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The worst part of the job

June 22, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

It starts when the alert tones on the police scanner shatter the peace of an ordinary day.

The sound sends emergency personnel scrambling, and for some of us, it means grabbing a camera and notebook, and heading for the parking lot.

It is my least favorite part of the job, but one that is essential.

The calls I hate the most are the fires and the injury accidents.

As I run to the car, I am already envisioning the location and determining the best way to approach the scene so I can get as close as possible and find the best light for photos.

I work out where traffic controls are likely to be placed, and in the back of my head, a stopwatch starts counting down, telling me how much time I have to get the story before deadline.

I think about who is likely to have jurisdiction, and calculate the odds of whether or not I will be able to get an official statement before press time.

Despite these preparations, my role in these situations is a small one.

The important roles are filled by the police, fire, and medical personnel who respond to crises day and night, 365 days per year.

I encounter these people often and have come to know some of them.

Whether they are full-time employees or volunteers, their dedication and professionalism always amazes me.

I watch them go about their business quickly and efficiently under all sorts of conditions.

My first objective is to stay out of their way and let them do their jobs.

From those assigned to traffic control to the ones orchestrating the scene, treating the injured, or running into a burning building, they all have important roles.

My only job is to record what happens and get the story right.

Some of this might seem a bit mechanical, and perhaps it is. There is a danger, any time one works in stressful situations, to try to put things into categories for simplicity.

In the same way hospital staff might refer to patients as the appendix in room 327, or the fracture in room 405, there is a danger of labeling the participants in these little dramas.

Watching a group of hardened journalists at an accident scene, one can almost see them ticking off the who, what, where, when, and why as they get the story.

This is a necessary part of the job, but one must be careful.

I try never to lose sight of the fact that those I encounter are not simply victims or drivers or homeowners. They are people.

From the emergency personnel who respond to the scene to those involved in whatever chaos has occurred, they are people.

I try to remember that, like me, they were going about their business just a few minutes ago with no idea what was ahead.

The responders may have been sitting behind a desk, working on a shop floor, or helping a customer.

The victims may have been going to lunch or asleep in bed when their world was suddenly turned upside down.

They are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They are friends and neighbors, and they are members of the community.

The reason I hate this part of the job is also the reason I approach it the way I do.

I remember that some day, it could be my relative or friend involved in an incident, and I think about how I would feel if that were the case.

It makes me sick when I see my colleagues in the media, especially those in the television news business, who seem to cross the line.

Even when people are experiencing extreme tragedy, there are those who will shove a microphone or a camera in their faces and deprive them of their privacy.

Common sense suggests that a parent who has just lost a child or a person who has just watched his house burn down, destroying everything he owns, deserves some space.

Perhaps it is the competitive nature of the business, or perhaps it is what the public wants, but that doesn’t make it right.

There are ways to get the story while preserving people’s dignity and treating them with respect, and in the community newspaper business, that is the way we operate.

We need to tell the story in order to dispel rumors and inform people about what is happening to their friends and neighbors, but we can do this with a delicate touch.

Graphic images and invading the privacy of victims may improve ratings in Hollywood, but some of us refuse to play that game.

Most reporters do respect the victims and the men and women who work in the emergency services. We appreciate the sheriffs, fire chiefs, police chiefs, and other officials who understand our jobs just as we try to understand theirs.

We rely on them to tell us what they can, when they can. We need them to give us the best access circumstances will allow and to provide us with timely and accurate information.

No one wakes up in the morning expecting to be involved in a situation that could change his life forever, but these things happen.

One can only hope that by treating others with the respect they deserve, we can make the best of a bad situation and tell these important stories without further victimizing those who are already suffering by robbing them of their dignity.