Foster: A task reporters dread

Foster: A task reporters dread

April 10th, 2011 by J. Todd Foster in Opinion Columns

Hands down, a journalist's worst duty is reaching out to the relatives of accident and murder victims.

None of us wants to do it. But humanizing crime victims amid a society that has grown desensitized over violence is our job - one that thankfully we're not asked to do often.

In the wake of Chattanooga Police Sgt. Tim Chapin's shooting death eight days ago, allegedly by a robbery suspect, this newspaper has come under fire itself for making one phone call to Chapin's home.

Police and courts reporter Todd South didn't relish making that call. He was respectful and sensitive and was treated with grace by a woman he believes to be Chapin's widow, who politely declined to be interviewed. Todd has made several of these calls in his role as a journalist and does it with compassion.

For that one phone call, he has been inundated with hate mail from police officers, one of whom anonymously emailed with the subject line "Insensitive Prick." It stated, "You should be ashamed, but apparently you don't have the ability."

Wrote another anonymous police officer: "What a sorry, inconsiderate, heartless individual you are. You should be fired!"

These calls are standard operating procedure in our business and occur regardless of the victim's professional or socioeconomic standing.

The criticism didn't stop with Todd. Even our editorial cartoonist, Clay Bennett, was trashed after a tribute that featured Chapin's badge with the words "Chattanooga Police Department" replaced with "SERVICE DUTY BRAVERY."

Clay's only sin was to draw the exact badge, which for some inexplicable reason has the words "CORPORATION SEAL" on it. Outraged police officers made the point that Chapin died serving and protecting the community, not a corporation.

Unfortunately, these police officers apparently have never looked closely at their own badges.

Chapin's death indeed is a community tragedy. Our news coverage of the events from that awful April 2 have reflected that, as well as honored Chapin and every other police officer.

The overreaction by local police to this newspaper might not even be rooted in Chapin's death but in this newspaper's dogged requests for records deemed public by the Tennessee Open Records Act.

Those records include incident and arrest reports, internal affairs reports and other documents that are open to citizens. Without those records, there's no way we can fully inform you.

Department officials had rather not deal with us except when they want us to run surveillance photos to help them identify suspects.

The truth is, the police department needs this newspaper as a community conduit. Crime fighting and prevention are not possible one taxpayer at a time. We reach hundreds of thousands of readers through our printed product and online site, timesfreepress.com. To do our jobs effectively, we need police departments and local governments to be transparent and accountable.

Our jobs also include making painful telephone calls to the survivors of murder victims.

Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at The Poynter Institute, a journalism training institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., knows a little bit about murdered police officers: Her city has had three in the past few months.

McBride said during a telephone interview Thursday that St. Petersburg police opened up to the local newspapers and embraced how those reporters humanized the fallen officers.

"There is a generic assumption that most people make when you say 'police officer,'" McBride said. "They assume former military. They assume some sort of tough guy. And the reality is that cops are as different from one another as any other profession.

"Until you can figure out a way to humanize them, the public never really realizes what they've lost. So it's really out of respect to reach out to the people who loved this person the most so that they can tell his story. We tend to develop emotional understanding when we know some human details about someone's life. You know, he coached soccer, or loved to garden or was a marathon runner. Not everybody appreciates cops in the first place. By telling his story and telling the public details about who he was, you draw more people into his story."

Amid widespread desensitization to crime, our job is to break through to our readers' emotional sides - not just when a police officer is killed but when anyone is - to make them care about matters of community concern. Crime, unfortunately, is one of those issues.

I don't believe a police officer's life is worth any more than anyone else's. It's always a tragedy when life is stolen from an innocent.

It's our job to put a face on such tragedies, however. And that makes us misunderstood. Some think we're heartless and insensitive and will do anything to sell a newspaper.

Reporters don't think about newspaper sales. They think about telling the kinds of stories that will benefit communities or right wrongs.

For the record, reporter Todd South has never been a police officer who served and protected his community.

But he was a five-year, combat Marine who was among the first wave on the ground in Iraq. And he didn't deserve this.