Monday, April 30, 2007

Telling a story without intruding

Sometimes reporters are invited guests, and sometimes it’s just assumed that we’ll be places. But there are other times where I feel like an intruder.

That’s kind of how I felt this week, when I was assigned to cover a memorial service observing the one-year anniversary of a crash that killed four Taylor University students and an employee.

You might have read about some of the developments after the crash.

The identities of two victims were confused. A family from a small northern Michigan community buried their daughter after a funeral that brought more than 1,000 mourners.

The other family stood at the bedside for five weeks while their daughter lay in a coma.
Except that when she awoke, she was able to communicate that she was in fact the girl presumed to have been dead.

I cannot imagine the joy felt by the one family or the despair by the other.

I also realized this was one of those once-in-a-career stories. I don’t think I’ll ever come across anything like it again.

What made it tough was that the families involved refused to talk to the media. That's entirely within their rights. They certainly didn't ask to be thrust into the national spotlight.

The TV types for sure can be intrusive. But I’m safe, at least I try to be. And what people don't realize is that we’re going to write a story anyway. We have to, especially something as amazing as this. It would be better if they could talk to us and make sure we get the right information instead of watching us track down neighbors and friends so we can get some kinds of details.

One of my assignments when this first broke was to head three hours north to the hometown of girl who ended up being alive to, well, talk to neighbors and friends. It was incredible to see the impact she had on this small community and the collective joy people there experienced. I sensed also some collective guilt at being so joyful since their good news plunged another family into mourning, and the people there realized that.

The family kept a blog about the girl’s recovery, and I recommend you start at the first post and read forward for a fascinating and inspiring story. That provided some of the details for us.

I’ve kept up with the story through the months with stories about how this could possibly happen – needless to say, multiple systems broke down in multiple ways – and chronicling the girl’s recovery best as we could.

The anniversary of the crash arrived last Thursday and the paper sent me down to Taylor to cover a memorial service.

Naturally, a nearly four-hour drive provides some opportunities along the way. Well, in places except eastern Indiana, I was thinking as I was more than three hours into the trip without even an interesting rest stop.

Then, as I approached Huntington, Ind., I saw the sign: Dan Quayle Center, United States Vice Presidential Museum.

I was running behind schedule a little after a late start and a driving rain for most of the trip. I thought that I should probably avoid this little side trip. That thought lasted perhaps a nanosecond.

After all, what could possibly be in the Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Museum?

Huntington turned out to be a pretty small and humble place. I pulled up to the museum and guessed it was a former bank. I walked in, surveyed the main room noticed that most of the exhibits appeared to be photos, which made it easy to not stay long.

Two women were sitting right inside the door, and pounced. “Welcome, would you like a tour?” They seemed very disappointed when I said I would only tour the gift shop. I picked up some post cards, a magnet and two campaign buttons from Quayle’s 2000 presidential bid. One is especially cool, noting his “hometown kickoff” on April 14, 1999.

I don’t think they get many visitors because using my debit card was an ordeal that required getting the director to come down and work the register.

This gave us time to talk. Quayle lives in Arizona but comes to the museum at least once a year. His brother was publisher of the Huntington newspaper until it was sold recently.

Apparently the second floor of the museum was dedicated to Quayle and the lower level was for exhibits to the other vice presidents that hail from the Hooiser State. The employees were very nice and I was glad I made the stop.

In fairness, I always thought Quayle didn’t deserve the abuse he received. And he did allow Lloyd Bentsen to get loose with the only line anybody remembers from any vice presidential debate.

But I needed to get back on the road and over to Taylor University, which is a small Christian University in Upland. I pulled up and noticed that some of the television crews had already arrived.

Say this about my electronic competition; it is neither stealth nor subtle. And it seems to be the same no matter what city they come from.

Two massive “storm chaser” rolling billboards/satellite trucks were already parked wherever they damn well pleased alongside the chapel.

Stealth is not an attribute of my competition

I first tracked down the student government president because such people usually like to talk and typically are in the thick of things and can give me some pointers on who to talk to and who to avoid. He was very helpful.

And this is a tricky situation, because anybody who knew the girls knows that the parents didn’t talk to the media, and many of them respected that and didn’t want to talk either – especially with the television types already roaming around campus.

And a lot of these people were still grieving, and the last thing I wanted to do was make them upset.

But I found some nice people eating in the student union, including one who was a close friend of the girl who lived and didn’t mind talking as long as the questions didn’t get too personal.

My job was to write a “color’ story about the mood of the campus, then attend the memorial service to write a short story for our Web page then write a full story and e-mail it back to The Press for the next day’s paper.

After camping in the college union – the students recommended the chicken sandwich – and filing the first story and sending a photo, I went across the street to the chapel and found a seat on the side near the front.

And then in walked the girl who survived and her family. It dawned on me that I had written dozens of stories about her and I had interviewed her friends, teammates, coaches and classmates. Yet this was the first time that I had actually seen the girl in person.

The campus is planning a memorial prayer chapel to be dedicated on the second anniversary of the crash.

I suddenly felt conspicuous and moved to the balcony that hugged the room on three sides, sitting off to the side again where I could observe the speakers and still see the reactions of the girl and her family.

And here’s where I felt like an intruder. In these situations we are torn between being an observer and a participant.

The speaker asked everyone to stand and sing two songs, then later to bow their heads in prayer. If I stood it would seem like I was participating. But if I remained seated I would draw attention to myself. I opted to stand and bow my head; writing only when there was something newsworthy being said.

The idea is to be able to be the eyes an ears of our readers and let them know what happened at an event they care about without hurting the people involved.


One More Dying Quail said...

This was a great read about a story I had forgotten. I like the insight into the way good reporters operate.

Anonymous said...

That was a terrible incident that I completely forgot about. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions for both families, plus the royal screw up by the people in charged- was litigation ever brought?
On a lighter note, your red state prejudice is coming out a bit with your reflection on the Dan Quayle museum; of which I’m a bit surprised about because you are usually a very neutral reporter. Dave, he couldn’t spell potato. Potato. Now if it were Carambolas, Kumquats or Lychees I could totally understand. Trust me; I can barely spell my own name, but potato. Could you imagine Belarus, Ukraine or Romania (and those aren’t even the hard ones)...I guarantee you Bush (the smart one) had extra training for the secret service after that incident. I could just see it “You fellow’s better take double training, I go down, and good looking “empty brain smarty pants” gets the job.” I bet you that was the hardest year to belong to the secret service. One more question; which was more interesting, the Burt Reynolds Museum or the Quayle “Museum?”

T.W. Granite Bay

Itsmetsforme said...

"After all, what could possibly be in the Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Museum? "

why potatoees, of course!