Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Reporters' Most Sickening Habit

Hunt for Justice by Cynthia Hunt

We’ve all seen it dozens of times.

The reporter runs up to the murder victim’s mother and says, “How do you feel?”

At that point, we all cringe in reflexive disgust . . . even vomit in our mouths just a bit.

One Good Reason to Hate the Media

More than any other question friends, viewers, and people I have just met will angrily ask me about this reporter’s habit is “Why do reporters ask that question? It’s none of their business. How do you think families feel—a loved one was just killed.”

It’s more than difficult to defend the lazy “how do you feel” wording that collectively sickens us all. But I will admit in the course of the hundreds of murders I have covered that I always try to be the first journalist to knock on the door of a victim’s family. Let me explain.

Pictured left: Cynthia Reports from the Murder Scene Where Three Children Were Shot to Death

The News Producer’s Rundown Always Reads “Victims’ Family Reax”

The first question newsroom managers ask after a murder is, “What does the victim’s family have to say?” Young reporters quickly learn the necessity of making the dreaded knock on the door of the victim’s family, or, even worse, the awkward phone call. I dislike calls the most because it’s excruciatingly difficult to express compassion over the phone. As reporters, we are entering this person’s life at their most painful moment. More often than not, we are greeted like the vultures that some of us are.

Why, then, do I rush to contact the family?

Giving Victim’s Families the Only Control I Can

I learned after my first few heart-wrenching encounters with the families of crime victims that the experience of the death of a loved one in a violent crime causes a complete loss of control in the lives of individual family members. I soon realized the only thing I can give the family is some control over my coverage.

Often, reporters convey less than accurate or even erroneous information regarding a given victim of violent crime. It’s no one’s fault. The investigators are focused on finding the killer, not verifying the little facts they try to tell headline-hungry reporters about the victim.

But all things matter to the family; which picture we use of the victim, how we describe his or her life, what we say about the family’s feelings. Of course, justice matters too. We journalists play a vital role in hunt for justice by telling the world what it needs to know to help police catch killers.

I never pressure the families for interviews or ask them how they feel. I simply let them know my cell phone number and that they are welcome to call it 24/7 if they wish to have any input into the coverage. It’s important to me that they understand that journalists can report only what they are told by trustworthy sources. I tell families that they have an open door to me and that I welcome their contribution to my coverage.

Pictured Left: Cynthia Tries to Comfort Mother of Three Murdered Girls

Frequently, my invitation leads to more factual, compelling stories that give the families some small sense of comfort. More powerful stories increase public awareness of the crime and how to prevent future tragedies. My experience is that what began as a very unwelcome intrusion often transforms into a beneficial relationship that may last years as I cover the case and its criminal prosecution. Additionally, in rare cases, as you have seen, journalists’ interviews with family members can sometimes reveal that the family member and killer are one in the same.

Mother of Three Murdered Daughters Leaves Impression

In the case of the sweet mother I was interviewing in the picture posted earlier in this story, I think for her the interview was cathartic. I interviewed Sheila Patterson only days after her three youngest daughters (pictured below) were slaughtered in their home by a gunman on a jealous rage.

Sheila’s two youngest daughters Britteny, 10, and Ashley, 11, were shot-to-death as they slept. The gunman then murdered Sheila’s fifteen-year-old daughter Nikesha right in front of her. Sheila believed Nikesha was trying to protect her mother when she was gunned down.

The killer, 35-year-old Anthony Francois, broke into the home and slaughtered the three sisters after the oldest Patterson girl, 16-year-old Shemeka, broke up with him. Francois shot Shemeka in the face but she survived to testify against him. A Harris County Texas jury convicted Francois and sentenced him to Texas Death Row where he remains today. During the victims’ impact statement, Sheila told Francois she forgave him because she worried that he couldn’t get to God with hate in his heart.

On the hunt for justice, may we never stop questioning and listening to victims’ families—mothers like Sheila Patterson who survive the worst this world has to offer—and still manage to restore our faith in the best man has to give.


Diane Fanning said...

When writing true crime books, I encounter similar problems. And I've been accused of being a vulture. But when family members take advantage of the opportunity to speak to me, sharing their memories and helping to shape the image of the victim, they are glad they did. After the book is released, I've received a lot of correspondence from them thanking me for remembering their loved one.
For reporters who have shorter deadlines that book writers, it is an even more delicate situation and those who handle it with your tact are to be highly commended.

Leah said...

I saw an interview with Christy Brinkley that I will never forget. It was right after the helicopter crash and her split with Taubman and she was asked how she felt and she replied something like: why can't you wait a few months to ask me that, after I have had a chance to process it and work through it? I have no idea how to answer you right now.

I really liked that answer and thought it to be honest. I know it isn't the same thing as interviewing a victims family but they are similar in that they are being confronted during raw moments when they are extremely vulnerable.

andy kahan said...

Great Post Cynthia,

You really nailed the complexities of dealing with emotional human drama while trying to be professional simultaneously

Cynthia Hunt said...

Andy and Diane...
Thank you both for your thoughts...especially with your vast experience with victims. Diane, like you I have found the families are always 100% glad they worked with me because it does give them comfort and help on so many levels.

Leah...I think Christy's answer was perfect. There is no wrong answer in those raw moments of shock and grief. That's why I just try to make myself available to the families.