Anguish on the record
By Chuck Haga
Teddy bears and tears. Serial funerals. Grief like a flood, like an all-enveloping storm.
And everywhere, whether welcomed or resented: cameras and open notebooks, reporters with questions.
I have been obsessed with the incomprehensible killing of little children in Connecticut, watching hour after hour of the TV coverage and reading about each development, each funeral, each impassioned speech of lament and anger and resolve that it never happen again.
It’s not only the horror of what happened that has held my attention, not just the search for why or what do we do now, but the media coverage of it all and the reaction of others, victims and onlookers, to that coverage.
“Please tell them to just ease up,” a Newtown shop owner told a reporter inquiring about the media onslaught. “It happened and we’re going through it. Just let it be for now.”
A reporter from the BBC reported being asked by someone who knew several of the shooting victims, “What do you all want?”
The resentment and impatience, the exasperation, all ring true and familiar.
In four decades of newspaper work, and especially in the past decade, the most troubling times for me were the tragedies that befell a community, a family, a person: The death of four small children in a fire, of four teens in a car at a railway crossing. The abduction murders of Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist and other young women I never met but whose funerals I attended, whose parents’ pain I recorded in my notebooks.
The soldier coming home to be eulogized and buried. The Wisconsin hunters shot and killed in the field.
The Red Lake children shot and killed in their high school classroom.
Get it right
We flew into Red Lake, Minn., on a chartered plane, another reporter and a photographer and I, just hours after Jeff Wiese’s horrific assault on March 21, 2005, and almost immediately we were cautioned that this was a closed reservation, normally a secluded and private place. Almost immediately we were derided by some as vultures, as bottom-feeders, seeking to exploit grieving people just to sell a few papers, earn a few ratings points.
We and most of the other reporters were guided by a professional ethical standard: Get it right; get it first, if you can, but get it right. But in the increasingly crowded and competitive news business we crossed some lines and made some early mistakes in trying to be first. That included pressing vulnerable people for information, for what they knew, what they saw or heard or experienced, and what they were going to do about it.
I apologized to Red Lakers many times for parachuting into their lives and asking difficult questions. I apologize again. I apologize again to the gun-shot Wisconsin man whose door I was told to knock on the night he was released from the hospital, the night before his slain daughter’s funeral.
But one thing I have learned over these 40-plus years in the business is that many people who find themselves unwillingly at the center of terrible events want to speak out about what they have seen and lost.
Allan Sjodin and Linda Walker spoke often, lovingly, about their daughter, before and after her body was found. They were heart-breaking conversations, but they helped to show Dru in all her loveliness and promise. She was more than a name, a victim, a statistic.
You saw that in Newtown, Conn., too. Some parents, overwhelmed by grief, chose not to talk to reporters, not right away. But some wanted to and did, and we learned that one little girl wanted to be a teacher, another a veterinarian and a boy who loved football looked up to a particular NFL player as his hero. The famous man saw that, declared the boy his hero and went to Newtown to pay his respects.
‘The finest time’
When a soldier or Marine died and was brought home, when searchers found the bodies of young people who had been ripped from their lives and loved ones, when fire or wind or water had claimed a life, and the assignment to learn more came to me, I tried to be discreet and respectful. I would ask a pastor, a neighbor, an undertaker, a cousin or a friend to approach the immediate family on my behalf. My message: If you want to talk, I’d like to listen.
It would surprise many people, I think, how frequently a mother or father earnestly wants to talk, to share a photograph, a dream, a happy memory.
After Lance Cpl. Levi Angell, 20, was killed in Iraq in April 2004, his father stood leaning against a pickup truck outside their home in Cloquet, Minn., and talked with me about how his boy had come home on leave at Christmas, landing in California and buying a car.
“I flew out there to help him drive it home,” Gordon Angell Jr., said. “We drove all night and all day and all night again, and we did a lot of talking.… It was just father-son talk.”
The father had fought cancer a few years earlier and had lost his voice box. He spoke with the aid of a device that gave his voice a tinny monotone. But the emotional catches in his voice came through as he talked about his son.
“That was the finest time of my life,” he said, “spending that 48 hours alone with him.”
He wanted me to know that. He wanted you to know that.
Chuck Haga is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper