I hate reporting about tragedy and that’s been the truth since the very beginning of my career.
My first paying gig in journalism was as a general assignments reporter for the Athens Daily Review. On my very first day, Editor Gene Lehmann sent me out with our photographer, Arron Skinner, to cover a one-vehicle car wreck. I sometimes forget birthdays and my wife gets mad at me because I can’t remember our anniversary, but I will never forget that curve on FM 753 or that mangled car in the trees.
I knew immediately I was not a police beat reporter.
But covering crime and accidental death is a part of the job and during my 20 years in the field I have had to do my fair share of heartbreaking stories. Some I still carry with me like that stretch of road on my first day as a reporter.
Social media has made covering those stories worse. It isn’t just about sifting through the details of some someone’s suffering now, it is also being immersed in the comments that follow. And the community can be cruel.
Last night, I posted a story about a 4-year-old boy drowning. I cannot imagine the sort of pain and sorrow being visited upon the parents today. The story itself was simple from a journalistic standpoint, more what used to be called a brief back in the day. Just five sentences from an official source.
Still, I hesitated before publishing the story to Facebook. I had no doubt the post was going to produce an abundance of comments — and I was just as sure some of those comments were going to be negative and judgmental. Those negative comments would prompt other people to go negative in response. Before you know it, a 4-year-old’s death would become someone’s chance to start a nasty argument.
In 12 hours the post was seen by 22,000 people and had more than 200 comments, and while most of them were offering sympathy and prayers there were others that were not.
So I make this plea today. Remember what our grandmothers tried to teach us: If you don’t have something good to say, then shut up. Whatever your intentions are, nothing positive can come out of being critical at a time like this. Plus you start to hurt people you may not even know. Friends and family already in crisis. …
And a reporter with 6-year-old twins and a 4-year-old granddaughter who cried over a boy he never knew.