Todd Weaver’s cell phone still rings in my head.
I spent more than an hour three years ago standing about 30 feet from Weaver’s mangled bicycle and lifeless body. But it’s his cell phone that has stuck with me.
As soon as the television stations went live with news that a cyclist had been struck by a city bus, his phone began to ring. It rang. And rang. And rang.
I don’t know who was on the other end. I imagine it was his wife — the mother of his two young children — just praying for him to answer, hoping it was someone else who had died. I suspect it was also his co-workers and cyclist friends who’d realized the accident happened along the route he rode home. I bet even his brother, who lives in another state, started dialing the number after a frantic call from his sister-in-law.
In my nearly 10 years of cops reporting, I wrote about hundreds of deaths, nearly every one of them violent. I wrote about 5-year-old twins (the same age as my son at the time) who were stabbed to death by their father during a game of hide-and-seek. I wrote about a teenage mother left dead in the rain at the top of a playground slide. I wrote about a missionary raped and murdered as she went door to door.
I wrote about people who were shot, smothered, stabbed, raped, burned and beaten. And I carry them with me, even years after their deaths. Many I recall by their names and faces. Others I know by their stories and the places where they died.
I did my best to tell their stories — to help readers know them and understand the senselessness of their deaths. I see their faces when I drive past their homes or the places where they died.
On the way to my son’s school, I pass a field where a man accused of killing two police officers was arrested. On the way to church, I pass a house where I heard the shots police fired at a rape suspect after a standoff. At my favorite burrito restaurant, I order at the same counter where a former employee shot and killed a manager and assistant manager.
Crime reporting is really hard, emotional work. I wish editors and readers understood that a little more. Writing about an infant left alone in a home with her dead mother for two days is just harder than writing about a city council meeting, no matter how stubborn the politicians.
But I believe crime reporting is also the most important work a reporter can do. So often it’s telling the stories of people who had their voices — and their lives — stripped away. It’s showing what happens when young people react without thinking, when their parents forget to parent them, or when drugs or alcohol take control.
I also believe that a reporter who really cares about a story, who is emotionally touched by a story, will almost always do a better job of telling it.
The stories I wrote were worth the sad memories that sometimes keep me awake at night. They were worth the tears I shed after deadline, because they made a difference.
In November, I wrote about 15-month-old Sarah Nafisha, who was stabbed nearly to death by her mother. A few weeks later, I got an e-mail from a reader. She said her family was forgoing gifts at Christmas and instead sending the money to Sarah’s father so he could stay out of work and care for her. She invited me to a holiday party; she was inviting friends and family over to encourage them to give to Sarah as well.
A few years ago, I wrote about Kristen Smith, a teenager who told her family that she had been molested by a relative when she was 9. Days later, I got a call from a woman in her 40s. She wanted me to know that reading Kristen’s story gave her the courage to finally talk about what happened to her. She was molested as a child and until that day had never told anyone.
That’s what made the work worth the heartache. And that’s what a reporter, especially a crime reporter, has to remember to stay positive when so many of the stories are negative.
Every day you think, “Maybe this story will convince someone to reach out to a friend or co-worker in need. Maybe this will move a woman to leave a violent relationship, a drug addict to seek help, or a rape victim to come forward. Maybe it will lead someone to come forward with information about who committed this horrible crime.”
Good stories really can make a difference. And that is why no matter how horrible the crime, no matter how sad, reporters can’t stop writing these stories. Stories change lives, they give voices to the voiceless and, most importantly, they remind all of us of our humanity.
Melissa Manware spent more than nine years at The Charlotte Observer writing about crime. Now she does freelance work and writes grants for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org