Reports of death are about lives

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Lori Thompson is managing editor of the Juneau Empire.

Twice in one week, the Juneau Empire's front page has held a story about an accident that claimed the life of a young Juneau man. Two times, a reporter has had the grim task of contacting a grieving family so we could let readers know who this person was, that he was far more than an accident statistic. But the reactions we've received to these two stories has been vastly different.

After the first story, about 19-year-old Brant Cooper, who died in a roll-over accident, the Empire has received numerous e-mails and calls asking how we could be so "crass," "tacky," "callous" and "boorish" to contact the parents after their son's death. After the second story, about 37-year-old Kenny Kasselder, who died climbing Mount Hood, I received no complaints, even though the article is packed with comments by Kasselder's widow.

First, let me explain why Empire reporters contact families after accidents. This is not like the aftermath of a trial or an election when journalists ask how the person feels. Anyone with half a heart is well aware that the family is in pain beyond anything many of us can imagine.

Rather, Empire reporters talk to those closest to the one who died so that they can create a portrait of that person. Many people - myself included - have made Juneau their home because of its deep sense of community. This is not a town in which we treat a traffic death like some anonymous tragedy that is not our own. Instead, as journalists, we try to create a picture of the person who died so that his or her life is recognized.

I understand why some people recoil at the thought of journalists contacting the families of the dead. In 1992, I was a reporter in western Massachusetts when a student named Wayne Lo went on a shooting rampage at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, killing two and leaving four people brutally injured. I watched as reporters from Boston shoved enormous microphones into the faces of shocked students and faculty, demanding 30-second soundbites of grief and horror. Local reporters, shaken by this bloody scene in our own backyard, were as appalled by these reporters' behavior as the college students and townspeople were.

I suspect that the difference in the way readers reacted to the Empire's coverage of the two accident stories last week is that in the first one, the parents chose not to talk with the reporter. That was their choice and we respect it. The line in the story that seems to have caught readers' eye, and infuriated them, was the statement that the parents did not wish to comment. In my nine years here, we have run many accident stories in which family members widely comment and yet in those cases, readers did not seem to notice that reporters called the family. My guess is that they're focusing more on the story of that person's life.

What many people may not realize is how hard it is for many reporters to call the families of the dead. Some don't realize that when people can no longer talk to their loved ones, they often have an intense desire to talk about them. But it's understandable too that reporters have this discomfort, since they're part of a society ill at ease with death.

My 44-year-old sister died three months ago, and since then, I've watched with interest, and some disappointment, at how uncomfortable death can make people. Death is right up there with birth, marriage and divorce as one of life's pivotal experiences. Yet some think it's kind to pretend that it didn't happen, that it somehow shouldn't be acknowledged or discussed. For those who survive, that often means the person who died is not only lost to us in life, but also in silence.

At the Empire, we try to acknowledge that each life is worth remembering. When a reporter calls after a tragedy, it is so that person does not simply dissolve into the statistics of death, but is remembered for what they did, for who and what they loved. It is to acknowledge that that person may be gone, but that their memory is still with us.

• Lori Thomson is managing editor of the Juneau Empire.

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