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COURSEY: Reporting a difficult story with respect

Published: Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.

If you read all the way to the end of today's sad story about the many funerals in Newtown, Conn., you may have been taken aback or even disgusted by the news that “tempers flared as residents of the town ... navigated the hordes of reporters and camera crews that descended. Some shouted at reporters outside funerals Wednesday, urging them to leave their town in peace.”

Then again, if you read all the way to the end of that story on Page A2 of today's paper, you may appreciate that reporters were on hand to tell you what happened.

It's a dilemma that journalists face all the time while doing our jobs, and it is a part of the job that none of us enjoys.

We bear witness to life — sometimes the good and often the bad — and report it to you. At times, that task makes us intrusive. A photographer taking pictures at a funeral might seem inappropriate to some. But if you can see in your mind's eye little John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin in 1963, you might forgive the intrusion.

That, of course, was a very public funeral for the nation's most public figure — an important moment in American history. The funerals this week in Newtown are for children and teachers who were not public figures. Nonetheless, what happened there is, or at least should be, an important moment in American history. And recording all aspects of it, including the funerals, also is important.

I'm not saying that journalists — both the professional kind and the so-called “citizen” journalists that now come out of the woodwork at any high-profile event — don't sometimes cross the line of pushiness, intrusiveness and rudeness. We do. Especially when the event is on the scale of Newtown, and the “pack” is out to paw at every available tidbit of news.

But that doesn't change the need for them to bear witness for those of us who are not there. Conveying the loss and grief of last Friday's horrible events is just as important as conveying the shock and the outrage. Reporting on funerals can help ensure that those children and teachers are remembered as sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, not just as victims and statistics.

For a reporter, it's not a fun part of the job, but it can be a fulfilling one. I learned this a long time ago as a young man in my first month of work at a daily newspaper, when the city editor came to me with a short bulletin torn from the Associated Press wire about an Air Force pilot who had been killed in a crash while on a training flight. He was from our city, Colorado Springs, and my editor told me to see if I could find his family.

The phone book produced a listing in the same name, so I called. And with just a few seconds of talking to the woman who answered the phone, I learned that I was speaking to the pilot's mother, and while she and her husband had been informed that their son's plane had gone missing, my call was the first news they had heard that he was confirmed dead.

When I speak to young people interested in becoming journalists, I always tell this story, because it illustrates how difficult the work can sometimes be. But, in the end, this story also illustrates how valuable the work can sometimes be.

I was mortified, of course, as I listened to that mother begin crying on the other end of the phone. Soon she handed it to her husband, who gruffly asked what I wanted from them. I told him.

“He wants to know more about (our son),” the father said to his wife.

She came back on the line, and invited me to come to their home. There, through tears and laughter, they showed me their son's bedroom, his trophies, his pictures. They told me about his childhood, his interests, his passion for flying. They shared their grief as they celebrated his life.

The story I wrote turned out to be not just about that pilot's death, but about his life. When I returned to the parents' home with the picture they had loaned me to use in the paper, they thanked me. The mother hugged me; the father crushed my hand in his.

My intrusion, which had seemed unforgivable to me during that initial phone call, was in the end appreciated.

Newtown certainly is on a much different scale, but the idea is the same. Share the grief, celebrate the life and tell the story of 27 human beings, not just 27 victims.

If the journalists assigned to this job do it with respect, their work should be appreciated by us all.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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