A Reporter’s Penance: Why I’m helping survivors work with journalists

Ken Garfield is a freelance writer/editor.

I still wince at some of the things I did in pursuit of a story during my 31 years in newspapers. 

After a fatal elementary school bus crash, I planted myself in the ER, intending to interview injured students and grieving loved ones. I got one or two. 

When a chicken processing plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, killed 25, and The Charlotte Observer flooded the small town with reporters, I landed an interview with a survivor. I was in his living room, scribbling notes, anticipating a 1A byline, when out of the next room appeared a fellow Observer reporter with the same idea. We quibbled over who would get the interview. We had to call the newsroom and have an editor settle it. I “won.” I recall the survivor watching this low moment in journalism play out. He was still coughing from smoke inhalation.

This is why I have volunteered to help victims and survivors of high-profile tragedies navigate the sudden attention of the press and public: Penance.

Former journalist David Guarino is the brains behind the nonprofit Survivors Say. A former Boston Herald reporter, spokesman for the Massachusetts Attorney General, and partner in a communications firm, he has recruited an all-volunteer team of former journalists and PR types to do better by victims, survivors, and their families. He covered 9/11. This isn’t new to him.

Survivors Say is in its infancy, but the plan is to provide one-on-one support after, say, a school shooting or act of terror. Crafting a statement for the press. Speaking, at least initially, for the individual or family in the spotlight. Taking media calls. Setting up interviews or politely telling a reporter, “It’s not time.” Organizing a news conference. Preparing videos and print materials to counsel victims and survivors on how best to respond to questions. In whatever way volunteers can help, we will. 

The intent isn’t to keep a reporter from getting what he or she needs. It’s to facilitate the pursuit of news in a way that doesn’t further crush a person whose head is spinning and heart is broken. Survivors Say is reaching out to law enforcement, health care, and victim advocates, so they can point prospective “clients” in our direction.

God knows we live in a society where one word sends reporters scurrying for the next flight out. Uvalde. Parkland. Sandy Hook. Whatever comes next. With so many news platforms, those caught up in tragedy are at the mercy of reporters whose online deadlines are always “NOW.”

I was driving through Hamlet, North Carolina, recently, got off the highway and spent a few moments in front of the memorial to victims of the chicken processing plant fire. It’s been 31 years nearly to the day since I “won” that interview. I still think about it. Now, through Survivors Say, I get to do something about it.

Ken Garfield is a freelance writer/editor in Charlotte, North Carolina. He spent 31 years in newspapers, starting as the No. 2 guy on a two-person staff at The Millerton News in upstate New York. You could buy the weekly at the store that also sold guns and milkshakes. He spent 21 years at The Charlotte Observer as an assistant sports editor, bureau chief, reporter, columnist and religion editor. He wrote Billy Graham’s obituary a decade before the evangelist and Charlotte native died in 2018. He still has the miracle coins Mother Teresa gave him during a visit to Charlotte. Reach him at [email protected].

John Drescher, contributing editor at The Assembly, looks back on the lessons learned and often ignored after the Hamlet fire. Drescher covered the fire for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and was later executive editor of The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

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