March 04, 2005

Tough Call

During the summer of 1998, when I worked as a reporter for the Winona Daily News, I was given a very sucky article assignment. It was sucky in that it involved an interview I would have gnawed off my left foot to get out of.

Two teenage girls had gotten into an accident while driving a pickup truck. They were driving to a campsite they had prepared for a weekend outing. The driver lost control of the truck, the truck rolled over, and the driver was killed. Well, the Daily News tried to do human interest stories in the event of a tragedy such as a teenage death, and it fell on me that weekend to write the story.

As if writing about a teenager's death wasn't hard enough, I also had to make a call to the girl's family. Now, I'm fine with people thinking I'm an asshole or a jerk; that's part of the magic of being Ryan Rhodes. But, I don't like thinking of myself as a ghoul. And, let me tell you, that day I felt about as ghoulish as you can get.

The thing is, though, it was a necessary ghoulishness. Like it or not, I wasn't going to get a complete article about the girl unless I spoke with her family. I couldn't find out who she really was and what her interests were unless I picked up that phone and spoke with her mom or dad. I knew all this. I hated it, but I knew it.

I stared at that phone for about an hour. I'd pick it up and start to dial, and then I'd put it down again. I couldn't think of a good introduction that wouldn't make me sound, and feel, like a completely insensitive ass.

When I did finally make the call, the girl's dad answered. I could tell there was a lot of funeral-related activity going on in the background; a lot of people in the house.

I honestly can't remember exactly how I introduced myself, or how I explained why I was calling. What I do remember was just how eager that father was to talk about his daughter. He told me about her for a good half hour; what she was like, what her interests were. . . how much he loved her. That sort of heartbreaking kind of thing.

I wrote the article, which admittedly wasn't one of my better pieces of writing, thanks to the pressures of daily deadlines, but it was decent. A week later, I even received a thank you card from the girl's family.

All of which brings me to this. Now, I was a grunt reporter at the time. I was 23 years old, making $6 an hour, for a daily newspaper that wasn't particularly huge.

So, given all that background, I have a few questions: if a 23-year-old grunt reporter can summon the cajones to make a difficult call to the family of a recently and tragically deceased teenage girl, why couldn't Nick Coleman, a "seasoned" reporter working for the biggest newspaper in Minnesota, make a call to the family of a 25-year-old soldier who died in the line of duty in Iraq? Why did Nick, instead, speak with an insurance and real estate agent whose son, Patrick, went to school with Day? Why did Nick, instead, speak with George Graff, a retired teacher and high school wrestling coach who knew Day's family back when the fallen soldier's sister, Kate, was a school cheerleader? Why did Nick, instead, speak with Lisa Nieland, 24, a production assistant in the factory (where another worker is in Iraq with the Guard). And, as long as I'm asking questions: WHAT factory? Nick just says "the factory," and the readers have no idea what the hell factory he's even talking about. Why did Nick, rather than trying to speak with the soldier's widow, opt instead to speak with a third worker watching the choppers, Pat Needham, 50? Why did Nick, rather than interview someone who might actually have been, you know, CLOSE with the fallen soldier, opt instead to simply quote from the priest presiding over the funeral?

Not that I expect any answers from Nick, mind you, but I just thought I'd ask.

Gee, it's almost as if Coleman is a terrible, lazy, or selective, reporter or something. Nahhhh, that can't be it.

Posted by Ryan at March 4, 2005 11:37 AM

The thing is, though, it was a necessary ghoulishness.

I'm not sure I agree with your use of "necessary" in this context. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying you shouldn't have made the call, or that Coleman was right not to have done so. I'm just not clear on why it's actually necessary to "a complete article about the girl".

I've probably mentioned this before, but once about ten years ago I was working at this pizza kitchen in Seattle when I heard an item in the hourly news update on the radio saying that a teenaged girl had been shot and killed "outside" my old high school the day before. And my first through was that something in the tone of the reportage didn't sit very well with me. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but the incident was still in the front of my mind two weeks later when another girl was shot and killed in front of Ballard High School in the predominantly white north end of town. My old high school was in a mostly African American neighborhood in the Central District.

Right away I was struck by the differences in the reporting: the girl in Ballard was named as soon as the family members were notified. The piece ran in the nightly news. The next day it was on the front page of both major dailies. Two weeks later there'd been almost 50 separate articles on the subject in just one of the town's main newspapers. I looked up the incident of the girl who got shot in front of my high school: 2 stories in one newspaper, neither one of which mentioned her by name. I called the county Medical Examiner and found out her name had been Jamie Wilson.

She got plenty of press a year later when the kid who shot her was arrested. He was only 14, so the newspapers had a lot to talk about with that one.

The whole thing did make me think about how and why society is compelled to discuss untimely deaths; who gets reported on and how. What constitutes a "tragedy" and what the newspapers just file under DSAF.

I often wonder about our dead soldier stories. Every kid who gets blown to pieces over there is someone who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Who do we think these soldiers are that we need to be reminded over and over again that they have families who miss them?

This isn't a criticism; I don't want to have a big fight about it. I'm just wondering what your opinion is.

Posted by: Joshua at March 4, 2005 12:02 PM

Typo alert:

I'm just not clear on why it's actually necessary to "a complete article about the girl".

should have been:

I'm just not clear on why it's actually necessary to do "a complete article about the girl".

