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Thoughts & Views: A story at any cost? No thanks

There is one aspect to a job in journalism that I have never quite understood, and with which I have never been comfortable.

I’m talking about the ghoulish pursuit of a) crime victims, b) accident victims, c) the families of crime victims or accident victims, and the worst d) the families of murder victims — done with the ignoble desire to get a quote.

Preferably a quote that will top anything the competition managed to get.

Awhile back, after that 16-year-old girl was slain in her home on Belgrove Drive in Kearny, I went to the scene to take photos of the sidewalk shrine that had been set up. I admit that I did talk to a couple of people who were there paying their respects, but they were not family members.

At one point, I saw a man standing just inside the front door, but I could not bring myself to knock. Was he the father? What would I say? “Your daughter is dead. How do you feel?” That’s usually the standard question.

(An absolutely absurd example of this played out on a recent N.Y.C. news tape. Two workers had been severely injured when a lift at a parking garage collapsed. As one of the victims, swaddled in bandages, was being rushed to an ambulance, there was a reporter running after the gurney, shouting, “How do you feel, sir!”)

This confronting-the-stricken scenario played out again last week after a 6-year-old Toms River boy was accidentally shot by a 4-year-old friend who had somehow gotten his tiny hands on a loaded rifle.

Shortly after it happened (the victim had not yet died), news reporters had already staked out the cul-de-sac where both families lived, in hopes of nabbing someone for a sound bite. I saw two young girls rushing to get into one of the homes, and hot on their heels was a microphonewielding woman. Luckily they got the door shut in time.

I have in the past talked with families who have lost a loved one to tragedy, but they approached me, not vice versa. And basically, I just listened. I’d be uncomfortable hunting them down. Perhaps I am just a coward. Perhaps I can date that cowardice to something that happened when I was just a cub in this business.

During college, I had a weekend job as a copy kid (gofer) at a large daily paper. (I shall name neither the publication nor the city in which it was located.) Mounted on a wall in the newsroom was a police scanner, which was always on. Mostly, the radio calls were just more background noise added to the cacophony of teletype machines, typewriters and ringing phones. But every once in a while, something on the scanner would catch our attention.

One Saturday afternoon, we heard a call about a police officer having been shot. The newsroom fell into silence as we all listened to what today you’d call reality radio. We could hear everything — the wailing sirens, shouts, and then the desperate voice of one officers pleading for help. His partner, a rookie, had been hit. We could hear the agony in his voice as the younger cop died in his arms.

I don’t know how the editors got the info so quickly, but they learned the name of the slain officer, the names of his parents and where they lived, and sent one of the paper’s best reporters to get a photo of their son.

All this had transpired in a matter of minutes, so when the reporter arrived at the house, the parents had not yet been notified of the death. When the reporter realized this, he could not bring himself to be the one to break the awful news, so — at least this is what I was told — he made up a story that their son had been given some sort of award and that’s why the paper needed a photo.

He arrived back at the newsroom with a framed portrait taken to commemorate the officer’s graduation from the Police Academy.

He gave the photo to his editor.

And then he resigned.

This was a man who had been a war correspondent in Vietnam, but this particular event, and the role he played in it, were beyond endurance.

I later heard he had gotten a job doing PR for an insurance company.

Journalism lost an exceptional talent. But there are times in journalism when getting a story (or a photo) carries too high a price, one that the psyche, and the soul, cannot pay.

– Karen Zautyk

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