Making my peace with covering hard news

betty ming liu Art, Writing how-to's 19 Comments

In my first round with journalism as an old school reporter, I HATED hard news. This was back in the early ’80s and ’90s. Running out there to cover the scene of whatever, chasing tough issues — no thank you. But guess what I do now as a reporter in the digital age. Yes.

If I sound less than perky about this positive development, it’s because I just finished a day of tracking the suicide of Mary Richardson Kennedy,  estranged wife of Robert Kennedy Jr. She had been struggling with substance abuse and custody issues related to their four kids. The headline: she hung hanged herself in the barn behind the family house that she had finished renovating right before her husband filed for divorce.

Working on this complex, sad tale was all about finding people to interview and verifying even the most basic facts. Here’s the link to our Newsday for Westchester story about Mary Kennedy’s death. (If you read it and think it has merit, please rate it, “like” it and/or leave a comment.)

Our website barely launched two weeks ago and this is my third horrible death. Before this, I was immersed in the details of a fatal home fire that killed a couple and two of their children — only the 20-year-old son was spared because his father helped him out of the house. Before that, there was the 16-year-old resident of a special needs treatment facility who died of a heart attack after an altercation with staffers.

Of course, each of these stories also has me attending and reporting from the funerals. My work also includes writing about Indian Point, the single most controversial nuclear power plant in the country because both New York’s governor and environmentalists want it shut down. In between are all kinds of unexpected current events that demand attention.

As I wander through these various reportorial landscapes, I’ve realized that the old me defined “hard news” as any story that could result in professional failure. After all, there’s nothing more scary for a journalist than getting stuff wrong, not getting gathering enough material or missing the real point. In decades past, I dreaded the responsibility that came with really being out there. Instead, I retreated to my favorite story genre — thoughtful reflections with an offbeat twist.

But my job is giving me a chance to settle some unfinished business with journalism. Lately, I’ve been feeling very complete and in the moment as I absorb both the yin and the yang:

Instead of hugging the sidelines, I’m opening my arms to the frontline.

Exhaling and simply diving into an assignment has as much merit as endless planning.  

Even though chasing news can wreak havoc on my schedule, preserving my personal daily routine (eg, making time to exercise, doing my affirmations, walking the dog) keeps me grounded in a good way.  

And here’s the most essential attitude change in helping me confidently find my edge…

The reporting process has always frustrated the hell out of me because only a sliver of the information that I collect makes it into the actual story. No matter what you do as a reporter, artist, teacher, parent or business person, I’m sure you can relate because in the end, we’re all storytellers.

But I have gone zen. How to I see my job now? It’s to step into the world, lasso a bunch of facts, hold them carefully in my hand for a little while  — before letting most of these jewels slip through my fingers and back into the sand.

We can only do so much.

Then, it’s time to let go, move on.

And that’s the truth.


Comments 19

  1. I guess this all means you have grown up? I don’t understand your comments about “The fatal home that killed a couple and two of their children”. Fatal home what? Did the house kill the couple?
    Indian Point may be controversial but what happened at Davis-Besse was far worse. Just before I went to work on repairs on the another of First Energy’s reactors they told us of the football sized hole in the Davis-Besse reactor which had been signed off as good by inspectors (who are now facing CRIMINAL PERSECUTION) In 2005, the NRC identified two earlier incidents at Davis-Besse as being among the top five events (excluding the actual disaster at Three Mile Island) most likely to have resulted in a nuclear disaster in the event of a subsequent failure. The the welds had to be completely redone because THEY COULD NOT EVEN SUPPLY US WITH THE CORRECT VOLTAGE.
    Well hang in there.

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      Brian, you caught a typo in my post which I just fixed. I meant to say a “fatal home fire!” Thanks for being a careful reader. And the stuff you’ve added here about Davis-Besse, a few months ago, I wouldn’t have understood a word of it. But I’m getting the hang of the jargon now. It’s a lot to take in. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hey Betty,
    What’s interesting is that The Blue Castle Project is not the single most controversial project in the country. The Blue Castle Project is a a Nuclear Power plant they want to build in the Utah desert. Lets look at the facts. Do we need the power? NO. Are there other alternatives? Yes Utah is rich in Natural Gas, clean burning coal and petroleum (from the same area) Is there adequate water in the area. Well this is the point it is in the desert, water is more valued that fuel. Once the winters water melts the water disappears. The area is also subject to seismic activity. The nearest city of any size is over 100 miles away.
    So why do they really want to build it? The REAL reason is they want to dump HIGH LEVEL nuclear waste in the state. This may be a good story to get behind.

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  4. As a former student, I love reading about your reporting adventures and challenges. Sounds like you’re getting out of that box that you always drew on the board! :)

  5. “The headline: she hung herself in the barn behind the family house that she had finished renovating right before her husband filed for divorce.”

    Forgive the copy editor and the “old school” 1980s Daily News reporter in me, but that should read, “she hanged herself.” (Pictures are hung; people are hanged.) That knowledge comes from having covered more than my share of suicides.

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    Nancy — aha! Yes. That box. I’m busting out of the box big time. Thanks for bring that lesson back home to me.

    And Tony, you have saved me from myself. I was wondering about the hang/hung usage but too lazy to really think it through. The correction has been made. And with your tip (pictures are hung, people are hanged), I will now be able to remember the difference. Thank you!

