Last week, we made note of St. Petersburg Times reporter Andrew Meacham who, when confronted by callous reader comments on the death notice of Neil Alan Smith, a dishwasher killed in a hit and run, went to great lengths to find out more about Smith to tell a story about the humble life he lived as well as he could, in order to make a larger point about the real value of the quiet lives lived all around us by people we barely notice until they are gone. It was a laudable example of the way a reporter can shine a light on a life, and say something beautiful about it before the opportunity to do so is lost.
The alternative approach to this, of course, is for the reporter to use tragedy to sing a "Song Of Myself". If you want to experience that first-hand, head on over to the Washington Post's "Story Lab," documenting "reporters, readers and the quest for journalism's next frontier." In it, you will learn how Ian Shapira learned how important it is to do some basic reporting. It's a wonderful account of what happens when a lack of self-awareness collides with an outsized sense of self-importance, and it's not appalling at all!
Here's the backstory. Yesterday, Steve Hendrix published this piece about the death of a beloved burrito vendor, and this touched off, in Shapira, so many memories about his life! See, many years ago, Shapira wrote a story of a homeless man named Jimmy Reed, who had died. But his reporting, at that time, was "thinner" than Hendrix's because of one central "problem." That problem? "I never confirmed Reed's death with his relatives before publishing the piece." Whoops!
All of this might not have mattered, except that "a day or two after" the story was published, Shapira got a call from "a friend or a relative of Reed." Except maybe it wasn't? Because Shapira cannot recall if the caller was "technically related to Reed or not" -- that's how great an impression this story left on him! Anyway, said caller told Shapira, "Jimmy's not dead."
See, Shapira had written this story after he was told that someone put up a memorial shrine to Reed outside the Starbucks in Old Town Alexandria where he used to hang out, and he based his story on a) seeing that shrine, on the street, and b) asking random passersby about Reed, who told him that he was nice and liked to read the Financial Times and didn't threaten anyone whilst panhandling. And on that basis, he wrote that Reed's death struck a "chord" -- I'm guessing A-minor, because that's a really sad chord. But now that he was confronted with the possibility that talking to random people on the streets of Alexandria's toniest streets wasn't sufficient to confirm a news story -- yes, it's a hard lesson to learn, that privileged suburbanites aren't always reliable! -- he needed to "collect himself."
In my head, anxious and selfish thoughts ricocheted around in random order: How quickly can I get into a graduate school test prep course? Just how badly will I be skewered by Washington City Paper once they see the correction? And, finally: Where the hell is Jimmy Reed?
Also, actual loved ones of this man may be in a state of needless despair, but by all means, 'tis better to light one candle than suffer the slings and arrows of the local alt-weekly!
Anyway, Shapira's editor had a novel idea to this dilemma: "find the body." You know, actually do the reporting necessary to confirm that some guy to whom a cardboard shrine had been erected outside a Starbucks was actually dead. This proved to be initially difficult! But Shapira "felt guilty and needed to prove himself," so... he wrote a 3,000 word memo! Surely this was most heroic memo ever penned.
Finally, after "a week of stress" Shapira finally got a call from a hospital. They had recovered a body. Apparently, during the call, the "reporters sitting around [Shapira] could feel [his] nervousness," but I cannot confirm any extant accounts from those reporters if they did, in fact, have an awareness of Shapira's mental state, so that will have to remain a mystery. At any rate, the following conversation sort of took place:
I reeled off my list of questions as if I were a police detective:
Does he have dreadlocks?
Was the body clad in military fatigues?
What about his name? Do you have a name for the body?
The hospital put me on hold. Finally, the voice got back on the line and said: "Jimmy...Jimmy...Reed."
Why Shapira didn't just cut to the chase and ask for the name right off the bat is a mystery to me. But at this point, we're so terribly invested in this reporter's personal melodrama that I'm going to let it slide. Besides, now we've gotten to my favorite part of this Story From Journalism's Next Frontier!
I threw my arms up in the air, elated; the other reporters in the bureau shook my hand, congratulating me on the discovery. I gave the hospital official the number for Reed's relative/friend, so she would learn the news through more official channels.
WHOO-HOO HE'S DEAD! ELATION! POP THE CHAMPAGNE! (And, hey, hospital guy, would you mind calling this lady back for me, because I have really got to tend to all this adulation I am receiving!)
Shapira relates that his next call was to his editor.
He didn't seem thrilled or relieved. He just wanted me to get back to work.
I like to think that the editor actually said, "Dude, I am not going to high-five you at the news that some homeless guy is dead. It's not all about you," but based on the fact that the Post actually published this nonsense, it's hard to believe anyone who'd say something like that works there anymore.
UPDATE: My "favorite part" of the story now reads, "I threw my arms up in the air, elated that I had not insulted his family, relieved that I had not published incorrect information; the other reporters in the bureau shook my hand, congratulating me on the discovery," because his first stab at it made him look like a horrible person, a little bit? I sure hope that person from the hospital got in touch with that relative/friend/person Shapira cannot recall who contacted him in the first place!
Naturally, the Washington Post makes no mention of the fact that Shapira changed this part of his story.
ADDITIONAL UPDATE: To be fair, it should be pointed out that the Hendrix piece noted above, is really quite good. So go read it!