Touching tragedy

Published 3:46 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I pray you never do, but there are times in our lives when most of us touch tragedy; whether we experience it ourselves or see it through another’s eyes.

For the most part, my life has been fairly sheltered and safe. My life situation hasn’t been ideal, but I grew up in a safe neighborhood, in a comfortable home and didn’t experience any financial or personal disasters, diseases or losses.

Working in journalism has brought me closer to the edge of tragedy than I’ve ever been. It’s an uncomfortable feeling at first, the knowledge that someone’s loss or unfortunate circumstance — whether a disease, natural disaster, death or otherwise — is a newsworthy subject. Asking them to open that wound and tell you about it seems wrong and is the most uncomfortable thing I have to do in my job.

My fear is that I’m exploiting their circumstances for personal gain. That kind of thing came to be known as “yellow journalism” in the 1900s, when papers downplayed legitimate news in favor of anything that would sell an extra paper. Reporters sensationalized stories and exploited people in an attempt to boost readership. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m always aware that this is all too easy a mistake to make.

That thought always causes me to examine my approach and motivation — to reach out to a family that is hurting and offer them the opportunity to share their loss and then write about it. I remind myself that people who can help them may read what I wrote and that part of my job is to raise community awareness when someone needs help. Another facet is to tell about the way the world works – both the good and the bad.

No one knows why bad things happen to good people or what causes people in need to need more. Many of us take solace in the concept that God works all things for good — whether it be good in this life or the next. If nothing else, from what I’ve seen, what we do with tragedy is what matters.

I’ve seen disasters and diseases turn ordinary men and women, boys and girls into stronger people who make a difference in lives of those around them.

Of course, it’s those success stories that are a joy to cover. The interviews make me smile, and they make people feel good when they read them. There’s a reason we call them “feel good” stories.

The tragedies create a knot in my stomach, though. I don’t know what to say or how to act. I always find myself asking “How do I even touch something like that?” and when people read those stories, they do not get warm tingles inside.

But the best things in life don’t come easy. By respecting boundaries and being sensitive to the issue at hand, I’ve found there is little harm and, very often, some good that comes from touching tragedies.