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Talking to a family about a death ...

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Rhody31, Feb 28, 2010.

  1. Rhody31

    Rhody31 Well-Known Member

    Last Thursday, a local school's football and softball coach was killed in a tragic one-car accident. I was at the school Friday to cover the final basketball game of the year and got a ton of stuff from his players, administrators and the such, but I decided to wait a couple days to talk to his family.
    I've been staring at the phone for 10 minutes and can't bring myself to do call his wife. I've done stories like this before, but the interviews have always been in person. I'm dreading making this call. Do I ask if I could swing by to talk?
    It's weird because I've always been gung-ho about getting stories, but this is a tough one for me.
  2. Sam Mills 51

    Sam Mills 51 Active Member

    Whatever makes them comfortable. If it's a phoner, you're covered. If a home visit is fine with the family, then do so. But the emphasis should be on whatever the family might prefer.

    Unless you're asking the sort of questions that deal with foul play or something afoul of the law, a little courtesy and common kindness goes a long way in these sorts of situations.

    Good luck.
  3. Moondoggy

    Moondoggy Member

    Go through an intermediary, such as a relative or close friend, if that's possible.

    If and when you do meet, let her take the lead. Often a question as simple as, "Help me tell this story" is good enough. Make it a conversation more than an interview.

    Sometimes, the subject actually wants to talk because it's cathartic. But if not, that's OK. Be courteous, discreet, and do a lot more listening than you do talking.
  4. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    Yes, make it a conversation. Maybe try some kind of light anecdote to start. I talked to a college basketball player whose Dad was killed in a workplace accident, and in my background interviews I got some hilarious stories about how the guy was a big eater (and he was a stringbean-size man). So I started the conversation with the kid by saying something like, "so, I heard your Dad could put away some food," which made him smile and set the tone for as comfortable of a conversation as possible, given the circumstances.
  5. Wenders

    Wenders Well-Known Member

    Yes, yes. Unless you know the wife, have met her on several occasions and have held some conversations with her so she knows who you are and that she can trust you, I would find someone you know who knows the family and could approach them about this. You don't want to appear cold and heartless, talking to them too soon about this whole thing when they're still dealing with funeral arrangements.

    Good luck.

    Also, another good opener, just to get them talking, would be something like, "Describe him to me." or "Tell me about him." Something from her perspective to open her up and make her realize that you do care.
  6. Baron Scicluna

    Baron Scicluna Well-Known Member

    One thing you may want to do is not whip out the notepad or the tape recorder right away, in order to make the family feel more comfortable.

    I remember reading a biography of WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle, where he never took notes when he interviewed soldiers, only listened to their stories. The only time he would ever pull out the notebook and pencil was to write down the spellings of their names and their hometowns.
  7. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    Bottom line, in this business you sometimes have to do what you think is intrusive and ask questions you think might be awkward or sensitive.

    But you suck it up and do your job. The stories on deaths are scary, but very often people want to talk about their loved ones and want to see something in the paper on them. So it's really not as bad as you think it might be. Often a very good interview.

    But, yes, sometimes you want to talk to the brother or nephew rather than the wife of 30 years. mother or one closest to the deceased.
  8. Stitch

    Stitch Active Member

    Most people want to talk, but usually want to wait until after the funeral. I was the "death" story guy at my last shop and felt I did a good job of telling a story of someone's life.

    I also talk to neighbors and co-workers to get a better sense of what type of person the subject was.
  9. crusoes

    crusoes Active Member

    Just be prepared for the unexpected. I once called a mother whose daughter had died of cancer, and she was not only eager for me to do the story, she invited me to the funeral.

    After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I declined, because I didn't have a clue of what to do. But I did talk to the mom a couple days later, and it was a great story.

    One of the girls friends asked me a question that haunts me to this day: "Did you have the honor of knowing Becky?"

    I hadn't. I wonder how many people would have that question asked about them.
  10. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    Why wouldn't you go to the funeral if you could make it work with the deadline of the story?
  11. Dyno

    Dyno Well-Known Member

    When my dad died, our two local papers did stories on him. My mom got the call from the writer at the larger paper, out of the blue, and to my surprise, my typically very guarded mother, spent a good amount of time on the phone with him.

    The smaller paper sent a reporter to the funeral. This time, I sat with her. She was extremely respectful, had taken good notes during the service and had very unobtrusively spoken to several of our family members and friends at the funeral home.

    The results were two really good stories about my dad (especially the latter). We were very touched and glad to have had the opportunity to speak to both writers. Rhody, I hope you were able to make the call and I'd like to think the coach's wife felt the same way as my mom and I did.
  12. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    At the very beginning of my career, a huge sports star died rather unexpectedly and his college roommate was a well-known local, so they had me call him to get his reaction. This was, for the most part, pre Internet or at least well before it was as widespread as it is today.

    I got the guy on the phone and rather flippantly said, "Such and such died, I was calling to get your reaction."

    "I didn't know that," he said softly. "Can you call me back in 20 minutes?"

    I was kind of close to deadline and said, "Do you mind telling me why?"

    "One of my best friends just died, I need to cry for a few minutes."

    Holy shit talk about immediately changing the way I EVER made that call again. I felt like shit. I got the guy on the phone 20 minutes later and he was great as he was interrupting my apologies.
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