Sunday, February 15, 2009

Getting the photo

Whenever a tragedy, such as the most recent commuter plane crash, hits the airwaves I am grateful for my spot on the sidelines. The public has been shown in many studies to have little regard for us media types at such times. While it’s true my former profession has its major slezoids, even the most sensitive and ethical journalist has felt the sting of verbal abuse, slammed doors and threats.

The hard truth is that oftentimes journalists are the personification of misfortune. We show up when the last thing people want is to be asked questions or have a camera catch their countenance. I’ve taken my share of lumps at the hands of distraught victims who feel our mere presence as a violation. I don’t blame them. But almost everyone expects to read about such events and see images. How do you suppose they get into a newspaper? For every photo of a child whose life has been tragically lost there is a reporter given the dreaded assignment of getting the picture and talking with a grief-sticken family.

My first experience came on a frigid winter evening following a horrific accident. A school bus had run over and crushed a little boy crossing in front of it. To make matters worse, the child’s pregnant mother was watching, helpless. My experienced bureau chief, no fool he, assigned himself to the police station, sending me to the hospital morgue to “speak” to the parents. What the press is really after, though, is a photo of the victim, something to bring home the story to its readers.

The closer I got to the hospital, the more nauseous I became. How in the world was I going to do this? I thought seriously of turning the car around and turning in my press credentials, although it had taken me seven years to land a job on a daily newspaper.

I arrived at the hospital and stood shaking outside the swinging doors leading to the morgue, waiting. There was a TV on somewhere and I could hear strains of the “Jeopardy” theme. About 15 minutes later, a police officer came out. He noticed both my reporter’s notebook and my ashen face, took my arm and pulled me into a small private room.

“I’m here to see the parents and get the picture,” I stammered, looking him straight in the eyes. “Please, tell me they’re not here.”

Without missing a beat, he replied: “You just missed them.” (That family never did talk to the press, nor could the mother bring herself to testify in court.)

Several months later, it was a house fire started by a youngster who died in the blaze. This time, I managed to speak to the family and was given a framed photo fished from inside the charred remains of their home. Later, as I took the photo out of the frame to give to the photo lab, the smell of smoke was so overpowering I broke down and cried. It was the first of many such forays and tears. Without wanting to I became known as “someone who could get the photo” in instances of fatalities.

Young reporters are often advised to get to the family as fast as possible, that it’s easier for them while they’re still in shock. We also are told that most people really want to talk and that down the road, families often cherish these newspaper stories as a tribute to their loved ones. This may be so, but it never becomes routine for any of us. Many’s the time we frantically searched for a school yearbook or pleaded with a funeral director rather than come face to face with the grieving family,

It’s part of the job I relish leaving behind.

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