Today" show because she liked Savannah Guthrie and felt she would do a good job asking her questions.
I guess that just goes to show that reputations built over years, or in just a few seconds, can make all the difference when a reporter or producer is working a source. As it turns out, the choices we made were good ones. We were very pleased with the way both news programs treated us and the memories of Dad and Reat.
Jill: The killing of William Lewis Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno (the third victim, shot at a second location) was local, national and international news. How do you assess the performance of news organizations? Does any one organization or journalist stand out — for better or worse?
Will: I was really impressed with some of the local Kansas City blogs and some of the local KC news magazines (newspaper inserts with local columnists) ... . We didn't watch TV a lot. There was nothing that was negative. Those we dealt with were all very professional. I was very happy and pleasantly surprised. I hate to say that, but I figured at some point I would have someone who would overstep. But it didn't happen. Everyone I dealt with was sympathetic. Professional and understanding.
Jill: As you faced national and local media, you spoke in detail about your faith. You told me you were pleasantly surprised that your spiritual message wasn’t tuned out or edited out but featured prominently in coverage. Why?
Will: I know from being in the media and from nearly 20 years watching from the outside that often people who express their faith are either ignored or perhaps lightly ridiculed. Perhaps with a smirk. Usually I think the soundbites we hear of people talking about God or Jesus (in the case of Christians) may lend credence to people thinking "those people sound a little nuts." Perhaps that's my own bias speaking.
We've all seen the aftermath of storms where people are interviewed climbing out of rubble — usually a trailer — thanking their Creator, often without thinking about what they are saying or how it will be perceived. It is raw emotion. And that is what drives live television and live-to-tape reactions. It's what makes TV news so good — but it's also what drives so many viewers crazy. Especially those of us who want to elaborate a little more about our "religion" than just, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for savin' us from that twister." I am not trying to be humorous. Trying to make a point ... .
I think in our case we were able to be more thoughtful because it was not spot news. We had time before, during, and after each interview to think about what we said and how we might say it the next time. In fact, much of what we said we have been hearing all our lives from our pastors and leaders in church and way back in youth groups. I think when this horrible thing happened we were prepared, DIVINELY prepared, to not only deal personally and as a family with such tragedy, but also to show those who were watching that God's grace was present in such an evil situation.
Jill: Do you have advice for citizens and journalists who become part of stories like yours?
Will: I think journalists have to work very hard to remain human. It is an easy thing to say, "Leave out your opinions and report facts." But in a story like this, I think it cries for the human side. And in order to do that, I think the reporters (producers, anchors, editors, photographers, etc. ...) who do the best are the ones who can see everything unfold through HUMAN eyes.
We didn't get the "how do you feel" questions. We didn't get the questions about the bad guy. We got the questions we wanted. We got the questions we were willing to answer — about our family. We did make it clear prior to interviews that we would not answer questions about the killer and, thankfully, we didn't have anyone violate that.
I think that newsrooms should have regular meetings (perhaps annual) where they review these kinds of stories. Perhaps ones they covered or perhaps one that has been worked up in a teaching way from an organization like Poynter. I think one of the problems with the 24-hour news cycle is taking time to get adequate continuing education. I guess I really have no leg to stand on here since I am no longer a practicing journalist but I'll bet I am right, at least in most newsrooms. The drive for more and more news — finish one newscast and move quickly to the next — does not provide much time for reflection, let alone stopping for full-scale evaluation and training.
I also think that shying away from anything faith-related is a mistake. A huge percentage of this country goes to church, or synagogue, or Mass, or whatever. Why shy away from it? Report on important issues. Talk about it. Take a leadership position. Even talk about a lack of faith as a faith. Cover it all. I think it would be really good and I think it is something that is sorely missing in journalism today.
Will and I exchanged many messages as I double-checked information and he sent me photos, including one of his dad and little Olivia, who Will says loved to perch on her grandfather's generous belly.
A short postscript stays with me as a reminder of the power of those human details and the insights Will Corporon wants reporters to pay attention to:
PS: Dad never really smiled in a picture. Olivia doesn't either. Cracks us up. She looks a LOT like her Popeye. And has same mannerisms too. Breaks my heart.