I seriously questioned if I wanted to be a broadcast journalist the first time I shadowed a TV news reporter. I was interning for a local news station for the summer in Washington, D.C. and I had never doubted my career path until that point.
I rode in the backseat of an SUV that was wrapped with the station’s logo and call letters. Sitting squished between tripods and microphones, I was thrilled to be on assignment with a real photographer and reporter.
The photographer was behind the wheel. His jokes came out in a growl because of his gravelly voice. The reporter was spouting out tips about the business to me from over his shoulder in the passenger’s seat as I feverishly scribbled everything he said into my reporter’s notebook. A huge map of D.C. was sprawled across his lap. He was old-school and thumbed at the map while discussing the importance of reporters really knowing the city where they’re working, not just being familiar with landmarks.
The photographer drove us away from the news station towards the suburbs. We had the address of a woman who allegedly left her baby in a hot car. The infant died and police arrested the mother. We drove more than 30 minutes with the hope that a family member was home and someone would actually talk to us. I wasn’t very optimistic.
The house was located in a neighborhood with manicured lawns that were slightly sloped towards the street, something I wasn’t accustom to living in flat Florida. The incline made it seem like the beautiful brick houses were perched and looming over anyone below.
I watched as the reporter climbed the cobblestone steps and knocked on the front door while the photographer shot his movements from the curb. The blinds covering a window fluttered, then a man poked his head outside.
He looked Hispanic; someone could have mistaken us for relatives. His face drooped and it was clear he was sleep deprived. There was such a delicate sadness in his eyes as he helplessly peered at the three of us. He was standing outside his home, yet he appeared lost. He looked like his whole world just crumbled at his feet and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to even attempt to pick up the pieces.
The reporter was gentle and softly asked him if he was the baby’s father. The man closed his brown eyes and nodded his head yes. The reporter asked him something else then the man murmured that he didn’t want to talk anymore. It didn’t sound like English was his first language and I wondered where he was from. He stole another defeated glance at us and softly shut the door.
I wanted him to scream at us. I wished he would have hurled curse words at us and commanded us to leave. Anything would have been easier than seeing those few seconds of raw sadness.
His baby was dead and he couldn’t even grieve with his wife because she was behind bars. And there we were, standing on his porch, asking for an interview. I felt like such scum. The reporter wasn’t pushy or rude, but the whole situation seemed widely inappropriate and intrusive, like crashing a funeral just to eat the food after the service.
Why are we doing this? Is this what I want to do everyday for the rest of my life?
These were the questions I asked myself as we tromped through the neighborhood, searching for anyone who could give a soundbite and B-roll. I wasn’t completely naïve, I knew journalists had to push their comfort zones to progress a story. I knew they had to speak to people who would rather not speak to them. But I never stopped to think how I would feel being required to talk people on the worst day of their life over and over again.
We found a neighbor who agreed to do an interview as long as the photographer promised to film her feet instead of her face. She was an older lady who lived a few houses away from the man with the dead baby and incarcerated wife. The neighbor didn’t know the family, but she offered something generic about how sad the whole situation was.
The photographer stopped shooting. The reporter thanked the woman. They got all they could get, so we headed back to the station.
I don’t remember seeing the final package on air that night, but I do remember not being able to shake an icky feeling as I rode the Metro back the place I was staying at for the summer. I forced the doubts about whether I was emotionally strong enough (or callused enough) for this job out of my head. I told myself to toughen up. I knew I would be covering sad stories, so why was I so shaken?
Less than two years later, I was the person knocking on doors asking for interviews during times of tragedy. I was the one meeting a mother’s eyes while I told her how sorry I was her son was stabbed to death and does she think she can manage to answer a few of my questions. I became accustomed to being places where I was unwanted.
As an intern, I was simply observing what was going on in front of me. I didn’t have a producer waiting to approve my script. I wasn’t 30 minutes out from a newscast and no one was requiring me to tweet. I wasn’t actually working, I was just an annoying fly on the wall of tragedy.
I would like to think I’m too young to be callused. My career is still too new for me to be jaded. I am able to keep it together in the field. It’s not because I’m a heartless robot, it’s because I’m distracted with the demands of my job. It’s easier to push aside feelings when you have a job to do and deadlines to meet.
I’m not sure if the dead baby story made the same impression on the reporter or photographer as it did for me. They both had been working in the news industry for years and I’m sure they each had stories that tore at them at the beginning of their careers.
One of my biggest fears is not feeling anything while covering terrible stories. I’m scared one day I’ll watch a police officer tell a mother the body they found in a ditch was her son and not feel a thing.
That is the day I will start looking for a new job.