When Tragedy Hits the Newsroom

Many journalists have experience covering stories of violent death, but what happens when those stories involve co-workers? The Dart Center looks at two cases.

Part 1: A News Photographer is Murdered

Many journalists have experience covering stories of violent death, but what happens when those stories involve co-workers? The Dart Center looks at two cases.

Luci Houston, a staff photographer for The San Jose Mercury News, had been missing for several days when, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 2001, she was found dead in the back seat of her company car, murdered by her estranged husband.

Mercury News staff writer Michelle Guido heard the news on her way back to San Jose that Sunday. Guido had been in Houston 's neighborhood in Oakland, along with other friends and co-workers, handing out leaflets to alert the community to Houston's disappearance.

Guido, along with many others, gathered that evening in the newsroom, where an informal peer-support network began almost immediately among Houston's colleagues. They called others, working to ensure that as many as possible would find out through personal contact, not the evening TV news. An executive editor sent out a staff email.

Later that night, a group congregated at Guido's house. "I think we drank martinis because that was Luci's favorite drink," Guido said in an interview with the Dart Center.

In the days that followed, Houston's friends and colleagues at the Mercury News had to bear grief, loss, and sometimes feelings of guilt, all while doing what they could to help Houston 's family, and continuing to produce news.

They collected thousands of dollars to help the family with funeral expenses and created a newsroom shrine of flowers, candles, and notes from all over the country. Staff set up a video camera in the Human Resources conference room where employees could record private messages to Houston's family.

Guido recalls the newsroom being "a very accepting place" as co-workers dealt with the murder and the aftermath, with the paper's management playing a supportive role.

Managers also facilitated their employees', and Houston's family's grief in practical ways: the newspaper paid to have Houston's body flown home to Washington D.C.; they paid for several staff members to fly east for the funeral; they paid for family members to attend a memorial service back in San Jose; and there were no questions, Guido said, if staff members needed time off to mourn.

February 24, 2002, four months after the murder, the Mercury News ran a page-one story about Houston in its Sunday edition. The story, written by Guido, filled half of the front page and three full inside pages. Writing in the first-person, Guido told of her friendship with Houston and of how the "magnetic, compassionate, forceful, ambitious, optimistic, romantic, funny," Houston became a victim of domestic violence.

"We drew together for candlelight vigils and memorial services," Guido wrote. "Some people still wear bright colors as a pointed tribute to our colleague, who would bound across our offices in her signature orange jacket and chartreuse shoes."

"It's too late for any of our guilt, anger and sadness to help Luci," she continued. "But maybe by taking a hard look back now, while memories are still fresh, we can help others."

News Managers Can Help

Though many journalists have experience covering violent death, dealing privately and professionally with tragedy when it hits the newsroom is quite different. "It's not very easy to operate on yourself when you're a surgeon," notes psychiatrist Frank Ochberg.

But if managers have even an elementary understanding of grief, depression, sadness and trauma reactions, much can be done to help journalists deal with personal tragedy both privately and in print.

Ochberg, Chair Emeritus of the Dart Center Executive Committee, suggests management take a number of specific actions in dealing with a violent death among staff:

  • Consider whether to bring in an outside journalist to cover the news story.
  • Remember that it's crucial for people closest to the tragedy to feel respected and cared for.
  • Make intelligent choices about offering internal or outside psychological help. Do not bring in counselors or facilitators who don't understand newsroom culture.
  • Search recent events for journalist peers who have gone through similar episodes.
  • If at all possible, deal with the situation face-to-face and personally.
  • Listen to the needs to survivors — including staff, family and friends — before coming up with solutions.

Ochberg adds that newsroom managers need at least "a minimal roadmap" in understanding reactions to violent death for two reasons: Simply being prepared for such an event is crucial. Yet even if violent death never effects the newsroom personally, learning how to handle such situations makes management better equipped to deal with lesser tragedies or personal difficulties.

Knowledge, says Ochberg, concentrates your mind for understanding less traumatic events. And, he says, during any personal crisis, "it's very specific acts of kindness and courtesy that are remembered."

Guido agrees, as she remembers the specific actions her managers and colleagues took — from organizing the candlelight vigils, to paying for travel expenses, to avoiding making photo assignments during opening and closing trial arguments so Houston 's closest colleagues could attend.

"People die in any work place," Guido said. "But this was totally different, because it was a murder, and because it was Luci — you would notice that presence missing."

Yet Houston's colleagues and employers rallied to support each other.

"I couldn't imagine anyone doing it better than how we did it here,' Guido said.

Part 2: A Radio Host Commits Suicide

A year ago, KUOW radio host Dave Beck returned from a summer vacation to tragic news.

His friend and colleague Cynthia Doyon, longtime host of the KUOW program "The Swing Years and Beyond," had shot herself to death early one August morning not far from the NPR station's Seattle studios.

Doyon and Beck had known each other and worked together for almost 20 years. She had chosen and played music at his wedding. She had attended a party at his home the week before her death.

The news of her suicide was stunning, but the way Beck received the news helped — he received a personal, "very compassionate," phone call from program director Jeff Hansen.

"I'm really thankful Jeff contacted me at home," Beck told the Dart Center, noting that the personal contact helped ease him into the healing process.

When Hansen first heard the news of Doyon's suicide — inadvertently broken to him by a newspaper reporter calling to confirm her death — at first he didn't believe it. "It didn't compute . it didn't make sense to me," he remembers. But once he confirmed the information, he knew he needed to handle notifications to other staff members.

Hansen called a meeting. Knowing he didn't have all the answers himself, he arranged for a police representative and a grief counselor to attend. He began phoning staff members who were not at work, wanting to tell them about the suicide before they heard it through rumors or media reports.

Within hours of Doyon's death, many KUOW staff members had heard the news through first hand personal contact, and had support resources made available to them. The meetings continued throughout the week, both to offer support to Doyon's colleagues, and to plan collaboratively how and what to communicate publicly.

Noting that he had never experienced anything like Doyon's death before, Hansen said he and other KUOW staff members were "making it up as we went along," relying on good sense and a general knowledge of how to release information in an effective way.

As with Hansen, many news managers have had little formal guidance when it comes to breaking tragic news to survivors. The way news is broken, however, can be key to the acceptance and healing process, mental health experts say. It's important, for instance, to make the contact personal, to work quickly and to break the news without euphemisms.

In the occasional cases where news managers must break news of death to next of kin, the notification process becomes even more crucial. Grief counselors recommend that the news be delivered in person, by two people. Counselors warn to be prepared for a powerful, perhaps even violent reaction. And, they say, make sure you have adequate emotional support for yourself.

While telling colleagues of a staff members death may not be as emotionally raw as notifying next of kin, understanding these guidelines, and knowing what reactions to expect, is central to communicating the news in a way that doesn't do unnecessary harm.

In the case of Doyon's death, Hansen says he had to make some quick assessments while dealing with his own emotions. "I know my staff," he remembers thinking. "I know they're going to have lots of questions . we need to be prepared."

For more detailed information for journalists on breaking bad news to friends and family, see the BBC/Dart Centre guide "Breaking Bad News."