Let me begin by saying I am not a “newbie” to this job. I’ve been at it — at different points in my life — for over a decade.
I get to write about happy things like festivals and pageants and car shows, but as a journalist I’ve covered my share of incredibly sad things as well: murders, accidents, fires, deaths.
When you work in the news industry, stories about death will inevitably follow. It’s going to happen. And they’re horrible.
My heart genuinely goes out to every family who has ever been affected by an untimely death. Do you — as a journalist — develop a bit of a callousness when it come to writing about them? Maybe. Certainly not intentionally, call it a survival skill.
If I allowed myself to become emotionally involved with every story I wrote about, the therapy bills alone would bankrupt me.
That being said, certain stories get to you — and you just can’t help it. After all, I’m only human.
Either way, I do strive to maintain a professional demeanor when dealing with grieving families. But sometimes, even with the best intentions, it can go horribly wrong.
I have a cardinal rule: never cry at the office. I’ve broken it three times.
The first time actually happened my first week or so after returning to The Easley Progress. I had left the newspaper industry following the birth of my first son and was running my own photography studio. As everybody and their mother picked up a digital camera and was suddenly a “photographer,” business dried up.
Frustrated, I decided it was time to come back and one of the first stories I covered was a boating accident in which two kids drowned — the youngest still strapped in their car seat.
It wasn’t the first time I had covered a child’s death but it was the first since becoming a mother myself and I discovered that I wasn’t so good at separating myself emotionally anymore.
I read and re-read the accident reports and coroner’s notes, imagining that poor baby was my own son, locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed. From then on, I passed stories like that on to my writing partner — making up lame excuses that I was “too busy” or already had something else scheduled.
Avoidance worked well for a while. I was getting my “sea legs” back, making connections in town and getting more comfortable with my writing style. But then my writing partner left and suddenly I didn’t have anyone on the other side of the desk to pass those stories to.
That’s OK, I told myself. You’re better at this now. You got this.
And, for a while, I did.
Then came a story where a little boy had been badly burned on the oven his mother had been using to warm their house because they had no heat. DSS got involved, children were removed from the home and my heart just broke for that family.
The boy eventually recovered, but his mother wasn’t able to be at his bedside at the burn center because she was facing child endangerment charges.
Whether or not the mother was in the right was not the point — the point was that little boy (I think he was 4-year-old) faced all that alone — with strangers.
Again, I cried.
The last time I broke my rule wasn’t really after any story in particular, but instead, a misunderstanding that spiraled out of control.
Basically, I was accused of being another heartless reporter who sticks their microphone in the face of the grieving. I was assumed to be the person who cared more about column inches than the grieving process of a family.
I cried that day not because of what they said to me (I have people yell at me all the time, that’s just part of the job) but because in trying to help, I had inadvertently made an already difficult situation worse. Even more frustrating, the people involved didn’t want to hear from me: not my explanations or apologies — not that I blame them.
The whole thing made me go home and really, really ponder whether I was in the right line of work.
Let’s face it, I’m never going to be one of those writers who can just check out at the end of the day and leave all their stress at the office. I carry it — everywhere — and have the bottles of Tums to prove it.
But, in the end, I came to the realization that the very reason I was considering leaving was exactly why I needed to stay.
Someone needs to tell these people’s stories, to put a human face on a cold and clinical police report — even if doing so means you occasionally ruffle some feathers — because I honestly believe the victims deserve to have their lives documented. Remembered.
Everyone in journalism knows that a good story has to contain the five “Ws”: Who, what, where, when and why.
“Who” is always listed first.
That’s why I do what I do.
Kasie Strickland is a staff writer for The Sentinel-Progress and can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the newspaper’s opinion.