All reporters write about tragic events, from car crashes to funerals to weather disasters. It’s important to remain sensitive towards victims of tragedy while still fully reporting the story.

In this segment, we learn more about ways to approach victims for interviews.


Kalamazoo Gazette projects writer Barbara Walters followed the Deckers, a couple who lost all four of their children in car crashes, for a year to report her story.

Read Walters’ story on the Deckers; Pay careful attention to her lead.

In small groups, discuss the following questions:

  1. With what kind of lead does Walters start her story? Is it effective? Earlier drafts began the story with the description of the children’s rooms (in the story, it’s the paragraph that begins. “In the children’s room”), but Walters and her editor decided it lacked energy and punch. Do you agree? Why?
  2. By what paragrph in the story has Walters told the reader all of the essentials – the who, what, why, when, where and how – of the story? Share your answers with the rest of the class.
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Watch the video clip of Walters discussing her decision not to include in the Decker story the local statistics that form the basis for the nut graph in the second teen driving story.

Try inserting the following paragraph of statistics from Walters’ teen driving story into the first few paragraphs of the Decker story and see how it works: “Since January 2000, 32 people have died in vehicle crashes involving young drivers from southwestern Michigan. Twenty-nine of the victims were between the ages of 10 and 19.”

Do you agree with Walters’ comment that such statistics “trivialize” the Decker’s personal account? Explain your answer in a written paragraph as a class.

Walters spent nearly a year reporting the Decker story. She had to approach the Deckers with sensitivity to their privacy and their grief, this helped get the interviews she needed to personalize the statistics for an accompanying teen driving story. It also provided the opportunity for the Deckers to “say their children’s lives were important,” Walters says.

Play the video clip of Walters talking about maintaining objectivity over a year of reporting.

  1. In small groups, discuss what Walters means about “being loyal to the information.”
  2. Come up with group guidelines for covering victims. Some things to consider: Should you allow the source to determine the time and place of the interview? Should you treat the victim any differently than you do any other source? Should you tell the source you are sorry for what happened?

Reporting Tip: Walters came up with the Decker story because she was filling in as the police reporter on the says – more than a year apart – when the news broke involving both crashes that killed the Decker children. When responding to the police scanner report in November 2001 on the crash involving Danny Decker, she realizes it was the same family she had reported on in June 2000. She wrote the breaking news stories for both crashes, an then began work on the longer project on the family and the issue story on teen driving.

The lesson? Look for stories in what may seem like perfunctory news. Look for trends, look for connections. Also it never hurts to work off your usual beat – Walters may not have found that story if she hadn’t been filling in as the police reporter.

Chicago Tribune reporter Julie Deardorff has covered many tragedies in her reporting career. She interviewed the victims from the Sept. 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center Towers. She also interviewed the survivors of the student shootings at columbine High School in Colorado and at a high school in Jonesburo, Arkansas.

Play the video clip of Deardorff discussing reporting on tragedies. Discuss her comments in small groups.

Louise Kiernan, a Chicago reprter, has written several lengthy projects focused on tragedy – from the story of a woman killed on a city sidewalk by a piece of glass falling from a skyscraper to mothers who took their own lives due to postpartum depression.

Play her video clip to see how Kiernan approaches victims, then summarize her approach in a paragraph or two.