A few weeks ago, one of our clients faced the most heartbreaking of all losses: the death of his child.
It was an accident, compounded by timing right before Father’s Day and his profession. Local media shared brief reports the day it happened and, as a community, we all murmured our collective sympathy and hugged our own children a little tighter.
One reporter, though, decided to dig in. He landed on the doorstep of this client and let it be known he wouldn’t leave until he got an on-camera interview. Seems the reporter had connected some dots and wanted more details on the tragedy.
The client asked that I intercede, which I did. I placed a polite call, shared a statement that could be used publicly and informed the reporter that the family – the family of the child who had died less than 24 hours before – asked for no further details to be shared. No interviews to be given. No nothing – just the space and the quiet to grieve as a family for what no family should ever have to bear.
The death of their child.
I was disappointed to receive a second call later that afternoon, then a third, from rival stations trying to confirm what the first reporter shared: names and insider details from the aftermath of the accident, shared by the elderly grandfather of a colleague who didn’t realize the family – the family – had asked for nothing to be shared. While I don’t blame the grandfather, I do blame the reporter for continuing to poke when he had been asked to leave the family to its mourning.
Oh, the reporter got the story that led the 6 p.m. broadcast that night. That garnered an explosion of sympathy on social media, with hundreds of interactions and shares. He once again beat his competition – but at what price?
My client is not an elected official. He’s not a public figure. He’s not one of our community’s wealthy families who put themselves into the public eye. My client did nothing to encourage the initial coverage of his child’s death – and everything to discourage it.
As a former reporter, I understand the mantra of the public’s right to know. At their highest and best, journalists serve as the “fourth estate,” watching over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to keep them honest.
But that wasn’t the case here. This was an accident, a member of our community turned into a grieving parent. There was no public right to know any of the details unless the family wished to share them. This was plain rubbernecking and back-fence gossip disguised as “reporting.”
And it sickened and angered me.
And it wasn’t the first time. Over the past two decades, I’ve walked alongside clients at some of the worst moments of their lives. The closing of longtime family businesses. Embezzlements and betrayals that broke hearts and bank accounts. Kidnappings, murders and deaths of frontline employees and C-suite executives. A mass shooting that stole four lives from another family business.
I do what I always do. Hug the client, in person or over the phone, and then go out and do my job. I square my shoulders and stand between them and the rest of the world so my clients can face the worst of times on their own terms.
I provide statements and photos. I answer questions and offer details as I am permitted. I stand guard – at businesses, churches and funeral homes. I prevent reporters and gadflies from getting in. I escort people out. I take the abuse, sarcasm and anger so the families – the families who are reeling from their pain – do not have to.
After all these years, I’ve come to realize a simple truth: Your right to know ends with my right to grieve.
While I realize we all grieve differently and some people want and need to talk with the media about their losses, that’s just not the case for everyone. When people try to assert their right to privacy, absent an over-riding need-to-know for the welfare of the community, do them a favor.
Leave them alone.
If you want to report on something that DOES impact our community, I’d welcome you to attend any of the city commissions, township boards, planning commissions or dozens of other public meetings where decisions are made each and every day. About infrastructure. Clean water. Parks. Roads. Public safety. All the things that make our community that proverbial great place to work, live and raise a family.
Stories on these may not get the social media clicks, but they should. I would argue this is where important things are happening in our community – even if media no longer show up to the vast majority of them.