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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
"Life on the Bummer Beat"
Last week, I was talking to a fellow photographer in North Carolina when I asked if he had any interesting shoots lately. "Just knocking on dead Marines’ doors" he replied. I thought about that later in the day as I headed out to a drowning. During this war we are in, so many communities have felt the sting of losing a hometown boy or girl to the brutality of combat. In almost every television market across the nation, first the military officer knocks on the door and states, "We regret to inform you …." Within a few hours as the information hits the wires, the second set of knocks on that same door comes and it is us, "I am so sorry to bother you at this time but…."
I used to consider it the most disgusting part of our jobs. I hated that taste of iron in my mouth as we pulled the Happy Meal box decorated live truck up to the house and my stomach tightened as ashen faces peeked out the window and snapped the drapes shut. No matter how deep that last breath inside the live truck was, it never contained enough oxygen to stop the bad AM radio fuzz in my head as the reporter and I walked up and lightly rapped our knuckles on the screen door.
But in the last year I have changed my mind. Phoenix leads the nation in pediatric drownings. During the summer, at least weekly we will pester a family for a picture or interview about their child who drowned in the backyard swimming pool, bathtub or neighborhood canal. There was a week last year that I did the knock with a different reporter every day. By Friday I hoped some big Guido guy would meet me in the parking lot at 9am, beat me up and I could go home feeling better than the previous days of dead baby knocks. Like that term "dead baby knock"? I hope you don't, but feel free to use it. It is so offensive and callous and the only thing I have found that conveys the proper punch of the act to producers and newsroom managers who have never left the building other than to go to lunch. I use is the same way we have bastardized other terms…."So Todd and I will go spray the accident scene and then do the dead baby knock followed by a gang bang at the Sheriff's office?"
All too often the people in the newsroom forget a few things about tragedy that those of us who actually touch the stories cannot:
This is the worst moment of these people's lives---Losing a loved one under any circumstance will always be one of the most painful and stressful times of someone's life. If you are respectful of that, then your are in the right mindset to take on telling their story with or without them.
The victims do not owe your television station anything---This is their tragedy and their choice as to whether they include Channel 12 in it. I never want to hit a producer more than when they start screaming about why did Channel 10 have a picture of the baby and we did not. This is when your station's reputation and trust is on the table and someone calls in the bet. Maybe the family watched 10 and that is whom they feel they have a para-social relationship with. Maybe they sent a more trustworthy reporter than we did who the family has seen on the air for years and they know will do a good job with their child's story, whereas we sent the new guy who has been on the air a week. Maybe they were just in the right place at the right time. The bottom line is this; it is their tragedy and their choice.
Their feelings are valid and they maybe looking for an outlet---Basically, people deal with tragedy in different ways…anger, denial, sadness, humor. There is a good chance you will be one of the first people they have contact with outside their family and friends. Don't take it personally if they slam the door in your face, start to cry uncontrollably or invite you in for a cup of coffee. We represent the absolute worst and best scenarios to people. They may view you as a vulture trying to feed the news beast with their pain or a generous messenger coming to bring them more information to help understand their loss. Take it all in stride and remind the people at your station that this family does not owe them anything.
These are my tips for getting families to understand why we must bother them. I won't guarantee this will make it any easier, but in the last year these little things have really helped take the goulishness out of this dreaded task.
"I just did not want you to watch the news tonight and wonder 'why didn't they ask us about our son?'" ---I wish I could remember where I heard or read that, I can't take credit for it, I wish I could give proper credit to the person who said it. To me, it best explains why we are there.
Look at who your reporter is, if you would not trust them with your tragedy, don't trust them with this one---I hate to say it, but through the years I have worked with a few reporters who do not have the viewer's best interest in mind. They just want to do a sexy stand up for their resume tape, make some victim cry to make themselves look like a powerful interviewer and throw in some over dramatic writing and spend the rest of the night on the phone with their agent. You know who I am talking about and possibly have one at your station as well. There is no dirtier feeling than emotionally raping some family on camera for the sake of making people cry. This is one of those times when you have to play some diplomatic cards or put the harsh truth out there. You might ask the assignment desk if you can take another reporter who you have seen handle families in this situation with great grace or even ask to go by yourself.
Sometimes you have to leave the reporter in the car---I used to work with a reporter who would wait in the car while I went up and knocked on the door. Before you think, "what a lazy jerk", he realized that I came across as more gentle and less threatening than he did and my request for a picture and interview would be better received by the grieving family. To get on my one man band soap box, a single photographer in our regular photog uniform of jeans or khakis and a polo shirt is a far friendlier sight than a puffed up reporter in a starched suit and plastic hair. Granted, I work with some wonderful talent whom we often go up to the door as a team. But some reporters are so programmed to be abrasive or aggressive, that they don't react well when people get emotional and further ruin the station's relationship with the family and make the situation even more traumatic.
Give the grieving family some options---Often we get to the family so fast after the tragedy that we catch them off guard and they just want us to go away. Let them know you understand and hand them a business card with the option of calling later if they want to talk about their family member. Ask if there will be a family representative to keep in contact with about memorial arrangements so you don't have to bother them again. Assure them that their story is important and that is why you are here. But if they demand that you not air anything about the story, consider giving them the name and number or your managing editor or news director, or I let them know that we have an obligation to our viewers to do the story and this is a chance for them to talk about their family member in a positive way. If they threaten to sue you or call the cops, just leave quietly. For most of us, our natural reaction is to then go after the butterfly with a sledgehammer and slam this family on the air. This is the perfect time to step back for a second and remember that this is the worst day of their lives and it is not our jobs to do harm, just convey the truth.
Finally, after a day on the bummer beat, take care of yourself. It is just human nature to soak up the emotion of the day, but eventually you have to squeeze it back out or you will drown in it. I could give you a schmaltzy list of things to make you feel better like watching the sun set or planting a garden. But you know what does your heart good and days like these give you a reason to do it.
Next time we will get back to one-man-band stuff with kicking the cliches out of your shooting and writing. With summer right around the corner, those tired phrases are ripe for the squashing before they end up in the annual "first 100 degree day of the summer" package, the last day of school coverage or the shopping for a proper fitting bathing suit story. I would love to hear your pet peeve clichés and stories you do every year that you swear you will call in sick if you are assigned it this year. Send those to email@example.com or LEFrenchNM@msn.com.
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