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The Hardest Story to Report

November 12, 2010

Ask any reporter what is the hardest part of the job, and sooner or later they will tell you their story about having to knock on the door of a grieving family and ask questions about their loss.

This is my story.

I was already going to the eastern part of the state, to Bristol for a Clean the Bay press event, and if I were a reporter worth my salt I needed to wrap up things in Bristol then head down to Middletown to talk with the family of Sgt. Michael Paranzino.

During the drive down I debated whether to call ahead or just knock on the door. I chose to just knock. Standing on the front step I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and gently tapped on the door. A woman answered. I asked if this was the Paranzino home, she nodded. I offered my condolences, and explained why I was at her door. She looked over to a weary woman in a chair who glanced over her shoulder, took stock of the situation, and then waved me in.

This was Michael’s mother. She called her husband into the room, hugged some of Michael’s friends good-bye and watched me pull the microphone, recorder and various cords out of my bag. On any other interview this time of pulling out equipment is when a reporter throws out some small talk to get a rapport going. But this wasn’t a time for chit-chat. Stunted conversation pierced the silence until Michael’s father arrived.

They were both studies in grief and exhaustion. And I was nervous as I sat on their living room floor, pointed a microphone and asked about their son in past tense. To my surprise there was laughter as they told stories about Michael crawling out of his crib and napping under the dining room table, or when he climbed a tree and couldn’t be found, or how he just about tackled people in the hockey rink.

After 20 minutes I could see they were drained so I packed up my things, gave them a hug, and left. Then I sat in my car for a while thinking about how brave those parents were for opening up their hearts and homes to a total stranger who was now in charge of telling the state about their son.

I have a background in reporting on military families. In 2009, NPR pulled me on to a team following Marines based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. NPR’s job was to embed with Marines in southern Afghanistan; my job was to follow their families. None of the families I followed lost a Marine, but the battalion lost 14 members. During the seven months reporting on this project, I injected myself into these families and asked emotionally charged questions. There were times when I found myself surrounded by children watching the lady with the microphone make mommy cry. What allowed me to live with myself was that every family thanked me for telling their stories.

When I posted on my Facebook page that I had to knock on the Paranzino’s door, some of those Marine families sent me comments and messages reminding me that military families are thankful when their stories are told in a careful, respectful way. I can only hope that the Paranzino family feels the same way.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephen Graham permalink
    November 12, 2010 10:38 pm

    Very moving. I was there, with you, as I was reading the words. That had to be awfully tough. Thank you for doing what you do and letting us know what it’s like.

  2. kathy permalink
    November 12, 2010 11:54 pm

    I heard a lot of those stories. There’s really nobody better than you to help tell them, Catherine. I think talking helps, if even for a moment, to keep the sense of being close to loved ones.

  3. December 24, 2010 4:13 pm

    You are lucky. When I was a reporter for a large daily in Florida, I was assigned to interview a woman whose husband had just died in a plane crash that killed more than 100 passengers and crew at DFW. As I arrived at the subdivision in Boca, I found maybe 6-7 TV news vans from the Miami and WPB markets parked on the street, another 5-6 cars belonging to print reporters, 3 police cars and a horde of angry neighbors screaming at the press to leave her alone. Turns out we had word of the plane crash and the list of passengers so quickly that she hadn’t returned from the Miami airport after dropping him off and may not even had been informed of the crash. I went back to the bureau and told my boss that the assignment was an ambush of the worst kind, cruel, contributed nothing of value to the readership…he said every organization was afraid of being scooped in what was then the most intense newspaper war in the country…that we had to have something…turns out our sister paper in Miami had a reporter there and we used his stuff off the wire…but from that day on, the editorial management was cool toward me. Long story short…I thought and still think, even if the family is agreeable to talk, that the story is an invasion of privacy. Some reporters, in their self-righteous empathetic best clothing, rationalize these stories as “therapeutic” to those in grief. I say, let them grieve. That period can last months. If someone wants to talk in a year or so, so be it. Who said the press has to run these stories? Sometimes discretion trumps “the need to now,” whatever this is these days

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