(Heart)Breaking News

When I report on a tragedy for the newspaper, what I write is only part of the truth.

“Mr. Duck! How are you doing, sir!” the editor called across the newsroom.

I don’t remember what I grumbled in response. It was Thanksgiving Day. It was first thing in the morning. And I was at work, of all places. How the hell did he think I was doing?

And then he made things worse.

The night before, he explained, somebody had died in a car wreck just outside Allentown. He handed me the police news release: Anthony Severo, 22 years old, of South Whitehall Township.

“Maybe we should call the family?” the editor suggested.

My heart sank into my small intestine, and I tried to keep my groan inaudible. I hated calling the victim’s family. I always hated calling the victim’s family. But I was out of excuses, so I looked up the number and dialed.

Some of my colleagues love covering breaking news — the life-and-death storylines, the adrenaline rush of being on the scene, the excitement of never knowing how a day is going to turn out. Me, I was never really cut out for police reporting. Once I finished with this fatal car wreck story, for example, I knew I still had half a dozen drug arrests to write up from the day before.

I’ve been working with newspapers ever since I was 20 — ever since I was 15, if student newspapers count. I’ve done quite a few stories that still make me proud: catching a few state legislators overfeeding at the public trough, snagging an interview with the then-publisher of USA Today, even sitting down with a governor to talk about his kid’s Halloween costume.

But I’ve written very little about my career over the years. I guess that’s partly because writing about writing is so tough to do well. But it’s mostly because reporting — especially the police reporting I did for nearly two years — is a lot more monotonous and draining than a lot of readers might imagine. One more drug bust. One more house fire. And one more fatal car wreck.

I parked my company car and walked through the nondescript suburban subdivision. Anthony Severo’s parents lived at the next corner over — they had invited me to their home to talk about their son.

The house was immaculate but eerily quiet and empty. Anthony’s brother Michael was there, along with parents Elario and Jean. All three looked like they hadn’t slept; their eyes were red, with no tears left to cry.

Anthony had been a wrestler, a standout at nearby Parkland High. He had gone off to West Point and wrestled for Army, too. He had been set to graduate in May.

He had come back for Thanksgiving just the day before. A few hours after arriving home, he was driving over to visit a friend.

Then the drunk driver swerved into Anthony’s lane. By 7:35 p.m., Anthony was pronounced dead.

The whole family had planned to gather in Allentown for the holiday meal. But now, Michael said, “that’s not going to happen.”

I kept apologizing all over myself for intruding in their lives like this, in the middle of their tragedy. But they knew it was part of my job — and more importantly, they wanted me to understand what an amazing person their Anthony was.

His dad, choking back sobs, told me to do a good job with my article. What he meant was: We’re trusting you to tell our son’s story — please don’t let us down.

I churned out stories like this every day, and usually it was easy to distance myself from the people involved. No, scratch that — I created that distance as a protective reflex, because the tragedy of each story would have been soul-crushing if I had allowed myself to become more emotionally involved. Every wife-beating is heartbreaking. Every drug dealer is somebody’s son or daughter. But I learned to reduce every human tragedy to grist for my word-processing mill.

On a good day — when I’ve uncovered some wrongdoing or written something that helps open readers’ minds — I would probably describe a reporter’s job as “Truth Seeker.” And yet, for two years as a police reporter, I lied to myself every day: stripping away the life stories of real people and reducing them to a name, age and address in a police brief.

But not always.

Anthony’s dad called me a few months ago, to make sure my editors knew about a new 5k run the family had set up in Anthony’s memory. My work number had changed since last year, but he tracked me down — he wanted to be sure I knew how Anthony’s story turned out.

“We’ll always remember you,” he told me.

I almost cried when I hung up the phone.

On Thanksgiving Day 2005, I summed up Anthony Severo’s life and death in 466 words. Then I had to get back to writing up those drug arrests from the day before.

But the truth? Truth is, this seeker still has a lot to learn.

Article © 2006 by Michael Duck