This is why I never got into “real” journalism.
I interned at a newspaper one summer during college. Most of it was typical intern crap work — town meetings, graduations, the annual fair, that sort of thing.
One day we got word in the newsroom that two fisherman were caught in the undertow at a nearby beach and swept out. I don’t remember how many reporters and photographers rushed off — more than was necessary, I’m sure — but I was part of the group.
The specifics are fuzzy all these years later, but we get to the beach and the paramedics are treating one guy. The other guy isn’t around. We hear he didn’t make it. His waders filled with water, his friend tried to grab him, but the man was gone too fast.
Photos are snapped. Details are recorded. The mass of journalists heads back to the newsroom.
I’m assigned the task of calling the deceased fisherman’s relatives to get a response. I don’t challenge this because real reporters always ask the tough questions. Or some such nonsense.
So I call, expecting an answering machine. These poor people are surely occupied with all the emotions and to-dos of those horrible first hours.
But someone answers.
And they don’t know.
That was the moment my reporting career ended.
I told the person on the other end of the line that an accident occurred and they should get in touch with the police. I left it at that because that’s the only reasonable thing I could do. It wasn’t my place to break this “news.” I didn’t have the information they’d need.
And if this was reversed and I was the one getting word that someone I loved died, I better not hear it from a newspaper intern. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
It comes down to this: You either can do this kind of work or you can’t. I can’t.
I went to school with people who got into that side of journalism. I worked with a bunch of those folks, too. I admire them in many ways.
But there’s no excuse for barging into someone’s grief. I cannot accept that, even if I otherwise like the person doing the barging.
A comment from the crying mother or the photo of a grief-stricken new widower is not necessary. But there you are, prying it out of them during one of the worst moments of their lives.
If you choose this line of work and you do these kinds of things, so be it. But don’t hide behind the job or journalism or public good.
There is no explanation. There is no justification.