At the Monitor, I try to provide coverage of the events of greatest import in the valley, but one thing I can never seem to adequately cover is court cases.
Court cases, usually criminal trials, take an incredible amount of time. There are opening arguments and closing arguments and then there is sentencing, and each takes at least a day to cover.
Large newspapers and media outlets have staff that can do that sort of thing, but most of the time we don’t.
For what we can afford to pay, it’s not usually worth it for freelancers to expend that much time, so although our photographer Jim Scolman once did a nice job covering and writing about a trial, I hate to ask him to do it again.
And even if I could find willing freelancers, I would usually rather do it myself.
While in Journalism School at the University of Washington, I was lucky enough to study with Roger Simpson, one of the leading media ethicists in the nation, and the author of the textbook used on a lot of college campuses entitled “Covering Violence.”
Simpson in his work concentrated on two areas.
The first was ethical and sensitive treatment of victims. Old-school journalists could be horrendously callous in dealing with crime victims. They still can; I’ll never forget the ghastly excesses of the tabloids in covering the murder of Nicole Brown, the girlfriend of O.J. Simpson, once even splashing across the cover of one tabloid a gruesome digitally-edited photo of Brown as they thought she must have looked moments after her murder.
There are a lot of ways to hurt the family of a murder victim without even meaning to. For that reason, I am usually most comfortable taking the responsibility of trial coverage on myself. If I can’t find the time, then I forego all but the most basic coverage.
The other thing Simpson studied and wrote about was the impact of witnessing trauma on journalists. Firefighters, police and combat veterans all debrief or have counseling made available to them to help them endure the traumatic things they have experienced and seen while performing their duties.
But among journalists, there has long been a sort of macho ethos that demanded that reporters just suck it up.
They often did, but through a straw; at least one large media outlet actually maintained an account with a nearby drug and alcohol rehab clinic where staff members could dry out or clean up, or both.
Covering a murder trial is a wrenching thing.
There’s something about sitting in the same room with a person who looks fairly normal, who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, but who is responsible for the violent murder of another human being that rocks one’s confidence in one’s ability to protect oneself. Truly dangerous people don’t necessarily look dangerous. I’ve often had the uneasy feeling I’d be fairly easy prey for such a predator, despite all my pretensions to worldliness.
Sitting in the same room with the family of the victim of a murder is absolutely agonizing. The evidence and testimony presented during a murder trial is graphic and awful. It’s hard enough to hear for a complete stranger, but when a victim’s sister is there, every social instinct in the world cries out inside you to find some way to soften the blow to that person, and there simply is no way to do that.
All you can do is sit there and cringe in empathy.
Trials get down to the most basic questions and fears people have about death, God, evil and justice. In a courtroom, you can’t preserve the illusion that life is fair or that karma is in any way real. The victims didn’t deserve what happened to them. The killer lived and the victim died, and that is the opposite of fair.
People question their faith in courtrooms. They confront the reality that life is a lot more fragile than we like to pretend. They face the grim reality that some people, born into the world infants like any other, somehow turn into monsters, and we don’t know why.
You remember trials years after you’ve covered them. The names and the faces and the horrifying questions stay with you.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to get coverage of the trial of the killer of corrections officer Jayme Biendl for a long time. I knew Jayme a little. That crime touched a huge amount of people. The trial was very important to the whole community.
I had pretty much resigned myself to doing inadequate coverage, getting there when I could and gleaning the rest from court documents. But then Chris Hendrickson, who has been doing thorough work on a lot of stories in the upper valley and who has been very respectful in her approach to people, said she would go.
I had no doubt she would be compassionate enough to cause no harm.
I was, however, worried the case would harm her.
Chris cried a lot, covering the trial. She attended nearly every day, and said she had images in her mind she just couldn’t get free of. And she cried a lot while writing about the case.
She met and really liked Jayme’s family. She never tried to get an interview or a photo of any of them. When the verdict came in and Biendl’s killer was found guilty, she couldn’t bring herself to be among those turning cameras on the hugging family members. She was afraid that made her, in her words, “a complete fail as a journalist.”
In my mind, that’s the opposite of fail.
I’m really, really glad we had conscious-driven coverage of that trial, and I hope that Jayme’s family gets some measure of peace now.
And I hope all the witnesses and workers on the case, the attorneys, the judge, the jury and the police, can get a measure of peace, too. I have no idea how they do what they do, seeing what they see day after day.
I also hope Chris is okay.
I’m very grateful for a job well done.