Feeling strangers’ deaths

THERE’S an hierarchy in journalism. An international reporter, a war reporter, a New York Times photographer. These are far beyond the level that I am at; a community reporter of an outback mining town. A hack journalist. If I broke a story and Newcorp or ABC decided it was worth following up – and it added nothing new to my own angle – their version would still be the one found on Google.

It feels then that talking about reporting death is something that should be reserved for a war reporter, an international standard journalist. Someone witnessing the aftermath of mass murder, savage violence, torture. A hero returning after imprisonment in third world countries.

I just feel shaken up every time I write about death. When I emotionally invest in a dead person I never met when they were alive. I’ve lost count how many times this has happened in five years. Eight times maybe? A conservative figure. Children, middle-aged, elderly citizens.

A man died in a crash on the highway and you could see the smoke from 12 kilometres away when a cattle road train crashed to avoid his car. Now. I was not the first there. The police, and the paramedics, and the council workers were. They saw the mess left behind. I was safe behind cordoned off lines.

I saw nothing. And this is always the case.

It was okay when his identity was only an age and a gender. Like any. It’s easy when it’s those vague details because it could be anyone. They are just a hypothetical idea.

But I learned his name.

And then I grew attached. I learned about his character, I learned the musician he enjoyed, his drink of choice, and his first word.

Still, it’s easier now. I suppose I recognise that being emotionally impacted is a selfish sense of ownership.

About a month ago I attended a funeral for a cattle grazier. The family supported me taking photos at the memorial, and I followed their lead, but there were a few at the back of the room glaring at me, assuming I was intruding.

I was recording. I knew what I was doing. I had a sense of purpose and it was about honouring the memory of a person by acknowledging his contributions and the loss of it all.

Still, as I write about a life, before it ends in death, I wonder how I can sum it up. There’s so much going on, a life deserves a book. And yet I’m trying to sum it all up in quotes within a few hundred words. I write about a person I don’t know in a short time. This is where the stakes, of honour and memory and accuracy, are high.

truck shadow.jpg
Trucks waiting for the highway to reopen after a death on the road. 

I’m more confident in getting it right about a life, but it wasn’t always the case.

I was a cadet and three months into the job when a little boy died in my town. I went to his family’s house to ask if they wanted to talk, after the major papers did the same, and I was shaking. Nervous. To my surprise the family were supportive. The mother burst into tears, and I still hear that, but they welcomed what I was doing. They needed it, in a way, for kind words of their love to be repeated and spread to the community.

That night I couldn’t sleep, afraid. Wondering why I deserved a byline for doing nothing at all. I was afraid I’d get the facts wrong. And I woke, and went to work, and felt shaken up a while.

A couple of people died. I interviewed them before or after this happened. My regional manager said, almost tongue-in-cheek, “I’m worried about you mate. People you interview keep dying.”

And that’s an exaggeration. I’m just there when I’m needed.

The day I don’t care anymore, the day I stop feeling and absorbing the loss, is the day I know I need to stop writing about it. But here I am, slipping into some self-righteous martyrdom. But I need that.