Grieving in the media spotlight

'This loss [of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl] is, of course, most painful for Danny's family, in this country and elsewhere. We ask our colleagues in the press to respect their privacy, and to permit them to grieve undisturbed. The Wall Street Journal is a public institution, but the Pearls are private citizens. We hope also that our colleagues, too, will be permitted some time and space to begin ... [to make] peace with this profound loss.'

- Wall Street Journal publisher Peter R. Kann and managing editor Paul E. Steiger

From Jan. 23, when Danny Pearl was kidnapped, until Feb. 21, when it was announced he was dead, one question haunted me: How will the media react if Danny is killed?

After nearly every tragedy, the media focus their strobe lights, notebooks, and micro-recorders on the living - on family, friends and colleagues of the dead. But is it ever appropriate for the media to approach and question those who are grieving? At what point does humane reporting end, and journalists degenerate into voyeuristic scavengers?

I've been on both sides of the focus and I still don't have the perfect solution.

As a teenager, I got the call at my parents' home in Ohio at 12:35 p.m. on Oct. 11, 1967, from a New York City police sergeant that my 27-year-old brother had been found knifed to death on Staten Island. A former newspaper reporter, he had been working in New York as a welfare department worker by day, finishing his master's thesis by night. He was a husband and father to a toddler daughter.

The voice on the phone told me that my brother had been making a call on a welfare client when the man became violent, attacking my brother with a knife and killing him.

My brother was the city's first welfare worker ever to be killed while on duty. The man charged with, convicted of, and imprisoned for the murder was Puerto Rican, and the city's Latino press graphically covered the story. The city's tabloids weighed in. East Coast and Midwest newspapers and TV stations wrote and aired their own stories. Ours was deemed a newsworthy, grieving family. And our phone rang and rang and rang.

One morning, after the fifth call asking me how I felt, I heard myself screaming into the receiver, asking the reporter how he thought I felt.

Then there was the call that my mother took from "a friend of my brother's," calling to say how sorry he was to lose a good friend. He chatted for a long time, oozing empathy. The next day his exclusive story appeared in the newspaper, quoting a grieving mother who did not realize she'd been interviewed.

Five years later, I started my first full-time job - as a newspaper reporter. I covered school boards, city halls, cops, accidents, fires, tornadoes, and arrests. And I called family members who had lost loved ones, seeking quotes and photos of the deceased for the front page.

As I said, I've been on both sides.

What brought this all back was an e-mail last week from a friend at The Associated Press querying how I felt about The Wall Street Journal's asking news organizations to lay off Danny's family and colleagues as they mourned. He sensed a double standard.

I agreed that there was one, but I wasn't surprised. I recalled journalists who had made careers of aggressively pursuing stories, recoiling when they or their families did something "newsworthy" and had reporters descend on them. It's one thing to be a light shiner - totally something else when the light's on you.

Years ago, a former student of mine phoned one evening to say there was something I had neglected to teach in my interpretive reporting class: how much the public hated journalists.

I now tell all my students that many people hate journalists. And when I ask myself why, I wonder: To what extent has the reporting that has been done to me - and that I have done - been responsible for public disgust, subsequent circulation downturns, and viewers abandoning TV news programs?

And my heart goes out to Danny, to his wife and family, and to his Wall Street Journal colleagues.

• William A. Babcock, a former Monitor staffer, is professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at California State University, Long Beach.

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