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Tom Bolton: For Journalists, It Should Be About Both Life and Death

Benjamin Franklin once famously exhorted that nothing in the world can be certain "except death and taxes."

But in the world of journalism, we can probably narrow that down still further and say just death.

For good or for bad, people dying generally qualifies as news.

Whether it's the traditional obituary or a story of some spectacular and/or tragic demise, death is a topic that fascinates us as a society, and occupies a lot of time for reporters and editors.

And readers can't seem to get enough of it.

On the surface, it can appear that journalists — like cops, firefighters, hospital workers and others who must deal directly with death on a regular basis — are a rather callused and uncaring lot.

We put on a face that may seem devoid of emotion, and often use terms that sound cold or clinical when describing someone who has passed away.

So, for example, we refer internally to someone who has died as an 11-44, which is drawn from the code list police and firefighters use, primarily for their radio communications.

And we may call an incident in which someone has been killed simply "a fatal."

Spend any time at all as a hard news reporter, and eventually you will encounter these issues. And most likely, you eventually will end up at the scene of a crime or accident in which someone has been killed.

It's at that point — coming face to face with a mangled body or a ubiquitous yellow tarp — that an 11-44 becomes something very real and disturbing, someone's parent or child, sibling or friend, who has just died, often in a violent manner.

I remember vividly, as a young reporter, the first time I saw a body at an accident scene — it was an airplane crash — and how much it affected me.

It's at that point I believe journalists have a huge responsibility they must try to live up to.

I long ago came to the conclusion that that responsibility includes not only telling our readers, in a complete and accurate way, what happened, but also trying to tell the story of who the person was.

That can mean tear-filled and heart-wrenching interactions with the family and friends of the deceased. Those can be tough days.

But it seems sad to allow someone to be defined not by the life they lived, but by how they died.

Even though I've been doing this for a lot of years, and reported on hundreds of deaths, I still get a lump in my throat when I have to call a victim's relative, or knock on their door, asking if they'd like to talk.

What's interesting is that, beyond the shock and grief of the moment, people quite often want to talk about the person they've lost. There's a certain catharsis to it, I suppose.

Hearing those stories — and recounting them to the community — can be an emotional and humbling experience.

Sadly, we don't always have the time or opportunity to go that extra mile to tell the human story of the deceased.

But it's something I believe we always should strive for.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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