It was pitched to me as a heart-warming story.
When I walked in the door last Thursday at WXIA-TV, I learned my producers had already lined up my assignment. I would head out to Woodstock, Ga. — roughly 40 minutes northwest of Atlanta — and cover the homecoming of 19-year-old Emily Bowman, who had spent the last four months in the hospital.
Bowman, a student at nearby Kennesaw State University, spent three weeks in a coma after being hit by a drunk driver back in February. She made small improvements in the following months, while police arrested the young man who they believe crashed into her.
Now, she was coming home — and we would be there to document it.
In the morning meeting, producers described the story with words like “great”, “beautiful”, and “uplifting”. On the surface, these words seemed to be accurate; Emily’s friends and family had been eagerly awaiting her return, and a local charity had even remodeled her home to make it wheelchair-accessible. We pictured all the wonderful potential moments that would touch our viewers’ hearts.
And then, one of my fellow reporters raised her hand and interjected.
“You guys know she can’t walk or talk, right?”
I had not realized that. I knew Emily could not walk, but I did not realize she still could not speak — or move at all.
When I learned that, I realized something else: I would not be telling a “beautiful” or “uplifting” story on this day. I would be dealing with something far more complicated.
So often, many of us in newsrooms become seduced by storyline instead of substance. Maybe we focus on an issue “everyone is talking about” rather than an issue that affects people far more directly. Maybe we choose a story we can sell in one line rather than a story that needs more explanation but has a stronger payoff.
And sometimes, with stories that deal with more emotional topics, we opt for simplicity and easy-to-grasp emotions over difficult, conflicted feelings, and shades of gray.
The more I researched Emily Bowman, the more I knew I would be returning with a story far heavier than what my producers may have originally intended. I watched previous stories about Emily and learned doctors had cut out a large chunk of the teenager’s skull to alleviate swelling. I looked into the driver who hit her and found a newspaper column written by his former roommate, who defined the young man in more human terms but made his actions in this case no less unforgivable.
When I arrived at the Bowman household, I saw even more gray. Friends and family had indeed arrived to welcome Emily home, but they did so with heavy hearts for her situation and concern for her future. And yes, a local foundation had remodeled Emily’s home with a great deal of community help, but no one could say for sure whether Emily would even be aware of all the changes.
Her aunt, Suzie Mullins, summed it up: “I just hope she realizes what’s going on.”
I had never seen a homecoming quite like this, with such a pall amidst the eagerness. Beyond that, I began to feel uncomfortable with my own presence at the event, mainly because I was one of six media outlets covering it. Each of the four Atlanta TV stations sent a crew to the Bowman household, as did the local Patch.com site and a weekly paper. And we all had cameras: both the photographers shooting the event and the reporters snapping photos for their Twitter accounts. Here we stood, in the midst of a terrifying situation facing this young woman and her family, feasting on their emotions.
In that moment, I felt my own combination of emotions: empathy for the family and friends involved, sorrow for Bowman herself, and guilt — partly for simply being there, and partly for ever assuming this story might fit into a neat, obvious narrative.
Above all, I felt an increased obligation to tell the story the right way.
When I watched my competitors’ stories later, I noticed they all began with the footage of Emily’s arrival. They essentially made the easy choice, one journalists make regularly: start with your best video, even if you have done nothing to provide a window for your viewer as to why that video is special beyond the obvious.
I did something different. I set up the moment by both describing its context and incorporating the mixed emotions of the people involved. I tried to give my viewers an approximation of what I had experienced, unfolding the complexity one layer at a time. I purposely avoided showing any video of present-day Emily while discussing her past, instead using photographs to convey the personality and glow she displayed before she was hit by that truck.
That way, I hoped, viewers would experience Emily’s arrival that day the same way I did, knowing everything I knew and feeling everything I felt. They would see a raw, extended, difficult moment — a moment that would mean much more now that viewers knew the extraordinary story behind it. (You can watch the story in the video at the top of the page, or at this link.)
When people welcome us into their lives and allow us to tell their stories, we must do so as honestly as possible. That sounds obvious, but it can often be a challenge; as journalists, we get used to doing the same kinds of stories and telling them the same way, even if the textures of those stories are far different.
So often, the obvious story is not the actual story — and the actual story is much more compelling, powerful, and human.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.