Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I love reporting. L-O-V-E it. But nothing is perfect, no matter how much we love it.
Last week was kind of like that for me. I had a true love/hate moment with my chosen career in the face of breaking news. And as I’ve been learning, the adult way to handle these moments is to suck it up and move forward.
What I produced:
- Eliot Battle, Columbia educator involved in desegregation, dies
- Educators, community remember Eliot Battle
- (And this one pertains to my last post about PIN camp) DEAR READER: Let’s solve problems together
I’ll set the scene: Wednesday morning dawned quiet and humid…and the quiet lasted all of the 40 seconds it took me to realize I was more than an hour late (the humidity lasted until much later). I rushed to work, setting a 27-minute record for how long it took me to shower and get ready. As soon as I arrived for my shift as assistant city editor, I was ready for bit of quiet so I could breathe.
But in true breaking news fashion, all of a sudden the quiet erupted into slight chaos as we were informed that Eliot Battle, a beloved member of the community who helped integrate and lead Columbia Public Schools throughout his career, had died the evening before. His wife, Muriel Battle, died 10 years ago, and the high school named in her honor had opened for summer school just 10 days earlier. This was big news for our community, and it caught us slightly off-guard.
At the urging of my executive editor, I switched from editing-mode to reporting-mode, taking the lead on the story. Everything started out fine — I made calls, sent emails, researched and quickly scanned our archives for any usable information we could publish fast. I shrugged my reporting skin back on and found it still fit.
In the midst of my writing, reporting and general scurrying, it was mentioned that Eliot Battle lived nearby, and we should probably make a point of visiting his home to check in with any family who might be around.
I froze. Go to his house? As rational of a suggestion as it was, it seemed mildly horrifying to me. It felt like imposing. Geez, I could barely bring myself to call the home phone number let alone show up on his doorstep and ask his grieving family to chat with me. I’d given the same kind of directive to reporters dozens of times before, yet when I was faced with the task, I balked.
So much of reporting is unnatural — the interviewing, the probing, the deadlines, the skepticism — and part of learning how to do it right is learning how to do a lot of things that don’t feel comfortable and doing them anyway.
So I pretended I hadn’t heard, hoping we all might conveniently forget about the idea. I did this knowing, deep down, that I’d still have to go anyway, but I couldn’t think about that.
And it came up again. And again. And again. And finally, I had to get my act together. I was sent with a photographer, who graciously offered to drive, to see what might be going on. You see, so far we hadn’t heard of any kind of gathering to pay tribute, so this could be a lead.
We parked around the corner and could see someone on the deck through the trees that wrapped around the back fence. We watched a young man enter the house and figured we’d found the place. As I walked up the front walkway with the photographer, I muttered my insecurities just loud enough for her to hear. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my trepidation.
I rang the bell before I could stop myself. The door opened, and a woman with a huge smile on her face welcomed us in before we could even finish explaining who we were. Eliot’s daughter, Muriel “Jeanne” Battle had been living with him for the past year and a half, so she was the de facto face of the family for welcoming Columbia residents wanting to offer their condolences and baked goods.
The visit and subsequent interview were everything I could’ve hoped for. Jeanne was kind, welcoming and more than happy to talk about her father and her family. In fact, she declared more than once that we should not be sad. Instead, we should try to celebrate Eliot Battle’s life and feel blessed that he made his home in Columbia where he could share his life with its residents.
I came back to the newsroom with a legal pad full of notes and multiple waves of relief coursing through me. I sat down and churned out a life story using what I’d talked about with Eliot’s family and some vignettes from friends and colleagues who wished to tell their own stories about how Eliot played a role in their lives. Just a few short weeks later, I can see how Jacqui’s class has helped me re-examine my writing and nudge it toward the narrative.
The result was a set of clips I’m extremely proud of and a lesson in doing what needs to be done and learning (for the trillionth time) how to relate to others when I report. The best part? I got to talk to people who love this man and then wrote about it; the beautiful, inspiring stories tinged with sadness given that Eliot could no longer be around to hear them. More than ever, I’m aware of how my job is to collect and share stories with others, and I’m honored to have gotten a chance to share Mr. Battle’s with the community.