Posted by: Joshua at March 4, 2005 12:03 PM

But, you know, Coleman is a columnist, not a reporter. This is a distinction you've considered important in other contexts, I'm not sure why it is considered unimportant here.

Posted by: David Grenier at March 4, 2005 12:20 PM

My experience has been with a smaller daily newspaper, and a mid-sized weekly newspaper where every untimely death was treated as news. The higher up the news chain you go, such as Seattle newspapers, I imagine, there's more debate as to what constitutes news. Metropolitan papers can't report on every untimely death or they won't have space for anything else. But shootings? Especially school shootings? That would make it into any newspaper I could imagine. The ethical considerations of releasing names are up to individual newsrooms but, rest assured, some newspaper, somewhere, in the quest for the coveted scoop (a concept I wish would just fucking die already) will run with a name. It's almost inevitable.

When I did the teenager death article, the names had been released and news reports all around the area had covered the story. I was doing a soft news piece on the girl, as per the editorial dictates of the newsroom. I didn't necessarily agree with it, but that was the job that was handed to me, so I had to do the best job I could with the article, and I wasn't going to get a complete picture of who she was if I went and spoke to her pharmacist. Who was going to know her best? Her family, no question about it.

I imagine Coleman just sat in on the funeral, jotted a few notes, and then pulled random people aside for interviews. Which, that's fine when you're talking about fast-breaking news like a city-wide power failure, but the soldier's funeral had been scheduled for some time. Coleman had more than enough time to place a few calls, but he didn't. If you're going to do a human interest story on a fallen soldier, it would just help if you tried talking with some people who might actually have really known the soldier. If, for example, the fallen soldier believed in his cause, that would be nice to know. If he was against the war, again, that would be nice to know. Coleman cobbled together a pretty shitty column when a little actual reporting could have made for a far better piece.

I don't know if any of this answers your question, Joshua. If not, ask again, and I'll try to do better.

Posted by: Ryan at March 4, 2005 12:29 PM

David, columnist or not, if you're going to cover an event, you owe it to your readers to try to do a decent job. If I was going to write a column about why David Grenier likes butt sex so much, I'd still better have some decent research and sources to back it up. Columnists typically have more leeway to state their opinions, yes, but they still have to do some reporting footwork.

If I was writing about David Grenier's proclivity towards butt sex, while right behind me there's a "David Grenier Loves The Pussy!" parade going on, with a float consisting of David Grenier screwing several women while shouting "Fucking A I love the pussy!" some might argue that my opinions, though opinions, are still obviously wrong.

In this instance, I think it's pretty clear that Coleman's role is more as a reporter than a columnist, and he should have done a hell of a lot better job researching his topic, which wouldn't have been that hard to do. Again, as an example, if the fallen soldier believed in his role in Iraq, and his family and friends believed in it, and they're proud of his sacrifice, I think that would be an important piece of information for the article. Likewise if they don't support the war. If you're going to write an article about a fallen soldier, try making it about the fallen soldier, rather than what a factory worker might think of a local soldier dying in the line of duty. You see what I mean?

Posted by: Ryan at March 4, 2005 12:42 PM

Not that I think Coleman did this, but I think there's an interesting literary angle in this; writing a piece about a dead soldier based on the reaction of his geographic and economic community (neighbors and coworkers) without talking to anyone who actually knew him personally. Kind of like,

Joe Smith attended elementary school and highs school with Mr. Soldier, but traveled in different social circles and didn't really know Mr. Soldier well.

"What, who? Mike Soldier… Oh! Yeah, I remember him. I think we had geometry together. Dead huh? Jesus, that's fucked up. I mean, I didn't know the guy, but we were in the same grade. I'm only 25. What a fuck'n waste, man. Fuck'n towelheads."

Joanie Smith works at the same McDonald's where Mr. Soldier worked the summer after he graduated from high school.

"Wait, why are you telling me this? Because he used to work here? Jesus, that's sick. What's wrong with you people? What're you trying to say, that people who work at McDonald's are just doomed? God, leave me alone. You sick bastards."

I don't know. Something like that. I can see it being an interesting project.

Posted by: Joshua at March 4, 2005 12:59 PM

Heh. Joshua, there's no way I could give Coleman that much credit.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did something kind of similar awhile back. They had a reporter, Steve Carrell, I think, go out and find a man on the street and find out about his life. So, he picks out this pizza maker but then decides the pizza maker's life is too boring. So, he goes off and finds a woman who had a cat and asked her to describe the cat and how much she loved her cat. He then attributed all the information about the cat to the pizza maker. So, you had this pizza maker who liked to climb bookshelves and who got trapped in an upturned wicker basket when he was three. I'm not doing a good job relating this, but it was fucking hysterical.

Posted by: Ryan at March 4, 2005 01:07 PM

Haven't read the article and no idea who this Coleman fellow that you dislike so much is ... but the first thought that occurred to me was, maybe the family and close friends didn't want to talk to a reporter? So he talked to the acquaintances who were willing?

Posted by: frances at March 6, 2005 09:35 PM

Frances, if a reporter tries to interview a source, and the source refuses, that usually makes it into the article: "I tried to speak with the soldier's widow, but she declined." No way Coleman even gave it an effort. I'd put $5 on it.

Posted by: Ryan at March 7, 2005 08:41 AM
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