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Writing an uncomfortable story

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Jay Sherman, Dec 1, 2008.

  1. Jay Sherman

    Jay Sherman Member

    A local kid passed away recently. He was expected to be a really big part of his varsity team for the next few years (he was only 15), and I spoke to his coach, who gave me 6 pages of interview tonight.

    I have to write the story within the next couple of days but I've never written a glory obit or whatever. Anybody mind PMing me so I can send them my rough draft and get some feedback? I don't really want to post it in this thread just because it's so damn sad. I'd really appreciate a PM or two to help me sort this story out.

    Thanks in advance, you seasoned vets,
    A rookie in the field.
     
  2. It's a testimonial-type story I assume? Let the people you interview tell the story, you don't need to interject your opinion of whether he was a good kid or whether this is tragic. Let those who know him say those things. Extract anecdotes about the kid from your interview subjects and lead with the best one, i.e., if the kid was the class or team clown, or helped old ladies cross the street. Some color will be an appropriate way to kick it off, the rest of it should write itself.
    Good luck.
     
  3. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    How did he die?
     
  4. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    I hope you spoke to folks in addition to his coach -- teammates, parents, teachers, etc.
     
  5. crusoes

    crusoes Active Member

    SG and Ace are right. Don't overwrite it. Just let the story flow.

    Another thing to keep in mind: I've found that in emotional situations, you may get only three questions or so before the person is overcome by emotion. It's perfectly understandable, but it happens.

    My rule is you may get to ask maybe three questions, so you have to make them good ones while also being kind. Kindness and respect go a long way, both in this instance and in the future, because you'd better believe that the people you talk to who are quoted will remember how you treated them and they will tell their friends. I live in a small town, and about once a month people will say they talked to so-and-so from my paper, and in a few gestures or voice inflections let you know how they felt about the experience.

    So be careful, be respectful and let the story write itself, because it will.
     
  6. forever_town

    forever_town Active Member

    When I wrote what to this day is my only obituary for The Diamondback, the reason the news editor asked me to do the story was because he figured I'd have both the skill and the sensitivity to pull it off.

    I went into it with the game plan of asking the basic questions I needed and striking the delicate balance between trying to get what I needed and realizing the emotions would be very raw. It wasn't easy, but thanks to some help from the rest of the news desk, I was able to pull through.

    It's still the most emotionally difficult story I've ever had to write.
     
  7. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    To be perfectly honest, I hated writing live stories about people in serious accidents. You don't know what's going to happen, people don't know what to say, etc.

    Obits -- usually -- are pretty easy once you get your uncomfortableness out of the way. People want to talk about the person who died. They want a nice story about all the good things that person did or was bound to do.

    Look at obits in the paper that people pay to tell about a loved one.

    So I look at it as doing a service and talking to people eager to talk.

    The tough ones are the ones who died drinking and driving or something along those lines.
     
  8. KevinmH9

    KevinmH9 Active Member

    I've had to write several stories on athletes who passed away. Trust me, it's really tough to make sure you honor him/her well because you know family, friends and coaches will see it and you want to make sure the brightest side of his/her life is exemplified.

    The most important part is just to make sure you get testimonials from friends, coaches, parents, and, if applicable, professors. Try to find out how the person was on and off the field, in the classroom and just as a everyday person. You'll get some people who will give you some funny stories about that person and that's awesome.

    I wrote a story about a college baseball player who was jumped by several people at a party and killed in an unfortunate accident. I talked to his coaches, teammates, friends and just got an idea of what he was like on the field, off the field and in the classroom and kind of spotlighted some of the highlights in his athletic career and in his life as a whole while putting in quotes from friends who talked of how nice and caring he was, etc.
     
  9. PeteyPirate

    PeteyPirate Guest

    Sorry to stray from the obit theme, but here's a different kind of uncomfortable story that I had to write:

    Two local high school football players, both seniors on different teams, both all-conference ... and it turns out they're half-brothers, sons of a former local star who went on to the NFL. The story was about their relationship with each other and their father. Normally it wouldn't be unusual that an athlete fathered children with different women, except that dad was married to the quarterback's mother at the time that he also sired the linebacker and remained married to her 18 years later. He was also a principal at a middle school. Obviously the married mother knew about the other son, but I wondered if there was tension that I would have to deal with. When the kids came in for a photo shoot together, however, both mothers were in tow and acted like friends. Apparently they had long since made their peace. I did not elaborate on the uncomfortable aspect of the story in my account.

    The players are Patrick Pinkney, who is ECU's quarterback, and Aaron Curry, who is Wake Forest's all-everything linebacker.
     
  10. Jay Sherman

    Jay Sherman Member

    He was a passenger in a one car accident. I'm making efforts to contact his teammates, though the paper has already run a story about him in the news section, speaking to his mom.
     
  11. Walter Burns

    Walter Burns Member

    You got the best advice you could hope for: When you get thrown a story this dramatic, all you can do is screw it up. Let it tell itself. Make it unfold.
    As for questions, I imagine you've got numbers at your disposal. Go beyond that. What was he like at practice? What do teammates remember most about him? How the team will go on without him pales in comparison to how the people he knew will go on without him.
    Don't be afraid. Be humble. Tell them we've written about his death. This is going to be a story about his life.
    And feel free to send me a draft.
     
  12. renaldo

    renaldo New Member

    My apologies if I missed something, but I'm a little unclear as to what you're writing. If it's a few days later, it doesn't sound like an obit. If news already has written a story where they talked to his mom, it sounds like that was the obit.

    Is it a sports feature about how the team is reacting? If so, it sounds like the coach is willing to talk about it if he gave you six pages of quotes. I'd ask the coach if it was OK to come to practice and talk to a couple of his teammates. Being face to face might make it easier -- especially if you don't know any of his teammates.

    Because news already has written the initial story about the tragedy, you need to come at it from a different angle. And from what it sounds like, you need to take it from the team angle and how they're handling it.

    Later in the season, it'd be worth revisiting the story after the initial shock has worn down. You can weave together the family side of the tragedy with the team side and write a nice tribute feature when you have more time.

    Best of luck...I think we've all been there before and it's never fun.
     
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