"People like you are the reason most normal people hate journalists," I was told in an e-mail from Joe McElroy, the founder of a public relations company in Naperville, Illinois.
McElroy wasn't pleased by a recent letter I wrote to Jim Romanesko's Media News that defended journalists who call a dead person's family when writing a story about that person.
"We know damn well that you don't make those invasive calls because of the 'public's right to know,' but because you want to beat the other assholes chasing the same story," McElroy continued. "In the old days, reporters would lie their way into the homes of the deceased and try to steal pictures. Today you work harder to devise rationalizations. But outside the newsrooms, in the real world, we know that people like you and Mike Wallace are simply vultures seeking to further their own egos and careers by preying on others in their hours of suffering."
It's always nice to hear from a stranger via e-mail, especially one who thinks you are an asshole and a vulture.
While McElroy may be correct about me, I think there are valid reasons to call survivors when you're writing a story related to a death.
During the 14 years I worked in newspaper journalism, I made at least two dozen of those calls. If there's a reason to write a news story about a death, there's a reason to contact family members. I never really liked doing it -- if someone was hostile I was all too happy to end the conversation -- but in some cases I reached a family member who wanted to get some things about their loved one in the paper.
I approached most of these calls the same way. First, if I was writing an obituary, I would tell the person who answered that I was writing a "memorial article." The term "obituary" has all kinds of unpleasant emotional baggage (as I learned when I wrote one for my grandfather).
Second, if the answering person seemed at all hesitant to talk, I would ask if there was someone else -- such as a family friend -- I could speak with instead.
Finally, I'd explain that an article was being written and I'd like to give the family an opportunity to tell people what their relative was like.
In many cases, someone would take me up on the offer. In others, I was turned down, but most of those were reasonably polite. (More polite than McElroy!)
One of the stories I wrote at the UT-Arlington student newspaper in 1987 was about Zypryan Strittmatter, a student who was shot outside a woman's apartment the night before classes began for the fall semester. He died in the middle of a busy street, halfway between her apartment and his own residence, and the story was covered throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
His father taught at the school, and my initial phone call led to several meetings with his parents. The woman told Arlington, Texas, police that she shot Zypryan after spotting him peeping in her window, and they declined to file charges. His parents, believing that the news about the incident would lead everyone to conclude that he was a peeping tom (or worse), used the interviews to describe their son's life and personality in detail. They believed that he was walking by the woman's apartment on the way back to his own, which was located less than a quarter-mile away, when she mistook him for an intruder and shot him.
I don't expect this to be persuasive to my new friend in Illinois, but I felt at the time like the Strittmatter family was glad to have the chance to tell their story. If journalists had stayed away from them in the aftermath of the shooting, the only thing anyone would know about their son was that he was an accused peeping tom.
Maybe I was too deeply involved in journalism to see this situation as other people would, but I think it would be much worse on grieving relatives to give them no opportunity to speak to a reporter.