Sympathy and reporting

The following is a semi-reconstruction of a conversation I had the Friday before spring break. My apologies if I don’t remember exactly how it went, but I feel like the gist works well enough.

“Allie, can you help with a story?”

“Sure. What do you need? Is it a day turn? I could use a couple of those.” (Imagine this being said in my classic “overly excited, excessively enthusiastic Allie” voice.)

“Well, it’s about an MU student who died yesterday.”

“Oh.”

As a journalist, and as a human being, I’ve had to hear a lot of hard things. I wrote a life story last spring about an elderly gentleman who died. I’ve sat in interviews and listened to sources talk about difficult parts of their lives. I’ve encouraged friends in tears and offered advice in overwhelming circumstances.

But I’ve never had to call a medical examiner and a teacher to ask about someone close to my age who died the day before.

And that’s different.

Aside from having some trouble reaching sources, I pulled off my part of the story fairly well — working the phones, asking the right questions, trying to get a sense of who she was. I was calm. I was cool. I was collected.

I was also confused.

In addition to a chilling reminder of my own mortality, I spent most of the afternoon wondering what I was supposed to feel.

I mean, on one hand, it’s my job to be professional. I had to ask the right questions and push for answers and pay absolute attention to accuracy, sometimes making an extra call to check something. But on the other hand, I couldn’t shake the strange, haunting feeling that accompanies the thought that people my age die. And that’s sad. (Honestly, sad is the only adjective that I want to use here.)

When I talk about what I’m learning and where I’m growing this semester, I usually talk about things like confidence and reporting and writing and interviewing and not panicking. You know, the expected stuff.

But I’ve also been trying to figure out what it means to be simultaneously a human and a reporter who is writing about other humans in very real situations. After a semester that’s included a few conversations in which my sources shared some fairly vulnerable information, I’m starting to learn more of what it looks like to be sympathetic while accomplishing my duty as a journalist. I’m not a robot spitting out articles. I’m a person trying to tell another person’s story. But I also have a job, and I can’t let the emotions of a topic overwhelm me to the point that I can’t write anything.

It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it’s worth the effort to figure out what that looks like.

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