Reporters who cover murder tend to be a tough bunch. When one invited me to bet on the outcome of a jury verdict, I felt an intimidated sort of pride, not very different from my reaction in Middle School the time an older boy deigned to invite me to play poker with him and his buddies. The reporter who offered the wager (he turned out to be wrong) worked for a large urban daily, a dying breed. He and his colleagues spent the whole day at the courthouse shuttling from trial to press room to trial on the lookout for the best story.
In one courtroom an accused rapist had opted to represent himself. During a break the reporters laughed cynically and growled, “The whole jury’s shaking their heads when this jerk tries cross-examining the girl he raped!” They laughed at the outrage of it, at the stupidity. But they did laugh. They acted like reporters in an old movie about the fourth estate, except that the subject of their laughter was infinitely more shocking. Like cops, these men had seen it all and affected to be not much affected.
When I talked to reporters one on one, I found their feelings were more complicated, more like my own when I’d started writing about murders from a novelist’s perspective. The familiar kind of newsman may exist—a wise-cracking or cynical reporter who becomes a virtuous, unfunny moral crusader on the (usually tabloid) page. And TV news seems to demand a monotonous lack of irony or ambiguity. But two reporters I questioned were both subtle and earnest.
Evan Wright, a journalist with Rolling Stone who wrote the Iraq war classic Generation Kill, frequently reports on our country’s violent underbelly. He does so by energetically throwing himself into the story. People want to call it “gonzo journalism,” but that term sounds so unserious—more personal lark than public service. Nevertheless I wrote him expecting to hear a somewhat cynical take on journalism. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I emailed him, “Do you ever laugh privately about the awful things that you also take seriously as a reporter? Which do you feel is your true reaction?” He answered me, “No. I always try to put my true reaction, and those of my subjects, in my reporting. Humor isn't necessarily about disrespect. It's about nuance and the complexity of the human heart. Honest reporting, even if it pisses people off, ought to have that. Murder and war don't improve if we tell nice lies about them in our reporting.”
Another reporter, Duncan Osborne, who writes primarily for Gay City News and who’s covered several of the same cases I did, answered the question, “I don't laugh privately about these cases, but I do often find myself, I'm not sure what the word is (Confused? Surprised?) by the violence. I can get as angry as the next person, but I find the ease with which some defendants commit homicide inexplicable. I have joked about the tactics of trial attorneys and the foibles of some judges. I'm sure that judges and attorneys have made jokes about me and the press.”
Osborne acknowledged a difference between the kind of reporting he does and tabloid coverage of a trial. We’re “far less concerned with exploiting the criminal act, as the NY Post might . . .” And he added a fine point that his paper’s reporting—like the legal system itself—“is structured and conducted in a way to put distance between the criminal act and the consideration of that act during the trial. I feel the distance as well.”
A cerebral remoteness from the messy passion of murder, for example, is probably necessary for deep understanding. But Wright points out that the process of actually getting the information, researching the story, can require bloody-mindedness. “While I can't scientifically prove this, empirical evidence suggests most reporters are assholes. Even worse, we're human and prone to make mistakes and potentially driven by the same vanity and venality we are supposed to root out in our subjects.”
David McConnell is the author of the new book American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men, published by Akashic Books. In the course of researching and writing the book McConnell attended trials, conducted jail house interviews with murderers, and came face to face with the extreme violence of murder and hate crimes, besides parsing the ordinary violence that everyone has to some small degree within themselves.