Seeking human stories behind sensational headlines

One of a reporter’s most painful duties is to contact the grieving survivors of victims of crime or disaster. No matter how many times you have made that call, knocked on that door or approached a person at a disaster scene, starting the conversation is always difficult. You don’t want to intrude on someone’s most-private, most-difficult moment. You don’t want to diminish a family member’s grief. You don’t want to expose yourself as the insensitive ghoul of a reporter stereotype.

But fighting through those qualms is a necessary part of every reporter’s and every editor’s job. And not for the reason you think.

The common criticism is that we do these interviews to appeal to the morbid curiosities of readers and sell more newspapers or get more online clicks, that we subordinate our humanity to our mercenary aims.

But that is not the true story. Yes, one of the things we do is to tell dramatic stories with vivid accuracy. But making money, or selling papers, is not the driving force behind them. Making sure people are seen as people is.

The tragedy last week in which three family members were killed when their car was struck as it turned into a Des Plaines YMCA parking lot by another car, whose driver also died, was sensational enough in its raw details. Video from the scene as residents in the area strove to rescue the victims. A witness’s report that the car causing the crash had been traveling at a high speed on the suburban roadway. The mere fact of a mother, father and daughter taken so abruptly and violently while engaging in something so quintessentially suburban as getting to a soccer game, is a shock to read. These are details that tug at the heart strings. But they are only the superficial facts of a car crash. The people are just names, mere victims, somehow separated from their deeper humanity.

That deeper humanity is what we seek to portray. And so, in the case of Kevin, Anita and Kirsten Crawford, we made those painful phone calls and visits — to the minister, to their church, to relatives and friends. We learned of the family’s deep religious faith, of Kevin’s devotion to the kids involved in the soccer club he founded, of Anita’s similar love for the game, which she played in an adult women’s league, of 20-year-old Kirsten’s role as her 10-year-old brother’s “little mom.”

And, we told stories of their soccer community, their neighborhood and their church community, helping to show not only the lives of the Crawfords in the reflection of their closest friends and family but also the actions of a loving community that comes together in love and compassion at a time of great tragedy.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck in telling such a story. We considered attending the funeral for the Crawfords on Tuesday, where again we expected photographs and reporting to evoke more of their personal story. But as is our policy, we reached out to the family to make sure our coverage wouldn’t be an intrusion. They weren’t comfortable with us, so we bowed out. We have done much to try to show them as people, not mere victims, and we hope our reporting accomplished that goal without the added picture of people in mourning.

We cannot follow every tragedy with the depth we plumbed for this one. Not every tragedy strikes with such force as this one did. But we often try. Only last week, we made a similar effort to describe Don Tentler — the West Dundee loving father, Cubs fan and community volunteer — as more than the sad victim of a tragic work accident at Geneva Commons. But when we do delve more into the lives of individuals who suffer great trauma, keep in mind at least two things.

One, these stories aim to portray humanity, not simple raw events.

And two, these human elements exist in nearly every tragedy we report, regardless of how much access we are able to get to surviving family members and friends. Behind every accident, every house fire, every flood, every shooting, every crisis of every kind, there are rich, compelling human lives. It’s not for sensational, newspaper-selling headlines that we dare to insinuate ourselves into the painful hearts of survivors at their most vulnerable time. It’s to be sure that those human lives are not lost in the telling of their stories.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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