Reporting with empathy during dire circumstances

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Early on in life, I realized I wasn’t particularly interested in talking about myself. I don’t really think I have anything special to share. I’ve always been more interested in telling the stories of other people.

At The Daily Herald, I’ve often been tasked with telling the stories of those we’ve lost. The young man who wandered out into the mountains and never returned. The beach volleyball enthusiast who drowned out at sea. The son who fell victim to Eagle Falls. Those who have succumbed to fires, car crashes, shootings and, more recently, the coronavirus.

I only hope I tell these stories right, as I talk to family members in their most vulnerable moments. I hope that somehow it will help, to share a loved one’s life with the world. Or that maybe there can be some lesson imparted, about how we can better take care of one another as human beings. I know that isn’t always the case. But it’s my job to be present and to inform the public in the direst of scenarios.

The cathartic moment of talking to a reporter doesn’t always take place right away. Sometimes it doesn’t take place at all. Grief takes on different forms for different people. When possible, I respect privacy, or allow time for people to sort out the grim logistics of death. I let them know that I’m here to listen, whether it’s today, tomorrow, next week or next year. It’s never too late to talk.

Last December, I received an email from a reader, asking about a pair of brief articles written in The Herald nearly 30 years ago, about her fiance who had drowned in Boyd Lake, a few miles out from Granite Falls. She wanted to use it as part of a scrapbooking present for their daughter. While our website doesn’t have stories that far back, I was able to find what she was looking for on microfiche. The mother didn’t have the strength to keep copies back then, but now these slivers of newspaper had become a way to memorialize a family member.

This has been a year of grief. In Snohomish County alone, we’ve lost more than 345 people to COVID-19, a number that is likely to go up as the world braces for a deadly winter wave. That doesn’t include all the others who have been taken too soon, from varying unexpected circumstances. In these times, it’s important for reporters to not only be alert during a tiresome, endless news cycle, but to be empathetic to the tragedies unfolding. Maybe decades from now, we can look back upon this moment, these stories, and get a sense for the great loss we’ve experienced. Maybe we can learn something. Or, if nothing else, we can mourn together.


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