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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY | THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

It's Time for Compassion From Media

March 29, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

Hearing about the horrible mass death in Rancho Santa Fe, I couldn't stop thinking of the parents of the dead.

What a terrible thing for those who have survived their dead children--to have their offspring reduced to freaks.

We journalists feed on victims such as these, dehumanizing them, cruelly showing their corpses on television and in the papers.

As the names of the victims came out Friday, the unseemly media race was on--to land interviews with the families, to ferret out every detail, relevant or not, about the lives that had just ended.

Not surprisingly, tabloid types were already digging through the garbage cans outside the home of one victim's sister.

*

I shouldn't be throwing stones because I live in the same glass house as every other reporter and editor.

I've been dealing with survivors since I was 20--a young 20 from a peaceful home where death, at that time, was a stranger.

Early in my first reporting job, a veteran reporter from my paper's main office called the bureau where I was working a Saturday shift. A boy had died in an accident. The older reporter was supposed to call up the parents, get the particulars and, of course, convey the news of the death. The reporter said she made the phone call and got the biographical information she was after--but couldn't bring herself to tell the mother about her son's death. She had explained the call by saying the boy had won an award. Would you go tell the mother? the reporter said.

When you are 20 and trying desperately to get ahead, you don't question such orders. I drove to the house, rang the bell, introduced myself and informed the woman that her son was dead, that the other reporter had lied to her.

I sat with her for an hour or two, waiting until a friend arrived. I had no words of comfort but I was afraid to leave, afraid that the news I had brought would kill her.

After that painful initiation, the death business became part of my life, especially after I was promoted to night cops reporter.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I worked, was a main hub for transpacific military travel. Planes seemed to crash every week and my paper, the Oakland Tribune, made a special effort to record the death of every East Bay victim and run their pictures.

This required me to visit the home of the parents before dawn so I could get the picture back to the paper before deadline. The Defense Department was supposed to notify the next of kin, but more often than not, the authorities had failed to do the job. And so I relayed the news.

I hated this part of my job. But I saw that these visits--even from a kid--performed something of value. The parents wanted to talk about their child and to see a good story in the Oakland Tribune.

So they welcomed me, the young messenger of death, into their homes at 4 a.m. I sat and listened while they told me stories of the son who was the best at Castlemont High, the best at Cal or San Jose State, and then had gone off to become a pilot or a crew member.

They loaned the paper the prized picture from the mantle, the bright-eyed boy in his '50s crew cut, dressed in his graduation gown or Air Force uniform, looking eagerly at the world awaiting him.

I took notes, asked questions, and left.

*

As you can see, the memories remain with me, revived in surprising immediacy by events like the Heaven's Gate tragedy.

My first thought was of those surviving parents. No matter how the relationship had gone over the years, the loss of a child has to be too painful to bear.

It will become worse. The media assault is unrelenting, and you can expect it to grow in intensity.

The family and their dead will be reduced to cartoon characters. And by the time we find out what really happened--whether any of the dead were coerced into suicide or even murdered--the media will have dropped this story for the next sensation.

We journalists should think of the emotional toll when a parent, or a brother or sister--even those long estranged from their dead relative--receives a phone call from the San Diego County coroner's office.

As we hack away at our computers, high on covering the big story, we should imagine the pain in some faraway home, among a family that soon will be elevated from obscurity to infamy.

These victims--the dead and the survivors--are human beings. For once, let's proceed carefully and considerately, allowing the victims some dignity.

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