'Talking to the family,' 21st-century style

Finally, blessedly, one of the news conference reporters said, "Thank you," and the stricken young man stopped talking and waveringly began to move back from themedia crowd.

For many long minutes, anyone with a heart had ached to pull him away gently, to the refuge of his home behind him, to talk with the police who stood behind him, anywhere. But the Houston father whose five children were dead and whose wife had killed them last month talked on, live on television around the world the day after their death - a study in the durability of a human system wrapped in shock and grief.

It was smashing cable-television journalism, bound to have generated high fives in control rooms around the country. It was another mark in journalism's journey toward a world increasingly packed with "infotainment." And, to some of us, it was a painful old exercise, technologically updated.

Television did not invent that insensitive probing of human tragedy that has aroused so much feeling against the media in recent years. It is as old as journalism. It's just that now you get to see it being done.

In his book "Not So Wild a Dream," Eric Sevareid talked of lessons he learned as a police reporter on a daily newspaper in Minneapolis in the 1930s before he became a celebrated radio and television journalist:

"I have a vivid memory of knocking at apartment doors in the dead of night, to inform a young wife that her husband had just been killed in an accident or a police shooting, and did she have a photograph of him? Usually she turned white and ran to grab up the baby from its crib. These experiences left me limp and shaking. But somehow these wretched people - if they were poor, with poor people's belief that newspapers are powerful things with unquestioned rights - would find a photograph, would, between sobs, answer my questions.

"It was a surprise to find that the rich did not react the same way. When I went to ask questions of the wife of a manufacturer who had killed a man in disgraceful circumstances, she waited until I had spoken, then coolly requested me to leave the premises before she called police."

Technology has had many different impacts on journalism since then, including the attitudes of the rich and poor portrayed by Mr. Sevareid. Television talk shows have made the cordless, hand-held microphone somewhat of a common denominator of the people and the media. You could talk to the media now, sometimes, on your terms. It was no longer a responsibility to respond, but a right. And grief went public.

But often today that feeling that the media are "powerful things with unquestioned rights" lingers. Russell Yates is not poor, and is wretched only in his grief. The media crowd did not ambush him; they parked outside his house, and he walked out to meet them. He is of the TV age.

There has been no sure sign of why he went. But as he faced the relentless cameras and not just a single, shuffling reporter in the darkened hallway of an apartment building,you could see inhis eyes that old deference to the "powerful things."They flickered in stunned anxiety when the wave of voices of the huge media choir - softened, no doubt, by their own Sevareid-like feelings of sympathy and pain - rushed at him with a barrage of new questions.

Then, another piece of the sad story told, he would peer into the crowd with a look that seemed to ask, "Have I answered all their questions? Have I met my obligations?"

Even when he finally turned away from the crowd, he half-faced them in a sort of notice that he would halt his exit if there was a need for some other sliver of fact. There was, and he did.

To one who walked some of the same streets as Sevareid 20 years later, knocking on doors, the Houston scene was a reminder that no matter how technology changes journalism, "talking to the family" is a ritual that does not often do the profession any great service.

But, once performed, it is never forgotten by the person who does it.

This time, the setting was pure 21st century, journalistically. The subject was a willing one. But, still, the only difference in the case of Mr. Yates was the picture of his children. He walked out with it, cradling it in his arms, and pointed out each one and spoke lovingly of them.

We didn't even have to ask.

Ed Goodpaster has worked in journalism for more than 45 years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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