I may be overly sensitive to “hard topics”. I remember getting scolded by my high school newspaper advisor for using the headline “Death of a Writer”, when a bestselling author died. “You always use the person’s name, his age, and the verb ‘dies.’ That’s it. Don’t be clever. Someone died, it’s solemn and serious.”
Got that? As a timid tenth grader looking to absorb every bit of news writing knowledge I could, I sure did.
Most writers face a circumstance where they have to write a difficult piece. Whether it’s coverage of a national or international disaster, an obituary for a loved one, or a local tragedy for your hometown paper, these assignments are never easy. But they are only as hard as we decide they have to be.
I recently covered a fire that ravaged one of the elementary schools where my husband works, burning the school to the ground. This made me think about the editorial I wrote for a school music education publication shortly after 9-11. The obituaries I’ve written. My story featuring the Columbine High School band director after the shooting.
How did I handle all of these? I don’t think the stories were particularly challenging, but they required tact and grace and, perhaps even more so than other topics, the right words. What else should you keep in mind when you write about tragic topics?
Reach for the heart with storytelling and details. Facts are fine, but tragic stories give us rich opportunities to really reach our readers’ hearts. If you can find the perfect anecdote, share it. Don’t be afraid to get personal, as long as you do so with tact, grace and sensitivity.
Use humor tactfully. One anecdote from the weeks following September 11, 2001, stands out in my mind. I went to the local Starbucks with my editorial assistant a few days after the towers fell, and we got in line behind a woman who was complaining loudly that she wanted a refund. She was giving the barrista a hard time and — being regulars there — our hearts went out to him. Her problem? Her latte didn’t have enough foam. For those who know coffee, cappuccino has plentiful foam. A latte does not. The story struck me and my friend as so funny, I used it as the basis for my editorial, to segue into talking about what is really important in life.
Get the facts right. People are hypersensitive in times of tragedy (just think about latte lady). They will notice if you write a beautiful story but get a fact or two wrong. Additionally, rumors and misinformation fly during disasters. Check to make sure names are spelled correctly and take nothing for granted. Fact check everything.
Make sure you have something to say. After the hurricanes in Haiti, a lot of bloggers capitalized on the popularity of the keyword with articles that loosely tied into the hurricanes. If you have something significant and unique to say about a global or local tragedy, write about it. But don’t look for a tie-in just to capitalize on keyword searches. It’s the cyber-equivalent of going to a funeral to pick up girls.
Use the opportunity to do good. When I covered the fire at South Bay Elementary School for Long Island Exchange, I wanted to spotlight local businesses who were helping. I also wanted to do what I could myself by spreading the word but, as the business and technology columnist, I had to find the right angle. Long Island Exchange is a locally-targeted website, and the fire has been big news for more than a week here on Long Island. I wanted to make sure the story had relevance for my readers and I felt it was important to include a call to action. The school is collecting donations of books, school supplies and, most importantly, cash or gift cards, to help their re-building efforts and to continue teaching in the interim. That was the point I wanted to make.
All the “hard” stories I’ve written have had a specific purpose — a statement that aimed to change people’s perspectives or to help them in a similar situation. When I wrote about September 11, I wanted people to slow down and appreciate what they had (even if all they had was a latte with no foam). When I wrote about Columbine, I did so with the clear intention of showing music teachers their role in helping students get through difficult times. When I write obituaries, I aim to evoke good memories about the deceased.
Knowing why you’re covering a topic is the key. When your intentions are pure, your passion and sincerity shows. As the Bible notes, our words can move mountains. Use them –and choose them — with care.
I’ll leave you with two quotes that are good to remember when you tackle tough topics.
“Whatever words we utter
should be chosen with care
for people will hear them
and be influenced by them
for good or ill.” – Buddha
“Out of the abundance
of the heart
the mouth speaks.”
- Jesus Christ
South Bay Elementary School fire photograph by T.J. Allcot
Visiting Grave photograph by Marcus LindstrÃ¶m