A mother's grief

August 6, 2009 

I wrote back in January that if I didn't get better at covering tragedy anytime soon, I'd be OK with that. Luckily, I haven't had to cover anything terribly tragic since then, but that changed in a big way on Monday, Aug. 3, when Carlos Rivera, 16, of Pasco, drowned at Schlagel Park while swimming with friends.

When I arrived at the park, it was already a mad house, with Pasco fire and police working to control the crowd and figure out where Rivera might be as they waited for Columbia Basin Dive Rescue. I heard a television reporter groan, "I don’t want to have to see a dead body tonight," and while I completely agreed with him, I couldn’t help but feel that the sentiment was a little self-centered. As much as it sucks to cover drownings, fires and car wrecks, reporting on the nightmare can't compare to living it.

I wandered toward a big crowd surrounding a couple authorities and made some photos of Pasco fire lieutenant Bob Arnold talking with Peter Moreno as they tried to piece together several witness accounts to triangulate Rivera’s position:

Soon, however, only family was allowed near the shoreline as the search began. I grabbed a couple scene-setters before retreating to where police wanted the media and rubberneckers to stand:

Reporter Ingrid Stegemoeller and I talked to family members as they made their way to and from shore and started to piece together more of what happened. I flagged down Peter Moreno after he was done helping officials on the dock and heard his terrifying take on the incident. Moreno, also 16, had tried to save Rivera, but had to let him go after he started getting pulled under as well.

"The worst part was feeling him trying to grab onto my legs," he said.

Rivera's mother, Josefina Gonzalez, arrived on scene around this time and was understandably unhinged. Her haunting wails could be heard from where we were standing 100 yards back, and her emotion was a constant amid the ebb and flow of grief from the rest of the family as they stood by during the three-hour ordeal.

I tried making frames to combine the elements of rescue workers and distraught family, but was unsuccessful in capturing anything that communicated the emotion of the scene:

That changed when Gonzalez was overcome with grief as she stopped by a police cruiser during the search:

This, along with the first photo of Morales helping officials locate the body, accompanied the front page story on Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, there was some reader backlash to the photo of Gonzalez in the form of phone calls, online comments, emails to Stegemoeller and letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, I didn't receive a single email or phone call directly — perhaps the one silver lining in the predominant assumption that the "journalist" part of photojournalist is purely decorative.

Here are a few of the comments:

I think it is rude and insensitive that you posted that mother of the drowned boy's photo in the paper....that you would even have a photographer take her picture is insensitive and rude....shame on you. This isn't national news. This is a small community. You guys royally suck. Do you think she's going to enjoy seeing her photo in the paper? How would you like your nightmares plastered all over the news? Why don't I take your picture when your child dies? Just because you have the right to do it doesn't mean you should.

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I think the picture on the front page of the Herald this morning showed extremely poor taste. Showing a Mother who is smack dab in the middle of the single worst nightmare any parent could imagine is in my opinion cruel. I know that you have a job to do, but I can't help but think that if a journalist used a little discretion it would help to quiet the negative opinion that people in general have for the media. Just my two cents!!!!

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I just wanted to comment on the picture that made the front page of the Tri City Herald on Tuesday 08/04/09. This picture sickens me. I am sure that the Herald could have chosen a different picture then showing a mother bawling her eyes out because she has just lost her son due to a tragedy. That picture will live with Family and Friends forever. That picture made me sick to my stomach seeing a mother have to go through something like that. It is already heartbreaking to hear such a sad story but then to see a picture like that to go along with the story. Come on Herald, I am sure you took more then just the 2 pictures published. There is no way a mother would give permission for a picture like that to be published. My sincere apologies go out to the family for the Herald. God Bless the family with their loss of a young loved one. HEARTBREAKING....

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I have heard that losing a child is the worst pain that can be felt on earth. I wouldn't know but I have lost a brother and can't imagine having to deal with the press while trying to deal with a death of a close family member. Yet you invade Josefina Gonzalez' grief with a photo of her just after losing her 16 year old son on the front page of your newspaper. I believe that there is no other purpose for this than to sell papers. Insensitive. Sensationalist. Good job, Herald. Really good job.

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Imagine that you just lost your 16 year-old son in a very tragic accident. Still reeling with grief you pick up the morning paper off your porch and see your own very agonizing, very private moment captured in a full color picture and plastered above the fold.

Now imagine a local newspaper with a soul. A newspaper editor who looks at the picture and empathizes with your pain. A newspaper that won't trade in on your personal tragedy for money.

I was ashamed to be a subscriber to your newspaper.

Now, imagine me canceling my subscription.

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Although I don't need to defend the actions of myself or the Herald, I feel an explanation from somebody who was there might aid the dialogue — much of which was surprisingly cordial on the online discussion, minus troll todaysmyluckyday's ignorant comment, "There were signs that said no swimming, what next are we going to be sued because they weren't in Spanish?" and a few other incendiary remarks.

A common theme throughout the complaints is that I invaded the mother’s privacy and the paper exploited her grief in order to boost sales. The letters imply a certain level of greedy enjoyment on our end — that the mental cha-ching I heard as I made a picture of Gonzalez was loud enough to overpower her wails of despair.

Believe me when I say there was absolutely nothing enjoyable about covering this or any other tragic event. The overwhelming emotion that surrounded me after the recovery of Rivera’s body will stay with me the rest of my life. I even debated whether I really wanted to write this column — essentially devoting a whole week to thinking about the ordeal.

But there's a difference between what you want and what you need to do, and that applies to the heart of the issue. As one reader correctly assumed, I did take more than two pictures. Any of the search photos above would have been fine to accompany the story, but none of them would have had the same impact as seeing a mother's grief. There wouldn't have been as much discussion about the story online, which I'm guessing reflected real-life conversations within the community, and that’s the point of covering stories like this. If one person remembers seeing the consequences of swimming in dangerous areas and thinks twice before doing so, then we've done our job.

Detractors angrily tell us that we should be ashamed for poorly serving the community, but it would have been an egregious disservice to follow online commenter MsRoss’s advice that "This article should have been a blurb with minimal intrusion into this family's tragedy." MsRoss not only objected to the photo, but added that "No one needs to know that the family 'lined the shore during the search and wailed when the boy's body was found.'"

If the photo makes readers uncomfortable because it's hard to look at a grieving mother, that's part of the point. There's nothing nice about what happened on Monday, and I imagine the loss of your son is already the worst feeling in the world regardless of whether your grief was documented in the local paper.

Perhaps the backlash is a semi-positive side effect of the relatively safe and small community we live in. The residents here haven't become accustomed to death and tragedy like they have in other places where images of distraught mourners and grisly scenes are commonplace. My friend and college newspaper colleague Conner Jay certainly had a much different experience during his time as a photo intern at the Jersey Journal, where "violence and tragedy were expected, and so was the emotional response," he wrote me in an email.

Regardless, the backlash here was anything but unexpected, which should dispel the ridiculous accusation that we were trying to cash in on Gonzalez's grief. True, there are photographers who happily think of contest wins and portfolio additions when covering tragic events, but the vast majority of photojournalists are just trying to tell a story with their images. To lump us all together at the level of paparazzi is as unfair as labeling all Arabs as terrorists or priests as pedophiles.

Besides, the Herald doesn't pay enough for me to do anything I feel is unethical.

It's a debate worth having, however, and the story comments managed to maintain civilized discourse (by web standards) until Wednesday when it somehow took a web-worthy turn toward welfare and Native Americans. I doubt this column will sway many opinions, since this argument is almost as old as mass media, but my hope is that I've taken the edge off of some of the more outlandish remarks.

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kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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