When Reality and Hypotheticals Collide: A True Story

Through my experiences in journalism, I’ve found it’s a difficult path navigating how to get the story while remaining human.

As a journalism student, I’ve dealt in a lot of hypotheticals, and in each hypothetical situation that has turned into a reality, I’ve battled with how I’ve felt in the aftermath. That’s not to say I wasn’t in the right, but when dealing with the murky grayness that is ethics and moral considerations, even what is right doesn’t always feel good.

Journalists are taught to separate themselves from what they are reporting, but the contradiction lies with remaining impartial from an issue while also remaining human. That’s the key that is often forgotten when pursuing the story. How do we as journalists, covering the latest tragedy minutes after someone has died, remain human? How do we ask probing questions to someone who has just witnessed four people shot and killed?

But it boils down to — if we don’t, who will?

Thomson Reuters logo, Abi Skipp / CC BY 2.0

I interned at Thomson Reuters TV in Brussels, Belgium last year. Reuters is a highly respected international wire agency and getting to intern for them was the pinnacle of my journalism career in college. I covered a lot of cool news events while abroad from terrorist trials to the beginning of the current refugee crisis — which is what I will be blogging about in the future. So much has happened in the past year, and I was right there as a lot of it was going down.

For example, my plane touched down in Belgium hours after 11 people died in the Charlie Hebdo shooting. It’s hard to describe how Europe felt during the four months I was there. Tense doesn’t quite cover it.

As I was leaving the office a week after the shooting, one of the cameramen, who was out following a lead about where the shooters got their weapons, called into the office asking for someone to check Twitter. There were rumors that shots had been fired in a town outside of Brussels called Verviers.

As the intern, it was my task to follow this thread. It was such a surreal experience to see history unfold — or I should say history tweet in on my newsfeed.

A screenshot of my Twitter newsfeed.

As I soon as I got on Twitter, I noticed a few tweets mentioning police and shots fired, but it was all still very vague. In the span of half an hour, more and more tweets were coming in. Photos and videos started circulating and other news agencies were jumping in on the action. The pressure was mounting. We needed to confirm what was happening. We needed permission to use a video and verify that it was true. So, I began reaching out to the people on Twitter who were talking about the incident.

I sat on a computer for four hours, watching rumors circulate and news agencies all over the world, regardless of the different timezones, jump on the story as the truth finally came out. Belgian police had learned of an imminent attack in Brussels and had conducted anti-terrorist raids to thwart the plan. Brussels was immediately placed on heightened security, and a bomb threat was issued for a block away from my apartment.

As a journalist, it was incredibly exhilarating to watch news unfold that way. If you want more perspective of what happened that night, take a look at my blogpost from last year, days after the incident.

I’ve had many discussions with journalists and non-journalists alike about the power of Twitter and the ethical considerations in reaching out to citizens through that medium. As a journalist, it’s a medium, a tool to quickly get in touch with those involved in a news story. That’s not to say it isn’t abused. Each time I use it for a journalistic practice, I have to ask myself tough, moral questions.

Another example is when the Germanwings plane went down in the French Alps last year. Working in a news agency, I was tasked with figuring out where exactly the plane went down because news started circulating about the crash, but no one knew precisely where it had happened. I spent the afternoon scouring Twitter to see if anyone was talking about it, and I also scanned live webcam footage from local ski resorts to see if I could see smoke or debris.

In the midst of this, my mind didn’t think about how I would feel if I did see smoke in the distance via a computer screen. (I did not find anything on the webcams). I focused on doing my job. Just like a doctor in the ER focuses on saving a person’s life, they don’t think about hypotheticals. They just do their job.

Journalism is a profession. It takes the ability to separate oneself from a tragedy and to think about the duty that you have for the rest of the community at large. The story needs to be told. The facts need to be gathered, and often times, it’s hard to get them. That’s not to say that as journalists we don’t feel anything. We are still human. We still hurt when terrible things happen, and we’re the ones who are in the heart of it, asking the tough questions that ultimately have to be asked.

There’s been multiple times where I’ve struggled with what to do in a complex situation. Whether it was deciding to publish the faces of sex offenders living illegally close to schools — and the legal right that we had to do so versus the moral question of do we tell them they are going to be on the 5 p.m. news or not — to the interview where I had to ask a rape victim about when her father used to sexually abuse her.

Story of five sex offenders living illegally close to school that ran on KOMU.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say I thought and still think about those instances, but it was my job. It is my job. I’ve learned how to balance my detachment and my human emotions while pursuing a story, and I’m still constantly learning how to do so. With each new situation, I’m learning more about myself and my profession, but there’s a learning curve.

Dealing in hypotheticals is just that until it’s not. You can talk about what you’ll do until you’re blue in the face, but it’s different when the situation is real and the person in front of you is a real and the feeling in your stomach is real. You can’t fake the questioning you deal with in the heat of the moment while you’re sitting in class, but it does help to begin thinking about it so that you’re prepared for when a hypothetical becomes a reality.