Yes, we journalists are human, too

In case you missed it Monday night, Dan Rather, long-time anchor of the CBS Evening News, broke down not once, but twice, during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
It was clear right from the outset that Dan was choking back tears, his lips trembling, his voice cracking several times. And twice, the enormity of the situation proved to be too much.
Both times, he apologized profusely, admonishing himself for his behaviour because “he’s a professional.” The second time, Dave countered back (and I paraphrase because this is a family newspaper), “Good [Lord], you’re a human being.”
People forget that, and so do journalists themselves. It’s drummed into us right from the get-go that reporters (not to mention editors and news anchors) have to be objective. That we cannot get involved with a story for fear of taking sides, or leaving ourselves open to accusations of bias.
But that doesn’t mean we’re robots, either. Just ask Dan Rather.
Don’t get me wrong, objectivity is a good thing. Reporters simply are supposed to be the conduits between events and/or issues and the reader (or listener).
That’s all fine and good–until that heart-wrenching story comes along. When the bombing of that Air India flight off the coast of Ireland about 15 years ago made news, and those vivid pictures of rescue crews recovering debris (and bodies) from the ocean were first broadcast, the anchor of the Ottawa affiliate of CTV was bawling as she read the copy.
Ironically, a friend of mine who was working at a Scarborough weekly newspaper for the summer at the time was assigned to get the story of a local family who had lost their children in the bombing. She spent several hours going through photo albums with the distraught parents, and cried the whole time she was there.
Budding journalists, in J-school, are warned that the worst stories they’ll ever have to cover involve knocking on someone’s door to get a recent picture of their son or daughter who was just killed in a car accident or some other tragic mishap.
For me, that moment first came on a cold December morning back in the late ’80s when word reached the Times office that a mother and two children were killed in a house fire on Third Street West–just a week or two before Christmas.
I went out to take pictures at the scene, and remember to this day framing a swing set in the backyard against the blackened house in the background.
Then it was back to the office to track down the youngsters’ babysitter for information on the family.
Two other memories stand out. I’m still haunted by the picture of the shattered school bus windshield in the freak accident that claimed the life of Fort High student Jennifer Carlson and seriously injured several others.
And when a family member phoned late one morning to see if there was still time to get an obituary for Stephanie Carroll into that day’s paper, the young girl who had fought so valiantly against cancer, I barely could stay composed long enough to correctly write down all the information.
In these instances, and many others over the years, I set aside my emotions and did my job. My friend went back to the office and wrote her story, and wound up winning a provincial award for it. We journalists have to be stoic in times like that, particularly if we work at a community newspaper when tragic stories can hit so close to home.
Journalists aren’t alone, of course. People like the police, firefighters, and paramedics also must do their jobs in the face of horrible tragedy. But they can grieve afterwards, publicly, or seek support like counselling.
Reporters, for some reason, cannot.
Still, once in a while, our humanity shows through. Walter Cronkite, an icon in broadcast journalism, broke down on the air when news of President John F. Kennedy’s death was confirmed. For Dan Rather, it happened Monday night on the Late Show with David Letterman in the aftermath of those terrible terrorist attacks.
It happens to me, too. Only in my case, no one else sees it.

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