Today I pulled the night shift at The Seattle Times. On days when exciting things aren’t happening nonstop, it’s common for the reporter on the night shift to find him- or herself stationed next to the police scanner, listening for anything big. That’s me tonight.
It sounds boring, or perhaps to some it sounds depressing, listening to crimes happening in real time. But to me it’s actually fascinating. You get a glimpse into people’s lives all over the city, people who aren’t exactly having the best day–and it helps you feel what they feel. Crime reporters rarely feel empathy when they’re reporting; if they were empathetic all the time, they’d probably be emotional wrecks. But every once in a while, it’s good to sit by the scanner, keeping my normally detached self in check and allowing myself to feel emotions the victims of crimes feel.
I’m rarely emotional about the deaths, fires and car crashes I report on regularly. But as a fellow intern and I were chatting about the night shift earlier this evening, we asked a question we couldn’t answer: If something were to come up on the scanner that made us far more emotional than usual, could we in good conscience report on the incident?
More specifically, we discussed what would happen if, while we were alone in the newsroom, a victim on the scanner was someone we knew. Would it be a conflict of interest to report on the story?
What’s particularly difficult about this hypothetical issue is the time at which it happens: it’s late at night, and you’re the only one in the newsroom. All other reporters and editors have gone home. Were it during the day, you could easily pass it on to another reporter sitting near you if you felt uncomfortable covering a friend’s tragedy. But you’re alone, and someone has to cover the news. Is it too inconveniencing to ask any coworker to come in, especially considering that few Seattle Times employees live downtown, gas is expensive and there’s a lot of traffic in the city? Is it better to try your hardest to fight back the tears or nagging worry and do your job?
Please weigh in. This is something many young reporters–especially those in entry-level jobs covering the cops beat at night in small communities where everybody knows everybody else–might run up against.