  7. I really enjoyed your conclusion at the end of this entry– even though the story may not incorporate everything you would like and things aren’t perfect, you accept that and continue on. Because I sometimes also struggle with accepting the imperfections in the careers relating to my major, it’s reassuring to know that others have dealt with the same dilemma in a positive way.

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    Gigi, I think everyone struggles with these issues. The other thing is, we can’t overstuff our stories with material for one simple reason: who’s gonna read it? People want us to tease out the important elements. That’s our role. But it’s hard!

  9. It was interesting for me to read your post because I’ve never thought much before about what it’s like for the reporter to cover a gruesome article.
    And as a painter, I can totally relate to your comment about so much of the work getting deleted and falling away.
    It’s no wonder that so many reporters write full length books on some of the ‘cases’ they cover.
    Thanks for this insight!

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      And Fiora, it’s no wonder that some painters go for big canvasses! I often wonder what it would do for me if I worked on a wall-sized painting. Something that was as big as my heart. Someday. Meantime, thanks for visiting and dropping us a line. Keep painting!

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      And Fiora, if reporters write books, what about painters that throw themselves into big canvases? I would love to do that someday, just pour my heart into something as big as my feelings. I also want to thank you for stopping by. I haven’t painted in months and having you here helps me feel a little bit more connected with myself. Best wishes on your painting adventures!

  10. “…in the end, we’re all storytellers.

    But I have gone zen. How to I see my job now? It’s to step into the world, lasso a bunch of facts, hold them carefully in my hand for a little while – before letting most of these jewels slip through my fingers and back into the sand.

    We can only do so much.
    Then, it’s time to let go, move on.
    And that’s the truth.”

    Beautifully put. Thank you for writing this, Betty. I’m working through my own struggles with journalism right now, and I’m not very zen about it yet. I’m still in my 20s, and I think because I came of age in journalism when the industry was going through so much turmoil, I feel a huge sense of responsibility because I’ve seen so much important news go unreported, or reported in such a way that was wrong, biased, divisive and hurtful to the community. So I feel like it’s up to my generation to set things right. Maybe I’ll be zen about it in a couple years, or a couple decades. But right now, it’s tough and I feel a huge weight on my shoulders.

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      Thank you, DreamerX. And I am rooting for your generation to make things right. It is a privilege for all of us to be journalists because we really do have the power to change the world. I totally relate with your struggle. That’s why I wrote this post. Those of us who really care are constantly burdened by our our unpublished stories. But what if you got a little zen now? Try it here and there. It might take your work into unexpected — and powerful places. Thanks for sharing your feelings with such passion. It makes me feel connected to you in our shared mission. :)

  11. Betty,
    I am in the process of making a 72 hour kit (bug out bag) for the neighbors dog and got thinking about your fire story.Wow, that was sad. At the same time it is preventable, especially in these days of smoke detectors. We have to remember to change the battery’s. When the time changes to and back form day-light-savings time is when your suppose to do it. Having a dog has also saved many people in a fire. It is also important to have a plan for a fire and everyone in the family should know what the plan is. It is also important to practice, especially if you have young children. Any exits that are not functioning properly need to be repaired. Optimally, there should be two exits form every space. This often includes windows. All newer homes have removable windows in the basement.

    Fire is one one scenario. There is also earth quakes and other disasters such as storms. In a major emergency the experts recommend you have a 72 hour kit for each member of the family. This is because you may be on your own for that long until help arrives. The best thing is to pack everything in a small pack for EACH FAMILY MEMBER. Your kit should have food and water for three days.You should also have first aid supply’s, which should include sun screen and bug spray. You will also need clothing and a blanket. An easy way to provide this is to include a poncho or rain coat and a space blanket. For toiletries, If you take the cardboard tube out of a roll of toilet paper you can stuff it into a plastic sandwich bag. It will then feed from the center of the Roll. They make three day food ‘bricks” that are very small.You should also have a fire extinguisher (ABC) and tools.
    You store water for long periods by filling a clean container. To keep it fresh fill it completely and add a little bletch. Old milk cartons can be used for this. I have included my water filter in my pack as well as my camp stove, I have a MSR XGK survival stove. It is very compact and the best on the market. (They run on leaded/unleaded gas, Colman fuel, diesel, jet fuel, Stoddard solvent, alcohol…basically anything that burns!) For a full list you go to FIMA ( )
    When you do your emergency drills make sure everyone grabs their bag (if possible) I keep mine in my jeep.
    Here is another issue. i live in the western USA, and it seems every year we have had some sad tales of people who went traveling, usually in the winter, which have ended up in tragedy.. This happens because people were not prepared. A word to the wise, most of the western states have vast areas where CELL PHONES WILL NOT WORK! If you get lost and/or breakdown you may be on your own. If you in the winter you should carry your 72 hour kit, warm clothes, tools etc. It is easy to get in over your head. Even major roads such as I-80 can be closed in winter or limited to only 4 wheel-drive and/or chains. This is common for Donner pass, and I-80 out of Evanston (WY). We lost a couple last winter in Nevada. Summer also has it hazards, especially in the western deserts. make sure you check all fluid levels and tires before you leave. I always carry at least a Jerry can of gas (or two) and one of water in my jeeps. This came in handy even when it wasn’t an emergency. (some places have high gas prices and some towns close at 5 pm). Watch for signs such as “no gas or services next 100 miles”
    I could say a lot more. If I have taken too much space I am sorry, but I just hate to see these things happen, especially when I know they can be prevented.

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