Mighty Ivy, Jerry & Susie, and finding three dimensions in tragedy

“Find the emotion.”

TV reporters and photojournalists hear that refrain often. Our medium, after all, lends itself less to in-depth analysis and more to visceral video. As such, we often receive assignments that offer the greatest potential to witness raw feelings.

But rarely are we asked to push beyond those feelings.

We are told to put our most emotional moments at the front of our stories, not set them up with context. We are sent to horrific scenes and given little time, both on site and in newscasts, to get a sense beyond the basic. We are pushed to keep things moving.

So often, though, such a philosophy produces reports that only connect on a surface level – and, while powerful in the moment, are almost immediately forgotten.

I want my stories to be remembered. More importantly, I want the people in my stories – the ones who open themselves to news coverage at extremely vulnerable times – to be remembered.

This past month, I received two specific opportunities to tell such stories. I tried to produce pieces that would provide both powerful moments and the depth and poignancy to earn them.

First came Mighty Ivy. My station had learned of a Georgia couple that had developed a wide Facebook following for detailing their efforts to help their youngest daughter. Ivy Raley is three years old and suffers from Rett syndrome; she is also a twin whose sister, Isabel, is fully healthy.

I was fortunate to receive a day to spend with the Raley family. I used that time not just documenting the experience but trying my best to comprehend it. On an abstract level, one can certainly empathize for a mother whose daughter is facing a life-threatening disease. I wanted, though, to convey what it means on a practical level. I watched Ivy’s mom, Shelly, juggle an endless list of tasks: preparing Ivy’s medications, filling out her health care forms, and finding time to play with Isabel. I observed firsthand her daily workload and pressure, and I watched her tear up multiple times while explaining it.

When I wrote and edited my story about Ivy, I tried to present as much as possible of what I saw.

Two weeks later, I learned the story of Jerry and Susie Stros. They had been married 51 years when, within one week, each received an unexpected diagnosis of cancer. Susie’s was the worst: Stage 4 lung cancer that has forced her to receive hospice care.

Their son, Jason, welcomed the chance to tell his parents’ story, but he worried about how much they could physically handle of the interview process. I quickly learned I would receive, not a day, but an hour with the family. I completely understood, wanting to be sensitive and deferential to their situation.

But I still tried to immerse myself as much as I could in the details. Jason and I talked multiple times on the phone, and he was more than willing to tell me as much as I wanted to know. I entered the shoot with a basic grasp of what made this story powerful beyond the surface.

Then I met Jerry and Susie, and I immediately felt the power of their connection.

I consider myself privileged to convey stories like this to a wide audience. I appreciate people’s willingness to transform personal tragedy into a universal example. Jerry and Susie wanted to get out a message of cherishing life and love; Mighty Ivy’s mom wanted to raise awareness and empathy for families in similar situations.

Their stories are poignant, and their struggles challenging. I can never fit it all into my short window of time on television, but I try to produce stories that encompass as much as possible.

Yes, “find the emotion”. But also find what brings that emotion.


The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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