DEAR READER: What Angela Anderson taught us about journalism, trauma

Friday, July 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:09 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 12, 2014

Most days, when I look at the "most read" list on our homepage and elsewhere on the Internet, I find some story there about loss — the drowning of a young person at a favorite swimming hole, a fatal car crash or a shooting.

The story about two of Angela and Brian Anderson's three children being electrocuted in Lake of the Ozarks was one of those stories. I remember because my students covered it when it happened two years ago.

At the time, I was co-teaching a summer reporting session with my colleague, Scott Swafford. We sent reporters down to the lake to find out what happened. The neighbors talked about what they'd heard, the sounds of play turning to cries of catastrophe.

The people in our newsroom were saddened by the news we were covering. We talked about the family. The loss of one child was unimaginable. How could anyone live with that much pain?

But we didn't try hard to get in touch with the Andersons. It felt too invasive. Instead, we talked to others for a Missourian life story about Brayden and Alexandra. We wrote follow-up stories about dock safety and dock inspections.

If my thoughts returned to Angela Anderson and how she was doing, I don't remember. Maybe it was easier not to imagine.

And then she found us. It was a chance meeting with a student outside a downtown restaurant last winter, a person sensitive enough to realize Angela Anderson might be ready to tell the story. He brought me her cell phone number.

I pushed it aside for several weeks as I prepared to teach my new class, "Covering Traumatic Events." I'd wanted to teach the class for several years but had finally found the time to do the reading and research. I'd gone to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and learned a little about the terrain I needed to cover. I was acquainted with psychologist Frank Ochberg's Three Acts of Trauma and had been made uncomfortable by the insight that we, in the news media, often walk away from stories after Act I — the initial impact of the event. We don't try hard enough to write about Act II — recovery and resilience. Or Act III — the search for meaning, the hardest part of all.

And there was Angela Anderson's phone number on my desk, asserting my failure.

When she and I finally connected, I told her about the trauma course and how valuable it would be for the students to hear about her experience and how the media coverage affected her.

She was kind and generous in sharing her experience and answering questions. My students were in awe of her. We spent the entire next class period debriefing.

I worried about Anderson afterward. I called to see how she was doing and wondered if I'd prepared her adequately for how bad she might feel after reliving her nightmare for my students. I sent her a card. No response.

We'd talked about whether she might want to share her story with our readers someday, and she'd said she might, when the date of the event she was organizing in her children's honor got closer. I was sure it would never happen.

And then, she said "yes." This past month, she sat down with Missourian reporter Tracey Goldner and talked about, well, everything. Goldner, an advanced reporting student and one of the kindest people I know, didn't perform any kind of magic. She just cared deeply about that story. She cared about Angela Anderson and her family, and she got to know a little bit about Alexandra and Brayden through their mother.

She sweated over the details and over getting everything exactly right. (Errors in stories about trauma survivors add insult to injury in the most profound way. It feels like disrespect to them and the people they loved.)

We as human beings seem to crave stories about the ordinary horrors of human existence, but why isn't entirely clear, even to researchers. Maybe we need to acquaint ourselves with the possibility of loss, and we do that by reading about others' losses. Maybe we like the feeling of having dodged the bullet. This time, it wasn't me, or someone I love.

And then we turn away.

We, the human beings who make up the news media, do this as well. After the initial event has been sorted out, the bodies counted, and a cause determined — correctly or not — we pack it in. Sometimes we talk to the survivors. Too often, we don't.

That's a mistake. Anderson had something to teach us, something about resilience, and that's why it's so important not to let our attention flag. She strives to find meaning.

She doesn't remember details about those first days after the kids died. She does remember wondering sometime in the past two years why journalists didn't come back to find out what was going on with her family and how they were doing. It seemed strange to her — all that focus on her children's deaths and so little on their lives.

In allowing us to tell her story, she reminded me how important it is to remember that people are still living with the stories we've told about them, and often in extraordinary ways.

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