Proposal Bars Reporters From Victims’ Homes: But Some Want to Talk!

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By: Joe Strupp

Nothing irks me more than non-reporters who think they know how reporters do their jobs. Take the inept legislators at the Virginia state senate, particularly Sen. Ken Cuccinelli. Word is that he has proposed a bill that would essentially make it illegal for a reporter, or anyone else, to step on the property of someone who has recently undergone a personal tragedy or lost a loved one.

According to Marc Fisher at washingtonpost.com, Cuccinelli refers to those of us who have dared to talk to the families of victims as “scuzzball reporters out there who don’t have a shred of human decency to give a flying rat’s tail about the condition or feelings or circumstances of families”

As often happens, the politician who proposed this doesn’t know what he is talking about. Like most reporters, I have had many moments during my time at four newspapers that called for approaching families of the recently deceased.

No fun, of course, but often quite necessary. Contrary to what many believe, most reporters do not bang on the door and obnoxiously demand interviews. When I had to approach people after they had suffered a loss, I respectfully called or knocked on the door, identified myself, and asked if they would speak for a few minutes. If they declined, I left them alone.

But I was always surprised to find out that, most often, they wanted to talk. And, unlike the common wisdom that reporters ask, “how do you feel,” I never did. I believe most others likely did not either. My first question was always, “tell me about the person.” And people felt grateful to be able to take time away from focusing on the person’s death and give some attention to his or her life.

I remember knocking on the door of a family in Berkeley Heights, N.J., during my time at the Daily Journal in Elizabeth to interview relatives of a teenager killed in an auto accident. Her father and brothers could not wait to brag about her and give their memories. One said she “would light up a room,” a quote that become the headline.

Later, when I worked in Fremont, Calif., a school board member in nearby Union City who lost a son to a motorcycle accident answered the door in tears and asked for a hug. She then went on to talk about what a good kid he was and how this would spark her to push for helmet restrictions for motorcycle riders.

There are at least a dozen other examples from my career in which I knew asking for some time to speak to the family made them feel better. And made for a better, complete story.

It makes one almost wonder during these times of anti-press sentiment among many elected officials if this is a true belief by a politician that grieving families are being wrongly approached — or if it is just another way to limit press freedom. Next, someone will try to make it a crime for a reporter to approach a politician outside of the capitol or city hall, or at home.

Several public officials have already chosen to limit which reporters to whom they will speak. You may recall former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s edict years ago that his staff could not speak to two writers at The Sun in Baltimore because he didn’t like their reporting. I called Ehrlich “Cybaby of the Year” for his tantrum. If the Virginia legislature actually puts Cuccinelli’s idea into law, they may take the prize for “Bonehead Move of the Year.”

So, to the legislators who are considering such a misguided proposal, I say: Please do some research on how such reporting is actually done before you act, and how it benefits both readers and victims’ families.

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