The Filak Furlough Tour 2023-24 started with a bang last week, as we had three stops via Zoom in a row. The only hard thing about that is trying to remember to whom I told what stories that day. I now know what it’s like to be Grandpa at the Thanksgiving table. I think I pulled it off, though.
Before we get into the specifics of the day, I wanted to publicly thank my former student Brett Baehman for his artistic prowess and kindness. (He says he graduated seven or eight years ago. I keep thinking he’s just left. We call that grad-nesia…) He saw the Bat Signal on the blog and built us a logo for the series:
This is way too cool… Also, my friend from student media fun Jenny Fischer is working on the T-shirt design. Y’all are amazing. Let’s start with the first stop on the tour…
INDIANA UNIVERSITY: Bloomington, IN
THE TOPIC: Crime and disaster reporting
THE BASICS: This is a tough topic to teach because you can’t replicate it in a lab setting. Sure, I could do a “police press conference” with some basic information and make them ask me about a shooting or car wreck or something, but that’s not where crime and disaster reporting lives, nor is it the hard part about this kind of reporting.
That said, here are the two basic elements of crime and disaster reporting that will always remain important:
- Stay Calm
- Stay Safe
We talked a bit about those and also the importance of self-care after the fact. Honestly, even though I wasn’t reporting 50 years ago when people smoked in the newsroom and editors could call women “Toots” with impunity, we weren’t really advanced in our thoughts about the impact this kind of coverage had on reporters. The Dart Center was still in its embryonic state back then and even so, the internet wasn’t connecting us the way we have now.
I still remember some of the terrible things I saw and wrote about. I can still remember the name, age and cause of death of every dead kid I covered. I also go right back to the Madison Bus Fire whenever the smell of burning plastic hits my nose.
I also remember that in some cases I had a terrible editor, who shall not be named, but working for her was no great shakes because her attitude was, “Suck it up, kid, or I’ll find someone who will.” (She was also terrible for about 12,358 other reasons, but that’s another post…) Had it not been for Teryl Franklin, who became my editor later at the State Journal, I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am now as a professional, let alone a functional human being.
LINKS FOR MORE: If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, here are a couple times we covered stuff like this on the blog:
- Here’s the basics of crime reporting post, from which I took most of my opening gambit with IU.
- I also did a two-parter on crime a while back, so feel free to peruse part 1 and part 2
- When it comes to self-care, I did a piece on burnout a while back that might be useful.
BEST QUESTION (Part I): Has there ever been a time where you felt like you SHOULDN’T go somewhere and see something because it was going to be too horrific or problematic?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: There were plenty of times I didn’t want to see something or I didn’t want to go somewhere because, dear LORD, it was going to be terrible. That said, I was young and I often didn’t have a choice. That said, it was always better to see those things because they helped me feel stronger about other reporting I would do later. (“Scared to talk to a state senator? Hell, you just saw a guy’s body getting pulled out of a piece of farm equipment. You can do this.”)
I also felt it was important because the duty to report isn’t the same as the duty to publish. Seeing something or going somewhere gave me the ability to be more genuine in what I as writing, or it gave me a stronger resolve NOT to write something because I could tell people honestly, “This isn’t something we want to publish.”
BEST QUESTION (Part II): There’s all this bad in the crime and disaster beat, which you’ve mentioned quite a bit. Is there ever anything good you felt came from covering this stuff?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: Honestly, I think that it helped me discover my humanity. When you see so much bad stuff, you not only start to reassess what’s really going on in your life, but you start to build a strong sense of empathy toward people that I don’t think I would have had I not done this beat.
I also realized that some of my best stories, in terms of the ones with the best impacts and the best responses, were obituaries. Some of those obits came from terrible situations, like dead kids, while others came from telling stories of long lives, well lived. I’d like to think those were better because I had covered crime.
COOL POSTSCRIPT: Got this email from a kid in the class:
You spoke to my class today at Indiana University about reporting on crime. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with us. After the meeting, we were asked to raise our hand if any of us were interested in covering crime, and I was the only person to raise my hand. I know it is not the most uplifting or popular topic, so I always appreciate those willing to discuss it. I am only a sophomore, so I am unsure where to begin with questions to ask right now. However, I can foresee myself reaching out in the future and therefore wanted to introduce myself.Thank you again,
Like I tell all my students, the door is always open. Feel free to reach out.
NEXT STOP: Lewis University, Romeoville, IL