How I Cover Death and Tragedy

Joel’s Journal - February 1, 2018 - Volume 3 - Entry #32

February 1, 2018 Cover.jpg

I’ve mentioned it a lot lately, especially in my Wednesday wrap-up, and the post before that when I looked back over the month of January. 

There was a lot of shit that went down in the City of Oshawa over the first 31 days of the year. I won’t mention all of it here, but for a full summary check out Entry #30. 

In that post I went into a bit of detail on my opinions around all of it, and actually kind of came to Oshawa’s defence, noting that a lot of times people blow things out of proportion, blaming it on the city itself instead of some of the shit people who choose to live here. 

However, with that said, I wanted to take a different look at this. I wanted to explain, a bit in detail about how, as a reporter, I go about tackling these serious topics, and perhaps offering some advice for those who may be thinking about getting into the profession. Because really, it ain’t easy. 

Also, because I spent the entire day writing in the office, I don’t have much else to talk about. So there’s that.

However, there are a THREE other things from the life of Joel I want to mention. 

ONE - Only three more days until Florida 2018!

TWO - I’m covering a story on the flu and its impact on our local health system, and it’s gotten me feeling a little germaphobic. 

And finally, THREE - This week, for M, I’ve cooked two meals out of Dennis the Prescott’s cookbook, his squash soup on Tuesday, and his halloumi burgers today, and both have been absolutely life-changing. If you don’t know about this guy, I highly recommend checking him out. His food photography is almost good enough to eat. 

Now, let’s move onto the serious topic of the day. 

Writing about Death

In my almost five years as a reporter, I’ve dealt with some pretty heavy stories. 

In fact, it was during my first month on the job that a lot of what I’m about to talk about is based upon. I was sent out to the scene of an accident where a young girl was struck by a garbage truck. I was fresh into my short internship at the New Hamburg Independent, and when I got to the scene, I was in absolute shock, unsure of really what to do, or who to talk to. It was pandemonium, there was a massive crowd of people, there was police officers, caution tape, road closures. It was tragedy playing out in real time. 

I’m sure many in the Kitchener-Waterloo area will remember the story of Lydia Herrle. She was the young girl who was hit, she survived, by the way. 

It has stuck with me for some time, as any really heavy stories will. However, I’ll get to that part later. 

For now, I’ll stick to the practical stuff. 

Site of a double shooting that killed one man early this week in Oshawa. 

Site of a double shooting that killed one man early this week in Oshawa. 

Starting out, at the scene of an accident like that, I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only reporter there, and I was able to follow the lead of those with a lot more experience than I. 

A lot of the things seem like common sense now, but when you’re fresh out of j-school with little experience, and only have your notebook and pen for company at the scene of a potentially deadly crash, you can feel pretty small, and your brain can freeze up. 

However, here’s what I know now. 

First, you get the facts. Simple enough right? You want to be able to establish what happened and how. This works with any sort of incident like this, whether it be a car accident or a shooting or a fire. You need the pedigree info, the who, the what, the when, the where and if you can get it, the why (those this last one can be tricky when it comes to crime). 

And who will have that information? Well, the most obvious people to speak with would be the emergency services at the scene. Sometimes you can grab an officer and ask them to be filled in (I usually don’t bother with the fire or paramedics as they are usually busy dealing with injured people or tending to possible fires). So, if you can catch a police officer standing near the caution tape, sometimes they will fill you in. My experience here in Durham is that many of them don’t say much, and you need to get the police comment from an official media spokesperson, but it’s always worth a try. 

Following that, there’s the witnesses of course. 

In the case of the Herrle accident, which took place right outside of Herrle’s farm market (owned by Lydia’s parents), there was a lot of people coming in and out of the market at the time of the accident and even some inside who could have seen something. Many of those people were crowded at the edge of the caution tape. For any reporter looking to figure out what’s going on, these are the people to ask. 

So following that, you should have the barebones of an article (the five Ws), along with perhaps a few colourful quotes from witnesses to fill things out a bit. If you’re lucky, you’ve also got a word from a police officer on scene regarding the investigation. 

So, what next?

A recent fire in Oshawa, thankfully, nobody was hurt. 

A recent fire in Oshawa, thankfully, nobody was hurt. 

Well, if you’re a new journalist like me, you’ve probably already been tweeting about the incident, if you haven’t now is the time to put out the facts that you’ve gathered. You may also want to snap a few photos if you haven’t done that already. You’ll quickly come to learn that being a modern reporter is being a Jack of all trades. 

However, now comes the hard, and particularly controversial part. 

Talking with the family or loved ones. 

For me, on that day Lydia Herrle got hit, I didn’t talk with the parents. Other reporters tracked them down later, but I kept them out of my story, relying on statements that they provided in the days after. I think I may have spoken to a relative, if my memory serves me. 

However, overall, I’m not entirely sold on bothering the loved ones right away. 

I’m just not sure how much those quotes add to the story this early on. I admit that later, once the wounds are a little bit more healed and the dust has settled, the family can be great sources to speak to for longer, feature type stories. However, on the day of, when people are grappling with the raw emotions of the turn their lives have just taken, I’m not totally okay with going up and asking them how they’re feeling. It’s demeaning, rude, and at times, unethical. These types of interviews are known in the business as “death knocks”, named such from a reporter tracking down the family of a victim and knocking on their door for comment. I have mixed feelings about them, but in the end, I always try to put it in perspective. If I was in their situation, would I want to be spoken to by a reporter? Would I want to share my emotions right away? And in the end, as the reporter, you have to ask yourself whether those emotions spelled out in ink would really add much more to the story. 

These difficult stories are naturally packed with emotion, and if you want more, the witnesses can surely add additional flavour. Having the loved-one of someone who has just been killed or seriously injured sob into your recorder or notebook for a simple one-liner…it’s just not worth it. Let them be. 

With that said, there’s a brief rundown of how I go about covering these sorts of incidents. It’s not rocket science, but it pays to keep things simple and stay focused. 

Outside the site of a house fire that left four people dead earlier this month in Oshawa. 

Outside the site of a house fire that left four people dead earlier this month in Oshawa. 

I do want to speak on the lingering affects of these things as well. 

I think the Lydia story sticks with me the most because I was so early in my career and it was so terrible. Thankfully, Lydia survived and is doing fairly well all things considered.

However, there have been other stories, where the victims don’t fair so well. 

Now, I could spew some cliched nonsense about how as a journalist you need to keep yourself detached form these things, it’s the job, it’s work, leave it at the office. 

That’s shit. 

As a reporter, when you’re dealing with these things, you’re dealing with them. You’re verifiably wading through these stories, swimming in the details, mulling them over, writing about them, researching them, and talking about them. When you leave the office those things don’t just stay behind, the stink lingers on you and you have to find ways to deal with it. 

I find writing about them helps, and if something is seriously rotten, talking about it with someone else is the best way to go about it. 

Since covering Lydia’s story, I’ve covered murders, kidnappings, deadly fires, drug overdoses, and human trafficking to name a few.

Each of them stays with me. In the same way that all of them are listed in my portfolio, all of them are still in my mind, tacked-up in some back corner like a bulletin bored in an abandoned school, mostly forgotten, but still there, gathering dust. 

And that’s okay, the each of them is a reminder that at times, we have to deal with some bad things in life, and each of them is a reminder that whatever comes my way through this career I’ve chosen, I’ll be able to handle it. 

Thanks for reading, even the heavy stuff. 


Joel Wittnebel