The Spokesman-Review : interns

Friday, July 28, 2006

Sam Taylor: Covering death

Today I wrote a story on a well-known man in the community who died. I thought this was a good time to throw out some pointers for those who may have never done coverage of such happenings.

These events are difficult for everyone, including the journalist. If you're human, it can be difficult to ask someone to share their personal stories with you about someone who they've lost. It's difficult to sit there and watch as a person breaks down while they try to tell you the story, without perhaps crying yourself, the whole time knowing you're basically an intruder who is being paid to get information from them.

But covering deaths or similar tragedies (perhaps a severe injury, etc.) is important in order to pay tribute to people. Sure, you're doing a job, but you've already got one of the best jobs in the world; you write for a living, and you must share the story of this person with the public.

First, a disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on covering tragedy or death. But I will lay out a background of some issues I have covered so perhaps you have a perspective of why I think the way I do - or why I handle such coverage the way I do.

In about a one-month period I helped to cover the death of a University of Idaho football player who was murdered at his apartment, the deaths of two fraternity brothers who crashed a motorcycle right in front of their house during a drunk-driving incident and another motorcyle death.

I've written features on people who have been in severe car wrecks and lived while their best friend died. I have covered several other tragedies - from a girl killed by a truck while jogging, to a student whose wife (who he met while she was on a foreign exchange program to his small Idaho town) died because of her seatbelt, and she may have been pregnant.

So I've got a background in these types of things. Still, I don't think I'm an expert - but writing what I do know may help you and if you have any thoughts, please feel free to share them. The more we know, the better.

  • First, it can be hard to approach victims. Some of the best ways is to be less aggressive and try the phone. Generally, I hate phone interviews, but an easy way to break the ice is to call up and try to arrange a meeting from there. You want a physical interview to gain details about the people you speak with and their surroundings.
  • Make sure to tell the person that you are sorry for their loss. It's an easy way to break the ice and make the conversation easier.
  • When you speak with the spouse or family members of a loved one, be considerate. Victims or those who have lost somebody do not have to speak with you. Really, they're doing you a favor agreeing to an interview and you should realize that.
  • Don't get angry if someone does not want to speak with you. Remember that they're probably going through a rough time.
  • Sometimes people can be outraged and can't believe you're calling at a time when they're hurting so bad. Try to explain to them that you're writing a story so they have the opportunity to share with the public who their loved one was. Tell them you don't want to get anything wrong and by them sharing it will help you.
  • Always try to contact friends and family. Don't feel scared to call or knock on a door. The worst they can do is say no, or - you know - hit you, but that's probably a rare thing.
But consider this: Say the person who died was a young kid in a gang. Think how his parents might feel if you DIDN'T call and the entire story was about his rap sheet. What about the stories of that young man as a child who played soccer and got straight A's? If you don't call - you don't get that part of the story, and that's a disservice to that person's memory. Remember - your goal is to be fair and accurate.

That's some general stuff. I hope it helps in some way. Some other points are to remember details of surroundings, remember to get good background on the person and some great anecdotes and quotes. Remember, also, that you can't use it all. It can be a challenge because there is pressure to tell the story well when you're writing about someone who has died or been severely injured.

Good luck and enjoy your Friday.


  • Sam, I love reading whatever you write. You are very talented at writing, and I'm glad to see that you are sharing your knowledge and experience with others.

    By Anonymous Your biggest Fan, at 4:27 PM  

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