Journalists, I Shouldn’t Have to Lecture You About the Power of Words

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My husband read a crime report online the day his brother was murdered. It was about a man being shot in Auburn. He didn’t think much of the report, at the time, except maybe a passing “that’s too bad.” Until my father-in-law knocked on our door with trembling hands and tears streaming down his face. When he said James was shot, we stood in stony shock before completely breaking down.

My husband immediately looked for information. We had very little and he wanted to know something, anything, about what had happened. Were there charges? Had they booked our brother’s murderer? When had it happened? Why would someone shoot another person? Why would someone steal away our young brother’s life? Had there been a serious conflict? Was he scared? Did he suffer? Some of our questions might never be answered, but basic details would help.

Unfortunately, the news was scarce and what little information there was made us even more sick to our stomachs. “Auburn police investigating death of a homeless man” was the very first piece of news we stumbled upon. And we both of us, in anger and shock, stared at one another before I said, “Jim was not homeless. He has a home.” My husband nodded, his face a mask of grief.

Homeless is a term that carries with it connotations, whether they are true or not. Some of them are extremely negative. But at the surface, it means “without a home.” And, at the time, Jim was not living at a home. So, sure, temporarily, he chose not to have a home. He was having a hard time and had hurt many of his friends and family with his addiction in the last couple years.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t welcome home. It did mean that we wanted him to get better before he started living around his nieces and nephews and cousins. Treatment was discussed, but Jim wasn’t ready for that. And that’s how he found himself were he was. Temporarily at rock bottom.

Raise your hand if you’ve never hit rock bottom. Those of you who raised your hands (probably pretty few) don’t have any fucking clue what it feels like to live in embarrassment, insatiable need and pain. And I am very thankful for you if that’s the case. But Jim was there. We didn’t know he where he was because he probably didn’t want us to know. But he was not without a home. Everyone at home hurt for him and wanted so much to have him back to normal, healthy and thriving again.

Unfortunately, the news updates on other sites were no better. Worse, really. Thank you so much, Kenny Ocker, for calling my brother a transient and making extra sure to point out that he was living in a tent. Transient is worse than homeless, Kenny and (later) Christine Clarridge , and I think journalists with your credentials understand that. Just in case you don’t, I made sure to comment below that it was insensitive. My comment was ignored. So, let me say, again, why your words are a big deal. Even though, as I’ve stated, I know you know which words carry which meanings, literal and non. You are journalists, after all, with, I assume, a fairly descent grasp on the language.

Synonyms for “transient” are as follows: vagrant, vagabond, and hobo, among others. Vagrant is a term people in ol’ time movies used to call people scum. Transient is akin to saying, “I won’t call you scum. I’ll just call you icky.” Are these the hard definitions? No. Does that matter? No. You understand denotative and connotative meanings. Did these definitions add anything to the story? No and Yes-they added unfair biases and belittled the death of a beloved son, brother, uncle, grandson, and nephew. However, his being down and out didn’t change the fact that he was murdered, so those definitions didn’t alter the true story. They just titillated a perceived audience.

What did it serve you to tell the public that my brother was living in a tent? Here’s what I think was meant by it: it was meant to paint my brother as unworthy of empathy, it was meant to show that his death was, in some way, not as important as the deaths of people who have stable situations. Here’s what it really did: it was a blow to his family, it made my mother, sister, husband and myself cry, it made my rage spike and it was wrong. You were wrong to focus on my brother’s rock bottom, and to assume, in so doing, that his death was lesser. Because it is everything to us. It consumes our days, our thoughts, and our futures.

Why could you not have said that “A man in his twenties was shot at the park by another man, point blank, with shotgun?” Is that not tantalizing enough for you or your readers? I’ll tell you what, journalists. Let’s say I write your last moments down, where your loved ones will read it. Okay? And to spice it up, I’ll take whatever moment was your rock bottom and create you in that light. Did you once have a drug addiction? Okay, “Alcoholic dies in fatal car wreck” it is. Did you once cheat on your spouse? Fine. “Adulterer dies from cancer.” You get the point. Your pain, your sadness, your hard times are not the business of others. They would not change the fact that you had people who loved you. Those headlines would simply eat at the living, those who loved you in your ups and downs.

Jim had so many ups. He was an uncle to my children, who, despite being gone more than we wanted, smiled and made faces at them, held them and teased them. He was the man who messaged me in congratulations when I had my first baby and said, “I’m so happy to finally be an uncle. I’m sorry I can’t see her, but I love her already.” He was the person who was always first to pick up a broom or a sponge when he saw me start cleaning. He was the kind of guy who could feel so much that it hurt. Sometimes that hurt turned to rage and bad decisions. Sometimes the hurt came out in tears over sappy movies, sappy movies he’d encourage me to watch with him when he couldn’t sleep, and he knew I couldn’t sleep because I was too sad from the passing of my father. He tried to comfort me the best way he knew how, by trying to talk me into watching The Notebook for the thousandth time or chatting about Harry Potter, which, yes, he secretly loved.

He had moments, too, that made us want to shake him. Moments that worried us. A lot of those, recently. But he was young, barely a man. So many of us have had those moments in our life that we just figured he’d come out of it and come back smarter.We did, after all. Alcohol tried to wreck me, but I’m still here.

But he doesn’t get to come back. Adding to the pain are the judgmental articles painting him as some sort of vagrant thug. And that seems insane to me. My brother was shot over a petty fight about tools and you can’t dredge up some compassion? If not compassion, can you just choose to stick to the facts that are relevant to my brother’s death? Journalists, I write fiction. I do a pretty decent job of it. I write the feels. Ask anyone. That’s not your job, I know, but can you at least consider them when writing?

Maybe you’ll say, “I was just sticking to the facts.” It might be a fact that your brother looks like crap in the color orange, but you don’t have to say it. It’s not relevant; it adds nothing except pain. Here’s what I really want, journalists. I want you to say nothing. Stick to that old maxim. If you can’t say anything nice about my brother, don’t say anything at all. We know who our loved one was. And you clearly don’t. We don’t need the added judgments on our heaping pile of pain. Things like that can topple people who are already wavering.

 

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