How to Cover Stories That
Hit Close to Home
How to Cover
Stories That Hit Close to Home
Written by News Gal
🕒 September 21, 2018
I’ll never forget the first time it happened.
I was a young reporter in a starter market. I wasn’t ready for the text message I was about to receive.
A colleague sent me a message saying a man we both knew well had died. He was a very prominent person in the community, and the rumors were that he had killed himself.
It didn’t make any sense. He was a man of faith. A man who loved his family. A man who was always helping children. A man who we would soon find out was living a lie.
It was the first time I had to report on someone I knew personally.
This wasn’t just a sad story about a suicide, it turned into an investigative piece about a life filled with coverups, corruption, and criminal acts.
Turns out the man who was always smiling, and always willing to be a soundbite for local reporters, was actually pretty evil.
The FBI was investigating him for child sex abuse, and a slew of other charges.
We learned through our investigation that the credentials he claimed to have didn’t exist. He never graduated from the college, never received the degrees he claimed to have, never even used all the money he collected through his charities for good.
He was living a crazy life. He was paying off a man he had reportedly sexually abused as a child. He had so many payoffs going on to keep people quiet.
When he was tipped off about the investigation, he killed himself.
It was a tough story to cover, because I personally felt misled.
This was a man who I had hugged. This was a man who I watched encourage children. This was a man who had played us all as fools. We had done so many stories on him. We told the community he was a good man who cared about everyone, and was working to make the community better.
I was sick to my stomach as we learned more about his life. Even his wife didn’t know 99% of what we were uncovering.
This was the first time I had to cover someone I felt a personal connection to, and it was hard.
The longer you stay in a market or the closer to home you work, the more likely you’ll have to cover a story about someone you know. It can be a real challenge.
Here are some tips on how to get through it:
1. Only report the facts.
This sounds simple, right? We always just report the facts. The problem is, when you have personal knowledge of something, it can be tough to not let small inaccuracies slip into your reporting.
Stick with what you have officially confirmed. Make sure you can attribute everything you say to another source—not yourself.
Police say, co-workers say, witnesses say, court records show… Those are important phrases you’ll want to make sure you have in your reporting.
2. Don’t get emotional.
Viewers shouldn’t be able to tell that you’re upset or impacted by the story. Remain neutral.
This is something we have to do with every story, but it’s so important when you have a personal connection. Don’t smile. Don’t wince. Goodness gracious don’t cry!
It’s OK to cry when you’re at home in your apartment, but don’t do it on air.
3. Walk away if you have to.
If you have too deep of a connection to someone you’re reporting on, you need to remove yourself from the coverage. If you cannot fairly and accurately cover the story—you need to let your boss know.
Just because you know someone doesn’t mean they should be treated any differently than someone you don’t know. Make sure you’re covering the story the same way you would if you had no connection to the person involved.
4. Give a disclaimer.
If you feel like viewers need to know your connection to the victim/suspect/person in your story, tell them.
If you’re reporting on your dad who just got charged with embezzlement (which obviously you wouldn’t be) you need to let people know that. If you’re reporting on a guy your friend dated for a couple of months and you met him once at a bar, I don’t think that warrants a disclaimer.
Either way, make sure you talk with your bosses if you have any connection to a story, so you can determine together if a disclaimer is needed.
5. Take some time for yourself.
This job is tough, and when it hits home it is even tougher. If you need a mental health day to deal with what’s going on, take one.
Talk with a therapist if you need to. Call your best friend. Make sure you’re taking care of your mental health, because sometimes we focus so much on work that we forget we’re human and we need a break.