When Scripps Howard News Service multimedia journalist Kristin Volk asked me if I wanted to help her cover Police Week’s candlelight vigil, I excitedly answered, “Yes!” without stopping to clearly process what she just said. I was excited to get on the scene and watch a real TV reporter work her magic. I didn’t even give the phrase “candlelight vigil” any thought until we got to the scene, where I saw police officers crying for the first time in my life.
We were at the finale of Police Week, a ceremony commemorating the fallen officers of the past year – a year that marked a record number of police killings. Needless to say, my happy-go-lucky attitude was immediately overshadowed by the weight of the event. My past experiences with police officers involve tickets, fines and a ton of macho-like sarcasm. Seeing hundreds of teary-eyed officers, unashamed of their vulnerable state of mind, made me take a step back and reassess every notion I had about the people who commit their lives to protecting perfect strangers. But I still felt detached from their sadness. I was witnessing their grief, but not taking part in it with them.
Phrases like “My prayers are with you” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” came out of my mouth genuinely, but I didn’t understand these people’s grief. I have not committed my life to a career that entails so much loss. So when Kristin told me my job was to find colleagues of fallen officers who would go on camera for their city’s TV news station, I answered, “Sure!” but thought, “Oh, God. Really?”
What exactly is the right way to approach a person in mourning? I was on the clock, and they were at a memorial ceremony for their brothers, and our mentalities had to cross paths. How was I supposed to do this?
The first person I approached was the wife of an officer whose colleague had been killed by gunfire. When she introduced me to her husband, his eyes were red and puffy and he was sniffling. I told him I was sorry for his loss but once I mentioned the word “camera” he immediately began to shake his head. I don’t think he even realized he was doing that, but unbeknownst to him, his body was speaking for him.
It wasn’t until I changed my approach that officers began to comply with me. I realized I was projecting my own shock and grief at them and it wasn’t helping. I decided to do what I do when I have no options left: be positive.
Instead of acknowledging his or her sadness, I emphasized the greatness of his or her fallen friend. My “pitch,” if you will, became one of a compassionate human and not a reporter on the job. For example: “I’d like to interview a colleague of Brian Huff’s who can really speak to why this memorial is so important for fallen officers like him. I’m looking for someone who knew him personally and can tell us what he was like.”
I learned more during my change of approach than I did in an entire year of journalism school. They don’t teach Humanity 101 at Florida International University, but maybe they should consider adding it to the core curriculum. I learned that, even though I was on the scene as a reporter, I wasn’t going to get any information unless I remained a compassionate human. I learned that objectivity does not mean I have to be stoic, removed or detached. And I was relieved to find out that I can be a journalist and still be me at the same time.