Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tragedy, journalism and everyday life

It's true, I think, that when you get into journalism you know you're signing up for being exposed to things you can't unsee.

When I was reporting in Chicago, there were dead people. And body bags. And violent crime scenes that hadn't been cleaned up. But even if you never leave the newsroom, you're surrounded by images--on TV, the Internet and in print--that aren't always wonderful.

Right now, I'm more or less in the second situation: I've got a desk, two monitors and a phone. I deal with business news in Asia, which is never more than metaphorically depressing. But the refugee situation in Europe means that, like most of the world, I've seen horrifying pictures of dead children on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Like I said, you know you're signing up for it. And for better or worse I think you get kind of inured to it after a while.

But for me, the emotion leaks through sometimes. There are two times this happened to me that stick out in my memory.

Once was when I was covering the kidnapping and killing of a boy (a celebrity's nephew, actually) in Chicago. I interviewed some of his family's neighbors. Talked to the police. Did normal reporting things. Was fine. Then I saw the picture we had been given to use with the story. It was from his birthday party. He was seated at a table, holding a balloon. A huge, innocent, joyous smile just radiated from his face.

Someone had taken that kid--defenseless and innocent--and killed him. I came home from work that night and cried. It was hard to stop.

The second time was today. You've probably seen the picture too: a three-year-old Syrian boy, lying motionless in the surf in Turkey. You can't see his face. He's dressed in a tiny red T-shirt and tiny blue pants and tiny black shoes.

He died because his parents are war refugees, unable to travel normally, legally, to a safe haven. I cried (discreetly, because I'm a professional) at my desk.

The latest one hit me harder, I think, because I have a kid of my own. I dress her every day. Sometimes she wears tiny pants and a tiny T-shirt and tiny shoes. She's defenseless and wonderful and I never want anything bad to happen to her. So what happened to the Syrian toddler seems all the more tragic and unjust. His parents' choice was to risk their lives living in a war or risk their lives trying to claw their way into a more promising country.

That's not a fair choice. Developed countries have plenty of room to help those trying to escape war, or religious or political persecution. It's the right thing to do, but if you're more of a "how does it help the bottom line?" type, the economic benefits of immigration--legal and illegal--are pretty unambiguous, at least in the United States.

As for me, I'm glad I'm not too calloused to react emotionally like that. I'd be worried if I were. But I hope--naively, I know--that the world will improve, and there will just be fewer images like this for me to react to.

That's the world I want my daughter to live in. Not the one where generosity is seen as weakness, and refugees treated as a nuisance.

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