The other side of reporting a tragedy

Is it possible for reporters to both do their job and be empathetic humans?

I don’t have cable, so I experienced Monday’s events the way I’ve experienced every violent American tragedy since 9/11: through social media. As a journalist observing such incidents in the past, I explained my morbid rubbernecking as just part of my news-junkie sensibility. While I’ve rarely chimed in—I’ve never been a local reporter in an area where tragedy has struck—I do follow along obsessively, and usually write about these things later, as part of a second wave of commentary.

This time was different. My sister ran the Boston Marathon on Monday, and my parents were there to watch her cross the finish line. Yeah. I had a direct stake in the tragedy—I was one of the people frantically trying to get through, sending way too many texts, calling relatives to see what they’ve heard. In the span of time between when I heard about the explosions and when I got a text from my sister saying she and my parents were okay, I frantically refreshed Twitter. But the fact is, that first wave of tweets told me nothing about my loved ones. Each link to a Vine video of the explosion or the first bloody photos to emerge just served to freak me out all the more. It was almost as if watching ground-level footage or scrolling past gory photos was tempting fate, that if I scanned them too closely I’d see my parents’ faces among the crowd. Social media was torture.

Finally, I got the good news that my mom, dad, and sister weren’t hurt. My sister, who hadn’t received any of my frantic texts or calls, texted me nonchalantly, “We are ok in case u were wondering.” After that wave of relief, the last thing I wanted to do was watch other journalists spread half-truths and write the first drafts of tomorrow’s thinkpieces on Twitter. I didn’t even have the energy to get angry about the early tweets politicizing the event, or debates about whether to use the word “terrorism.” I had to think about more practical matters, like calling my sobbing grandmother to deliver the news that our relatives were okay. That can’t-look-away feeling? It was completely gone. I closed my laptop.

I eventually opened it up again, because my family was having a hard time getting back to their hotel, and I wanted to figure out if there was a way I could help. Twitter proved uniquely unhelpful. They were still pretty close to the finish line—were they safe? Should I be advising them to move or to stay put? Once they were safely ensconced in the lobby of their hotel, out by the airport, my sister called me on the phone.

“We were in the family meetup area a couple blocks away,” she told me. “Mom and Dad heard it, but I didn’t hear it because I was in pain. I mean, I could barely walk.” She had, after all, just run 26.2 miles in less than four hours. “Then we walked to the Au Bon Pain and kept hearing sirens. A guy walked in who was at the finish and saw it, and he told us he’d seen people lose their limbs in front of him.”

She continued, “My phone started ringing. It was some guy from the TH who wanted info on the bombing.” I felt the anger rising in my chest. The Telegraph Herald, our hometown newspaper in Dubuque, IA, had published a profile of my sister in advance of the race. She’s a Type 1 diabetic who wears an insulin pump, so the fact that she was running one of America’s most prestigious marathons was a feel-good local news item. If I was the reporter in this scenario, I would have definitely called her back to ask what she’d seen in the aftermath of the bombings. No question. But as her sister, I was irate. Mostly, I realized later, it was because a journalist had been able to get through to her, to hear her say that she was okay, at a time when I was still watching those ellipses on the other side of the iMessage conversation on my phone—if I could see those three dots in the talk-bubble, I knew she was typing. Later, another journalist tweeted at me to ask if my sister would agree to be interviewed. I ignored it.

“I see it on the TV now,” my sister, who was watching TV in the hotel lobby, read the CNN headline back to me: “‘Two killed, 80 injured in marathon terror attack.’ It’s just awful. I can’t wrap my head around why somebody would do that.”

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, Newtown Bee associate edtior John Voket explained how his paper’s coverage was different from that of the national outlets. “Our job is to take care of the community,” he said, “so we were inside helping to comfort victims and trying to provide human support without necessarily making reporting the number one priority.” Even before I had personal experience with a national tragedy, this point of view struck a chord with me. My former colleague Megan Greenwell commented, “What if assigning editors in New York and DC told their reporters to lose a bit of their competitive instinct on this one, to follow the lead of the Bee and [Hartford] Courant instead of trying to beat them? I can’t help but think we’d still get the best journalism and a little more sensitivity and understanding.”

To that end, the Dart Center has a great roundup of ways to report on a violent tragedy without being an asshole. Here’s a quick summary:

—Be very careful about the experts you select as sources.

—Take the time to breathe, empathize and feel the pain of survivors and loved ones. Listen to what your gut is telling you. Think about people, not clicks or ratings.

—Clearly tell the public what you know and what you do not know.

—Don’t try to make a political point before the facts are confirmed. If you’re a political reporter or pundit, make a “quiet, temporary exit from the scene.”

I’d add one more. Even though we’re all writing and tweeting mainly for an audience that’s not directly invested—people who didn’t have family members at the finish line—before you hit send in the immediate wake of a tragedy, try to read each tweet as if you do have loved ones at the scene. Think about whether you’re adding practical information and amplifying news that’s been vetted, or whether you’re adding to the noise. You can always opine later. If I’m lucky, I know that during every unfolding tragedy in the future, I’ll probably be identified more with the journalists than the victims. But I’ll still think of the woman who’s shaking and sweating 3,000 miles away from her sister and parents, who were almost certainly close enough to see and hear the violence but haven’t texted back yet. And I’ll probably hold my tweets.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk