Monday, September 3, 2007

A defining moment

23 .. it's a number that's been with me in this crazy broadcast business for a while.

My first internship was at the old TV23, and then we launched the return of Akron news on PAX 23 ... and then we eventually moved it to Time Warner Cable on position 23.

That's a lot of 23's.

Today, I'm thinking of 23 years ago ... the date 9/4/84. It's a date I think about a lot as a TV reporter. In fact, it's a day that not only drew me into the business but one that guides my ethics and compassion most days.

23 years ago today was the date my older brother, Brian, was murdered in North Akron.

Brian was 17, and he was gunned down the day before he was to start his senior year in high school. Even though he was still a minor, Brian was living on his own ... one of the many byproducts of our dysfunctional, divorced family.

Long story short, Brian ended up living near a really, really bad guy .. who on 9/4/84 opted to put a shotgun into my brother's chest in front of an entire group of people. As the crowd was in shock and Brian broke into tears, the man pulled the trigger and killed my brother on the spot. Police caught the man and put him in jail, but it was too late for Brian.

About 12 hours later, after the family had wept and went their separate ways to grieve, a TV reporter knocked on our family's door asking for an interview. I told him my father wasn't home and that I didn't know much about what had happened. The reporter then pressured me with the argument that if I didn't talk to him on camera -- even though I was barely 16 years old -- that he'd have no choice but to run the police version of the story and comments from neighbors who hinted my brother had "asked for it." Stunned and numb, I said nothing to this emotional ultimatum and retreated in shock to my home.

Shortly thereafter --again 23 years ago today -- I made a promise that if I ever became a reporter, I would never approach grieving relatives the way I was treated that day. I would never make someone feel like they had to stop their mourning just because I showed up. I would never make them feel like my story had some bearing on how they should view their loss or whether it makes a difference in public opinion.

I would simply tell them how sorry I am for their loss. End of story.

If they agreed to tell me more about their loved one, that's fine. If they didn't, that's fine too.

To this day, I despise the reporter who came to my door that day. I can still remember how overdressed he was for the September heat. I can still remember the coldness in which he addressed me. I can still remember how he didn't give a damn if I was hurting or why, as a teen myself, I was home alone when something so awful had just happened.

Additionally, I still remember hearing the radio news that day. Still remember the opening sentence on WAKR .. "An Akron teen is dead today from a shooting in North Akron .. and police must still determine what happened."

As a journalist, I can tell you that it's easy to write evening news stories in a sort of formula. "A fire on the city's west side tonight ..." or "An Akron man is lucky to be alive tonight ...." You know the drill. The stories become so routine that it's like making Kool-Aid .. but instead of adding two quarters of H20, you add two quarts of prose on a 6th-grade level.

Those stories about my brother remind me everyday that relatives will forever remember the adjectives I use to describe their loved one. They'll memorize the verbs that craft my sentences and make note of whatever I left out of the story that they felt was important. They'll never forget if I mispronounced a name or a place .. and they'll forever remember me as the storyteller.

Knowing all that, how could I live with myself if I was sloppy in my job? If I pressured or misled them for emotional interviews? If I guided my questions to purposely make them cry? If I fail to make sure the story is accurate?

For me, the pain on 9/4/84 unfortunately got much worse. My maternal grandmother died the next day of a massive heart attack triggered by my brother's death. We had two funerals on back-to-back days.

In 2003, the man who killed Brian was paroled under a new state program as I sat 7,000 miles away in Operation Iraqi Freedom unable to do much in opposition. I knew that that day would come someday. I'd already forgiven him (at least I hope I have) and made peace with the loss of Brian. I don't believe in the death penalty, so accepting that my brother's killer would someday be set free was unavoidable.

Still, today is yet another "23" for me.

23 years since I last saw my brother alive.

23 years since my family was forever broken.

23 years since I was branded with a horror that I pray will forever guide me as both a journalist and a man .. someone who chooses compassion over content ... and remembers my pain before remembering my pen.

5 comments:

vanillacokehead said...

Thanks for sharing this. To say that reporter was a jerk would be a major understatement. Much belated condolences. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family, Eric.

When I was a photog, a little piece of me died every time I was sent out to cover a story about the death of someone else, be it the result of an accident, a homicide, or by any other means.

The worst story emotionally for me was when I covered a house fire in Jackson, MS and three kids died. I remember coming home from that story and collapsing into bed and crying.

Maybe this was one reason I got out of the business more than 11 years ago. There are times I miss working in news; but I realize I left for my own good.

Cindy said...

Eric,
You have always been an exceptional reporter when it comes to compassion in dealing with families and their tragedies. This stood out to me before I knew your brother's story. Your integrity and compassion are unmatched in your profession.

Anonymous said...

Eric,

Thank you for sharing this heart-wrenching story. My heart goes out to you... I can't even imagine the pain you endured going through not only the murder of your brother, but then the death of your grandmother immediately following... and you were so young, too.

You have shared a few stories in your personal life that I think shed a little light into what makes you the caring and compassionate person that you are... I sure hope that the reporter that tried to get his story from you 23 years ago learned a thing or two since then...

Thanks again for sharing...

Laura

Anonymous said...

Eric,

This just is another reason why I think you are one of the finest people in the media in our area.

Thank you for sharing such a personal memory. I am sorry for your loss.

Elissa

Anonymous said...

Eric -

Thank you for reminding this anchor that the stories I read are real people and the families and friends are listening.