Ideally, you’re the sympathetic ear as a journalist. You can’t help it if you are interviewing a parent whose child just died tragically. Or a person whose house is burning down.
But as a reporter, my “sympathetic” side often took back seat to my reporter side. The reporter in me needing to get a story had to “act” sympathetic while I talked to families, asking them sincere questions about their sons or daughters. I tried never to ask, “How do you feel?” You may get a one-word answer: “Horrible.” Instead I tried to ask, “What was your son like? What did he like to do?”
The parents would often open up and tell me stories, show me pictures — sometimes they would even let me borrow the pictures to use with the story (or, if a photographer was with me, he or she would take pictures of the pictures). If I had time I’d let them talk for a while. It seemed to help them. They wanted people to know about their child. In one case, where a boy had been shocked while climbing on an electrical tower, the father wanted to make sure other kids didn’t make the same mistake, and he talked about that for a little while.
I used to hear people refer to reporters as vultures, who only care about selling more papers, no matter who gets hurt. But why would I as a human being want to disturb people who have just gone through a tragedy? I didn’t. I absolutely didn’t, and it was one of the worst things ever to have to go knock on someone’s door, or talk to the neighbors, after a murder or fire or other tragedy. And does it “sell more papers”? Probably not. If it did, it wouldn’t affect me one way or the other–I certainly didn’t get a bonus–except that more people on a particular day might read my story.
The other argument was that the press only cared about “sensational” stories and didn’t write about day-to-day “good news.” Those who said those things always overlooked the pages and pages of “good news”–features, community news, ribbon cuttings–that appear in every paper.
The sensational thing is the event, not the story about it. The accident/murder/fire already happened. I was just reporting on it. And if there’s no story, people wonder why. Who was the man who got killed? How did the fire start? Why was Route 130 shut down for three hours yesterday?
Reporters are not the only ones who want to know the answers to those questions. But the answers aren’t automatic, and we have to be persistent–yet sympathetic–while finding out what happened.