The Art Of Detaching Yourself From Stories

Disconnect. It’s a word you must learn how to do as a journalist. From time to time, you must disconnect yourself from your story and your subjects.

In college, professors have warned us. There will be stories you cover where you will see dead bodies, burning buildings, car crashes, people shot and stabbed, and many times people going through the most painful time in their lives. There will be so many things you will experience that perhaps you’ve never even thought about, and if you can’t handle it than this certainly isn’t a job you should be doing.

Recently I read 60 Minutes correspondent Byron Pitt’s autobiography “Step Out On Nothing.” In it he describes various disasters and catastrophes he’s covered in his career. September 11 was one of them. Pitt’s was in NYC when 9/11 happened and he recounts the horror he and others faced that day. He depicts of how the ground covered in dust made is seem as if they were walking on the moon, the people he watched fall from the towers, and the firefighter he interviewed near the WTC site covered from head to toe in dust, the only streak of skin showing was from a tear that had rolled down from his eyes. The firefighter had just lost all of his men.

He writes, “On September 11, 2001 and on many days like it, I found it best to hide behind my job. Reporters are supposed to keep some detachment from the people and the subjects in their reporting. It was that professional distance that kept me grounded in the notion that I was placed in this moment to cover history not get caught up in it. It was not about me or particularly what I was feeling, it was about the people around me and reporting on their experiences, their emotions, and not my own.”

The other day I went out with a reporter and a photog on a story about eight apartments that had been completely destroyed by a fierce fire. I’ve been out on car crash stories and others where disaster has struck, but I can honestly say this was the first fire story I’ve gone out on.

When I first walked up the stairs to an apartment that had been affected, I couldn’t help but notice the reeking stench of smoke filling the air. As workers moved in an out, shoveling debris into garbage cans and dragging them across the room to be taken to the dumpster, their feet squished against the sopping wet carpet. Pieces of charred black wood that had fallen from the ceiling lay on the carpet. The entire apartment, although not the place where the fire had started, was stripped of its inside walls and there was almost nothing left except a few appliances.

In the room where I’m guessing the master bedroom had been, sat a dresser and a large mirror… the only lonely pieces of furniture left in the entire apartment. Across the way was another bedroom and under the mound of wreckage lay a few Christmas decorations that had been left behind. I also noticed a half a loaf of bread stuck behind a few boards and wondered how it had survived…

While standing there watching the photog shoot, I watched as the workers excavated the bathroom. I couldn’t help but stare at the bathtub thinking that someone once took showers there.

It’s a weird thing, standing in the middle of a place destroyed by fire. You start to think all these things you never would until you’re there. You wonder what sort of things the family lost in the fire, how the apartment looked before the fire, what the family was thinking while they stood and watched as their home was consumed by unforgiving flames, how they feel after the spectators and firemen are long gone, and when you see little collectibles laying around you wonder why they decided not to take them with when they come back to salvage their belongings.

And unlike other stories, although the apartment owners weren’t around for this one, I didn’t feel as if I was intruding in on their place. Maybe that’s part of the disconnecting and detaching yourself from the story.

This is only the first of many fires I will cover and each time I will learn more and more how to detach myself from the subjects I may want to get close to and express sorrow and sympathy for. It’s not always an easy process, but if you want to be a journalist, it’s just something you just have to do.


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