The Messengers Mourn: Grief Counseling for the Media

Daniel, a young father, took his children, Devin, 8, and Dalton, 6, fishing in southeastern Oklahoma in February of 2012. The day would end tragically as their boat overturned drowning all three of the passengers.

Original Article: http://www.kten.com/story/17026773/2012/02/27/body-of-child-found-in-river-search-continues-for-second-child

This day would forever impact my view of “hard news”.

I was an “acting” Assignment Editor for KTEN-TV located in North Texas. I should place extra emphasis on “acting”. It was a temporary position until someone could fill it. I wasn’t much of a reporter or “news writer”. During the course of this entry you’ll most likely see where my writing style could use improvement.

I’d begin each morning at 7:30 by reading through the local paper, local websites, and browsing through our daily planner. By 9:30 all of our reporting staff would have arrived and we’d begin our daily routine of me suggesting story ideas only to be told, “Not interested”, “Too complicated”, or “Sounds boring”. After pinning down a lead for the day I’d finally get to task on updating “the board”.

“The board” was this massive marker board pre-sectioned with areas to add the slug, reporter, type, and show to air in. For those non-informed about news lingo, a slug is the working title of a story. It’s the basic idea. For example, if there are new road signs being installed you might call it, “Road Signs”, or “New Signs”. Think of it like a placeholder. The “type” would describe the type of content, meaning, just video, video with audio, or an entire package of reporter recorded audio with video.

Moving back to the board, I’d fill in the slug, the reporter or photographer assigned, type, and the show it was expected to air in. This process usually took about 15 minutes. After which, I’d spend my time following up with reporters and being told why something fell through. I can’t really blame them. Sometimes a contact would fall through or be unavailable. This would continue until around noon when the afternoon producer would arrive. I’d brief him or her on the events. Who was where, and what they were supposed to be working on. After a quick lunch I’d switch hats to commercial photog and editor and complete my day.

I’m connecting back to the beginning of this entry in a moment.

I had performed this task many times. I had dealt with fires, murders, random violence, accidental deaths, and many other gruesome events. But for some reason, when I read the details of the drowning on that cold February morning I froze with grief. You see, I’m a father of two boys, and it made me think. Here were three happy individuals. They were probably having a pleasant time on the boat fishing. They may have been very happy and content up until the time the boat overturned. What seemed like an overall pleasant day turned horrific for them. Not to mention Daniel’s wife. She lost her entire family in just one afternoon. It was tragic, but why did this one event stick in my mind?

My only assumption is the close proximity to my age along with the ages of the boys. Devin and Dalton were a few years older than mine, but not by much. It connected with me. I thought long and hard about if I should stay in broadcast news. I enjoyed media. I loved the ability to take a random mix of video and audio then combine it to create a story. I considered it fun. But my fun was being interrupted by reality.

I almost left the industry. I came very close, but instead pursued more of a web focused environment. It was still within the industry, but it didn’t require as much of a connection to the people or areas, or so I thought.

In June of 2012 I took the plunge and accepted an internet related position with KBTX-TV in Bryan / College Station, TX. We encountered our ups and downs in terms of emotional coverage. In August of 2012 we dealt with the loss of Constable Brian Bachmann and a by-stander Christopher Northcliffe during a shooting near the Texas A&M campus. We were deeply affected and many cried in the newsroom. In December there was Newtown, and we again grieved. In February 2013 we covered the tragic loss of two Bryan firefighters, Lieutenants Eric Wallace and Gregory Pickard, and again, we felt the same pain of the community. Shortly afterwards there was Boston, then very shortly the West, TX explosion a day later. I dealt with the emotional pain, but I don’t recall wanting to break down.

On Monday, May 20th, 2013 an EF5 tornado struck the town of Moore, OK killing 24 people, including 10 children. Moore isn’t too far from where I lived. I’m originally from North Texas, but the coverage area of my previous station, KTEN-TV, included many Oklahoma cities to the northwest. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be in Pauls Valley, Ada, and yes, on occasions near Moore for station business. I had been through many tornado warnings and even involved with the aftermath coverage of previous tornadoes, yet from my office in Bryan, TX I began experiencing the same feelings I had in February of 2012. Granted, I wasn’t directly involved with the coverage. I didn’t travel to the region. I didn’t know anyone, but the feelings were the same. I felt tramatized and didn’t know what to do or really how I should be feeling.

This started me down the path of thinking, “If I’m experiencing these types of feelings almost 360 miles away, how is it affecting those in the media who are directly involved?” How do members of the media handle the grief? Are counselors provided and do they have access to help? To believe we are so calloused and desensitized implies we have lost our humanity. Who reconnects us?

I wish I could end this post with “Well, there ya have it folks. Here’s what to do…”, but I can’t. At the very least I’d like to begin a dialogue. Week after week, month after month we encounter tragic events. How should we feel and how do we avoid losing our humanity?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

-Thomas