It’s a cartoonish yet strikingly common stereotype of reporters: the stoic, insensitive young member of the press stopping at nothing to get to the bottom of the story, pushing through grieving crowds at the scene of an accident, staring heartbroken mothers in the eye and pressing on with invasive questions, their stoney faces juxtaposed against the red, tear-filled eyes at a funeral.
I would like to thank TV shows such as Law and Order for helping to convince people that my profession is full of such jaded young journo-bots.
It is true that journalism has given me a tough skin — even in my days of student journalism. I remember after only working as a senior reporter with my student paper for two months hearing that there had been a car accident at the major intersection of our campus. I immediately grabbed a recorder and bolted for the scene, a photographer in tow. I remember not even hesitating to extend my arm and fan spectators out of the way as I approached a girl my age who had been hit by the car and proceeded to interview her. I was shocked at the authority in my normally flippant and feminine voice as I told people to get out of my way — I was press. Press.
This is the same woman who still cries out of frustration when she can’t finish a climbing route fast enough. Just the other night, I began to think about the possibility of my mother developing Alzheimer’s and burst into tears out of nowhere.
My very first interview was in fact a woman who was still grieving the loss of her father some months later. I knew this; I was interviewing her about a charity bike race she had completed in his honour. And the very first question I asked resulted in tears in her eyes — which of course caused tears to well in my own eyes.
Last night was not unlike any other; I was driving home from work listening to As it Happens on CBC Radio. Carol Off was interviewing Leah Parsons, the mother of sexual assault and bullying victim Reteah Parsons. Reteah attempted suicide late last week and her family chose to pull her off of life support on Sunday, April 7. Her long battle with depression from the trauma of not only her sexual assault but her humiliation and betrayal from her friends, peers and school was not something Mrs. Parsons was unfamiliar with. She had done her best to bring her daughter piece of mind and bring her attackers to justice, though the battle was in vain.
At least once a week I hear a radio broadcaster interviewing someone in mourning. They bookend their interviews with seemingly genuine wishes of sympathy. I don’t mean to question their intentions; I know that we are all human and we all know death, especially young death, is always tragic. And I hate to assume that someone in my own field is simply extending their condolences in an attempt to “look good.” However, a career reporter such as Carol Off has surely seen and reported on such a high number of tragedies and interviewed a staggering amount of grieving mothers in her time that this is nothing shocking, correct?
As the interview ends, Mrs. Parsons’ composed facade begins to crumble, her voice begins to waiver, and we hear the painful helplessness of a mother who has lost her child. It’s impossible for me to hold back tears in my eyes as I imagine her clutching the phone, her eyes fixed on nothing, haplessly wishing for her daughter to return home.
Carol Off extends her sympathies once again, this time more insistently, with a softer voice. She then asks Leah Parsons if she’s going to be okay. Parsons answers in the affirmative. She asks her final question — is someone with her? Parsons says yes, a house full of people. Jeff Douglas concludes the story.
Are reporters a special breed? Do we have skins of steel? Do our eyes not well with tears? Must we force ourselves to stop empathizing and sympathizing as a defence mechanism in order to better perform our jobs?
The answer is no — at least, not entirely.
It is precisely that sensitivity and empathy which makes a story compelling, human and worth reading.