“News Junkies” and the Tragedies They Exploit

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The Oak Knoll Fire. August 2010.

I remember it was about 4 p.m. I was just wrapping up a package for the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts about Ashland teachers using iPods in their lessons. It wasn’t a particularly memorable story, but I remember it came together pretty easily that day. I had finished all of my shooting by noon, and was about to finish my editing. Best of all, it was a look-live package; a story with a pre-recorded standup and tag. It meant that I didn’t physically need to be in the newscast, and could go home as soon as I was done editing. I was looking forward to a beautiful afternoon home in the summer sun.

Then, almost as soon as the clock hit 4, the police scanner went berserk.

SQUAWK! UNITS 80101, 80102, 80103, 80104, 80105, STRUCTURE FIRE ON OAK KNOLL DRIVE.

UNITS REPORTING A HOUSE ON FIRE.

SQUAWK! WE NEED ODF ON SCENE NOW!

CALLER IS REPORTING THE FLAMES HAVE JUMPED THE FREEWAY.

Moments later, our 5 p.m producer approached my desk.

“Steven, we need to send you out there,” she said calmly. “Ric is already on his way with the live van and will set up a shot next to I-5. We’ll have you live at the top of the show.”

I grabbed some gear, got into my news car, and as I turned the key in the ignition, I thought:

“Why me?”

You see, at that time, I thought about my stories in terms of what they meant for me. Was it a package I could put on my reel? Could I shoot a cool standup? At the time of this incident in August 2010, I had been to my fair share of house fires, which were always defined by what I brought back. “I got awesome video of flames! You could see the wall collapse!” or “Man, I didn’t get any flames. The house was burned down by the time I got out there.”

“What could I get out of it” was the prevailing thought.

And in this case, all I could think about was that my early afternoon at home was ruined. But hey, maybe at least I’ll get a cool lead story out of it, and be the first-on-the-scene reporter! I got to the scene and did my live shot, and was disappointed to find that our vantage point didn’t give us anything interesting to see – only some flames far in the distance.

So much for my reel.

Slowly but surely, they allowed reporters to get closer and closer to the scene, and I was soon joined by other reporters and photogs from my station, who came to give the event team-coverage. “Great,” I thought again. “Now they’re going to get the good story instead of me. What’s the point of me being here?”

Soon we all got the call from our producers back at the station. We would have to stay late. I would grab a story. Report for the 11 p.m. news. As my fellow reporters and I gathered around a fire truck, with emergency crews and neighbors standing nearby, I turned to my co-worker Tove Tupper and loudly complained. “Man, now I have to stay late! Is this really that big of a deal?”

Tove, who had worked at the station for a couple years and who had been the reporter who trained me, quickly grabbed me and pulled me aside.

“Steven,” she said pointedly, her eyes a mixture of anger and disappointment. “Eleven families just lost their homes.”

Her words and her tone said everything. Her single sentence changed the way I thought as a reporter.

In what became known as the Oak Knoll Fire, the flames had jumped I-5, caught a house on fire, then went barreling down the block, burning house-to-house, like a string of firecrackers. The neighborhood looked like a bomb had gone off. Everything was destroyed. And most importantly of all, people’s lives were in shambles.

This wasn’t about whether my punk ass got good video or got to go home early. This was a tragedy that happened to real people. I had to work late. Their lives were ruined.

Good reporters like Tove knew that they had a higher responsibility than bringing back good flame video. They needed to inform the public, share what happened, what was still to happen, and how people could help.

To this day, I’m still ashamed of myself for thinking so selfishly during such a devastating time.

Breaking news is some of the hardest assignments for a reporter of photog to do. Often someone is hurt, or killed, or a person’s home or place of business is destroyed. So news teams go in, do the story to the best of their ability, and move on to the next assignment. We don’t revel in it, and we don’t go looking for it, because it always, always comes at someone else’s expense.

And that’s why it troubles me when I hear young reporters refer to themselves as “news junkies.” You’ll see it written in their boisterous biographies on station web sites: I live for that next fire, the next severe weather system. The next big breaking news. They’ll list the big moments of their career, like covering stories of kidnapped children, deadly shootings, or natural disasters. Deadly storms or other tragedies that killed people are treated like fun anecdotes about how they became “inspired” to become a reporter.

(It only took me five minutes of research to find reporter biographies that read like this.)

Inflated egos and self-promotion are already too rampant in local news, even without people reveling in the tragedies that gave them such good video.

These tragedies are likely the worst moments in someone’s life. But to some reporters, it’s just another line on the resume.

I started thinking about this subject this morning, when I saw a video a reporter made about herself to help viewers “get to know her.” She begins by telling the story of the deadly tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011, that killed 89 people. But instead of sharing the stories of first responders, or the efforts of the community, or the impacts on families, she told the story of herself; how she saw the sky get dark and heard the news of the devastation come in.

And she told it with a smile on her face.

She showed video with the caption “89 dead.” And she said it was “the moment she had waited for my entire life,” since she was mimicking reporters as a little girl.

But it didn’t end. She then recounted her experience covering the 2013 tornado in Moore, Okla., that killed 24 people. With another grin on her face, she said it was “an addiction, bottled as breaking news, an addiction to creative storytelling.”

113 people died so she could have a good story on her reel.

This isn’t professional detachment. Quite the opposite – news junkies like this embrace the tragedy.

And that’s how some of these so-called “news junkies” view the world. Not as a place with real people, but as stories. As a package to fill 90 seconds. As opportunities for standups. There’s no empathy or human connection. Never any thought of how their actions will affect people. That’s why when a grieving mother hangs up on a reporter, it’s the reporter who says “what a bitch.”

If only we could treat people like people, instead of like a face in a soundbite. If only we could view an event for what it means, instead of whether our white-balance was off.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud of the work you’ve done, but you shouldn’t be happy about being so close to a tragic event. If the story is done right, it will tell itself, without making the story about you. Then, you can slap it on your resume, or talk to people about the efforts you observed others make on that day. But don’t take the story of other people’s suffering and make it about how awesome your flame video is.

When I think back on the Oak Knoll Fire now, I think of people like forestry officer Brian Ballou and fire chief John Karns, whose crews helped to fight the flames. I think of the volunteers who set up at a nearby golf course with water and food. I think of the homeless, mentally-handicapped man thrown into the spotlight as the one who lit the flames. And I try to forget how inconvenienced it made me feel for a few minutes.

That’s our responsibility as storytellers. We’re observers and information gatherers. We share facts and give information to help people move forward. We show the tragedy, but we shouldn’t use it for our own ends.

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