A television reporter once asked me if I ever felt like a vulture. It was shortly after the fatal accident at the go-kart track last April and he seemed troubled by the effect media coverage may have had on the grieving family.
"Somebody’s gotta do it," I said, not really thinking much about it at the time. After all, "vulture" isn't a new description of the media in relation to tragedy and industry slogans like "if it bleeds, it leads" certainly appear to support that label. Not to mention consumers of news, who seem to collectively hold death and puppies in equal esteem.
But tragedy and death are just part of what sustains us. In that respect, I suppose we're more like bears than vultures, and the endangered status of several bear species fits the description.
We were at a bar, however, and I wasn't in the mood to get into animal analogies and a whole media ethics debate while T-Pain's Auto-Tuned voice spewed in the background, so when he unsatisfyingly replied, "Yeah, I guess," we left it at that.
Never miss a local story.
The tragedy of Jorge and J.J. Mendez, who died in a collision with a semi truck Halloween night, was a rough reminder of the concept.
I headed to the site of the crash the next afternoon, coincidentally the same time that a dozen or so of the teenagers' family members and friends were there sifting through the wreckage in search of mementos.
This is probably the area of my job in which I have the least experience and the language barrier I encountered only compounded the problem as what amounted to a game of teléfono ensued when people who hadn't been within earshot asked others about who I was and what I was doing there. It's not that I thought they were botching the explanations of my intent, but interpersonal connection is paramount in gaining the trust of your subjects — a connection that can be tough to translate.
It’s also tough to maintain a balance between keeping a respectful distance and getting a gripping emotional shot, and my inexperience shows in the take — especially in this photo:
A shot in which I've awkwardly positioned the streetlight sticking out of somebody's head, ruining a serious moment with compositional incompetence and visual silliness.
Now, I could make a bunch of excuses for my poor shooting, like how this was deep into a busy day that started with crawling around in muck, or how the family members found what they believed to be an ear in the wreckage, or even because the soccer game I was scheduled to shoot was already well under way.
But I won't do that.
It really comes down to a discomfort I used to feel on all assignments, a self-conscious, oh-jeez-I'm-sorry-I-have-to-do-this discomfort.
A couple days later, I went with reporter Paula Horton to meet with Lucia Mendez, the mother of the victims. She had already said that she wouldn't be going on camera, but the family had old photos of the boys growing up, so I was sent to shoot photos of the photos and to be there in case she changed her mind.
Nobody at the paper applied any pressure on me to get a photo of Lucia, but I was told to see what I could do.
During the course of the interview, we discovered that she had already had a stillborn infant in 1989, her 3-month-old son died from sudden infant death syndrome three years ago and that she had a 20-year-old son who had become mentally disabled after contracting spinal meningitis when he was 10 months old. Add all this to the fact that Jorge had been battling leukemia since 2004 and that J.J. took care of his mentally disabled brother while Lucia was at work.
It's tough to empathize with that level of grief or say anything comforting. What could you possibly say? That it's going to be OK? This poor woman has heard that enough times in her life to know that it can't be true.
In the end, it didn't take much to convince her to sit for a quick portrait. I'm happy to say there's no trick to the turnaround, no sleazy sales pitch or cheesy hand-holding and hugging. Just being there and showing that you care is all it takes sometimes.
As I was writing this, I considered trying to get in touch with the family to see how the media coverage had affected them. Maybe somebody was moved by Lucia's unimaginable predicament and at least helped alleviate her financial troubles from the medical bills she amassed while her son battled cancer. Maybe an outpouring of support from neighbors helped the family through a difficult time.
I was afraid of what I might find, however, and hesitated at the thought of possibly ripping off her emotional scabs for a few sentences in my blog.
There are a lot of reasons we do what we do, and getting the word out about those in need is certainly one of them. But at the heart of our purpose, we serve as a historical record for the community. Tragedy, like it or not, grips the public's attention and plays a huge role in shaping the life of a community.
Somebody does have to do it, though. Without media coverage of nasty traffic accidents, far fewer would be aware of trouble spots and people would be less apt to try and fix them. We grow by learning from our collective mistakes, just as I will improve through repetition and by learning from my mistakes in covering this tragedy.
But if I don't get better at it anytime soon, I think I'll be OK with that.