Writing When it Hurts

I hate the Hollywood stereotype reporter.

You know the one I mean. The one who goes plunging into dangerous situations, without regard for his safety or anyone else’s. The one who can justify any stupidity in the name of “the story.” And most of all, the one who will walk up to a tornado victim who’s lost her home, stick a microphone in her face and say “So, tell me how you feel!”

I’m not that guy. I’m proud to not be that guy.

But I have to confess – grudgingly – that there is one grain of truth to the image. Good reporting often requires you to guard your heart. To stick your own pain and anguish on a shelf until later, and talk to people at their worst moments, so that a story can be told. A story that your readers need to hear, that only you can tell.

Which brings me to Isla Vista.

We’ve all heard about the shootings by now. We’ve seen the pain, heard the details, tried to make sense of what happened. It’s a horrific event. And it drew journalists in droves, each with a story to tell.

With one notable exception.

The shootings happened on a Friday, right in the back yard of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The first online article by UCSB’s The Bottom Line – a student newspaper funded by the student government – appeared Monday.

That’s three days later.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about why. At first an op-ed said the paper wanted to “minimalize the emotional harm” to its staff. A later editorial then disavowed the first one, saying the staff had been reporting all along, and even Tweeted during the incident, but wanted to take the extra time to ensure accuracy.

“We did not think it journalistically ethical to harass our community in its time of grief and shock, and decided to hold off premature publication of an article so that we did not hurt anyone through misinformation,” the second editorial said.

It sounds noble. Even good-intentioned.

But it taught precisely the wrong lesson.

Look, I know these are students, still learning. I know this was a horror no one prepared them for. And yes, this event did not exactly go uncovered.

But – and I’ll say this as gently as I can – if they want to be journalists, this is what they’ve signed up to do.

Nothing prepares you for it. Nothing. I have talked to fire victims and flood victims. I have talked to the closest friends of a murdered hiker. I have written a feature on my own pastor the day he died of cancer. Every time, I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

But I had to be there. Right there. Right then. Telling the story now, not three days from now.

And I’ll tell you a secret. Most of the time, the people on the other side of the notebook wanted me there, too.

No, they don’t want to talk to Harold Hardnose, Hollywood Hack. But that’s not you. This is your town. These are your people. And if they want to share their story with anyone, it’s going to be you, because through you, they can reach their friends, their neighbors, their families.

The other student paper, the independent Daily Nexus, found this out quickly. The LA Times reported how the Nexus’s editor, Marissa Wenzke, watched the owner of the Isla Vista Deli Mart shoo away several TV news crews – and then wave her inside because he recognized a friend.

“We care a lot about each other in this town,” Wenzke told the Times. “People love this place. We’ll help each other out because we’re all in this together.”

That’s the attitude the best reporters have.

Yes, be sensitive. Yes, get it right. But remember, your readers need to hear what’s happening, as soon as possible. From you. If someone else can do that job for you, why are you doing it at all?

Tweeting is a good start. It’s the modern-day news ticker, the quick alert. But if you can Tweet, you can write, even if it’s just by stringing together posts at first.

And you need to write. It’s your job. Even when it’s painful.

Maybe especially when it’s painful.

The good news: these are students. This is still a chance to learn. But it’s a lesson that needs to stick.

Don’t go Hollywood. Please. But don’t disappear until everything is absolutely perfect, either. That’s a phantom. Do the best you can with what you have.

Then, when the copy is done and the story is in, go home. Collapse. Cry, if you need to. (I have.)

Be a human.

And then be ready to get up and do it all over again.

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