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On The Other End Of The Lens

It's a pretty safe bet that most everyone has had their "cringe" moment when watching television news coverage of tragic events. You know, that scene where an aggressive (and sometimes downright annoying) reporter shoves a microphone in front of someone who's just received horrible news and asks, "how do you feel?" But what would that same reporter think about it all if the tables were turned? That's the situation Reed Cowan, a reporter for a local Salt Lake City television station, found himself in earlier this year when his four-year-old son died in a tragic accident at home. Cowan tells his story to the Salt Lake City Weekly (hat tip: Romenesko), remembering the scene that greeted him as he arrived home:
On the front sidewalk, a news crew stood by to capture a few frames of the tragedy. "They were doing their jobs," Cowan understands. "But in that moment, I thought, 'Oh my God, this is what it's like on the other end of the lens.'"

The surreal irony didn't stop there.

At the hospital, Cowan got a phone call. "It's my boss at the station," he told his mother. To which Cowan says a nearby police officer remarked, "Well, if it bleeds, it leads."
Cowan was incensed—"my child was in the next room being covered up"—but he also acknowledges such a cynical view of the news business is not uncommon, or unfounded. "In our youth, and in our rush as journalists," he says, "I think sometimes we forget that the people we are talking to might be dealing with the fires of hell lapping at their feet."

Though Cowan prides himself on being a conscientious, sometimes overly empathetic journalist, he admits there have been times he put news ahead of a subject's dignity. When Cowan's cameraman once refused to get reaction shots of a family that had just been informed of a loved one's death, "I told him to roll," he recalls. "'This doesn't mean we're going to air it, but your job is to shoot.'" The cameraman again refused, and Cowan respects him even more for it today, because he "knew the reality was that it could end up on the air … and devastate a family."

The media has a responsibility to report on tragedy, inhumanity and suffering – whether it's localized or widespread. The images and stories that came to us all in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, were a valuable service. We all need to see the suffering across Africa and earthquake-stricken Pakistan. And, yes, when a child's life is taken in his own backyard, it's news. But, as Reed Cowan so personally understands now, there are ways to cover such stories that cut down on that "cringe" factor.