To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “News stories are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
I’ve been in the news business 30 some odd years (actually, come to think of it, most of them are odd), but I digress. Anyway, in my vast experience I’ve learned I shouldn’t write the stories I cover before I actually cover them. The story may sound like one thing over the phone, or written in a press release, or as related by a third person, but when you actually get your “boots on the ground” as the network correspondents say, the story changes. Actually the story doesn’t change; your perception of it changes.
It’s not uncommon in the TV news business for producers to “stack” their news show based on what they “think” the story is…long before the reporter has left the station. I’ve actually seen “promos” of my stories run before I’ve actually left my house to go to the station–much less go to the location of the story to report it.
My experience on a story this week reminds me that’s not a good idea. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Let me set the scene. Over the weekend someone fire-bombed Chantay Anderson’s home on Detroit’s east side. Her two year old son Jasiah Collins died in the blaze. Our reporter on the scene that day, Tom Wait, asked the grieving mother if she had a picture of Jasiah to put in the story. She said “yes”… one single framed photograph, damaged in the fire. That’s all she had left she told Tom of her baby. One damaged photograph. She asked if Tom knew someone who could fix that last precious memory. After all, that’s all she had left.
Tom went live on our 6:00 newscast Sunday with a plea for someone who might be able to repair the picture. I was watching from home and can find my way around Photoshop, so I emailed Tom and told him I’d take a crack at it. It was, after all, the only memory she had left.
At work Monday we scanned the photograph and one of our video editors, Teresa Simmonds, and I divided the workload and began painstakenly restoring, repairing and replacing lost pixels, one at a time. It was heartbreaking as I rebuilt the damaged eye of the little boy who’s real eyes are forever closed. But the result, I must say, was pretty impressive.
I emailed the file to Tom to give to the grieving mother and he suggested it might be a good story for me to present it myself. Newsroom management agreed. It was never my intention to get a story out of rebuilding the photograph. But after talking to Chantay on the phone I saw the advantage of doing the story as a springboard to get her some help burying Jasiah, which she says she has no money to do.
So I arranged to meet Chantay at Swansons funeral home to present her with the restored photograph of her dead son. And that’s when this story took a bizarre twist. Proof that “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
I was early, Chantay wasn’t there yet. But a woman who told me she was Jasiah’s grandmother was there and was excited to see the restored picture of her grand baby Jasiah. But when I showed it to her she frowned, then became angry. “That’s not Jasiah,” she nearly shouted as though I was intentionally trying to trick her. Or maybe she didn’t like my photoshop skills. I didn’t know.
“That’s the picture Chantay gave to us,” I pointed out. “She gave the same picture to the newspapers,” I added weakly.
“That’s not Jasiah,” she insisted, growing angrier. “That’s Jamari.”
Jamari, as it turns out is Jasiah’s older brother…five years older.
When Jasiah’s mother, Chantay, arrived moments later the situation only got stranger. She argued with the woman. “That’s my baby, that’s Jasiah,” she argued through her tears. But then, when pressed by Jasiah’s grandmother, Chantay made a startling admission. “He looks just like my baby.”
Then the real story began to emerge. Chantay, it turns out, has NO pictures of Jasiah, burned or not with the exception of one tiny cell phone snapshot, which she didn’t know how to retrieve from her phone. When reporters asked if she had a picture, the grief-stricken mother found the next best thing. A picture of big-brother Jamari, taken five years earlier. After all, “he looks just like my baby.”
So the story had changed…dramatically. The producers had already stacked into their newscasts because they thought they knew what the story was. I can’t blame them, so did I. Actually, journalistically speaking, the story had gotten better. The producers moved it up in the newscast. Had the promos already been shot, recorded and aired they would not have teased nearly as interesting a story.
Oh, by the way, what story did I eventually come up with after picking through this box of chocolates? Here’s the link… tell me what you think. Plus, here are the before and after pictures of Jasiah–I mean Jamali–let me know how Terry and I did…just in case I wind up doing that again.
Because you never know what you’re gonna get.