A lesson on compassion

Imagine seeing van loads of media outside your home, trampling your lawn, demanding a quote after a sensitive situation. Day in and day out, strangers are prying on your most personal private and delicate moment of your life.

Katie Garvey, Mariah Phillips and Brent Curtis sit in on Media Ethics class.
Sara Novenstern/Castleton Spartan

It would seem like these people are cold, callus, and not compassionate. But what if it was your job, your duty, to get a story, not to necessarily benefit yourself or your career, but to help those who were left to deal with the tragedy?

This is an uncomfortable ethical dilemma that reporters are forced to deal, and still might be searching for the right answer.

Professor David Blow invited three guests into his Media Ethics class to try to tackle this controversial dilemma. Two of the guests were targets of the media, one was a reporter.

Castleton Graduate Mariah Phillips was a victim. In April of 2009, her father, Capt. Richard Phillips, was taken hostage by Somali pirates. She got the news on a Wednesday and not long after, the media was coming in truck loads.

“They were pretty persistent … the front gate was lined up with reporters,” said Phillips.

The media was so tenacious that they were using the Phillips’ electricity to power their vans, set up a podium in the front lawn in case someone wanted to come out and speak, and were even found lurking in her woods, hiding in the trees.

“It makes you feel entrapped,” said Phillips.

Phillips was even forced to wear a disguise when escaping her home.

“It’s annoying,” said Phillips.

Guest Katie Garvey became a widow when her husband, Justin, was one of the first killed in battle in Iraq. Garvey explained that shortly after she got the news, an acquaintance that was also a reporter called her for an interview and what he said left a bad taste in her mouth.

“I was still in shock on the phone … he said he had to get the story out … I was mind blown,” Garvey said.

Blow shook his head at hearing the stories from Garvey and Phillips.

“There was a lot that made me feel bad to be a journalist,” Blow said.

Brent Curtis, a reporter for the Rutland Herald, has dealt with these types of situations before, being forced to interview families who are grieving.  

“It is the most uncomfortable thing you have to do,” said Curtis. “The more you push someone the more you push them away.”

But Curtis understands the importance of getting the story, not for personal gratification, but to help those left behind to grieve.  He knows to put himself in the shoes of other people, and to be a compassionate human.

“We’re a pain in the ass … I try to give people a reason to talk to me,” said Curtis.

Garvey couldn’t have explained it any better herself.

“It’s about the execution. You have to exude that empathy,” said Garvey.  

Phillips agreed. She explained that even though she had dozens of reporters she did not like and wouldn’t talk to, one stuck out. It was after her father was rescued, Dateline’s Diane Sawyer called the home and impressed both her and her mother.

“Doing cartwheels in the living room was the way she put it … she didn’t even ask for an interview,” said Phillips.

Junior Alexandra Johnstone remembered a compassionate story that was told in class.

“I was fond of the moment when the photographer didn’t take the picture,” said Johnstone.

Phillips explained how her mother was sipping her morning coffee, enjoying what she thought was a moment of solitude and peace. A nearby photographer was hiding in a tree facing the money-shot ready to be taken. But she didn’t shoot it. The photographer went as far as to tell the mother she wanted to take the shot, but just couldn’t, because that private moment was precious for her.

“She shoved the vulture in the back pocket and was human for a minute,” said Blow. “That’s what sucks about this job sometimes is that people forget we are human.”

Phillips and Garvey both expressed how reporters could do a better job of approaching such a difficult situation.

They advised not to bring up the deadline of the story, or try to say you understand how one is feeling because you just can’t. Don’t ask how one is doing, because it isn’t good. They warned not to ask for an interview via email or Facebook, but to do it in person or over the phone.

“It’s like if a guy asked you out on Facebook, like pshhh, delete,” exclaimed Phillips.

“The approach to individuals is key, I believe,” said Garvey.

And although both women have had reporters who have scarred them for life with their incapability to be compassionate, with time both have come to agree that they are able to be sympathetic for the reporter, because after all, it isn’t easy.

“Oh definitely,” said Garvey.



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