How We Got The Story: Reporters carefully crafted the narrative about fatal fire in Ingleside
Interviewing people after a deadly tragedy and writing about the circumstances that led to the loss of life is perhaps a journalist's toughest assignment.
It requires the ability to know when a potential source isn't just unwilling to talk but is unable to because of their grief -- and the ability to walk away and let the person grieve.
It also requires the ability to do the job without falling to pieces yourself -- not always an easy task.
These were the challenges I and some colleagues faced in early December after a house fire in Ingleside killed 8-year-old Elizabeth Evans and 5-year-old Autumn Evans and injured four relatives.
As the reporter who regularly handles early breaking news, Jake Griffin began telling the Evans family's story.
He reached out to the Fox Lake Fire Protection District for details and got Deputy Chief Edward Lescher on the phone. From media reports, Jake already knew two children had died.
"I knew that his emotions were already going to be fairly raw from the experience," Jake recalled. "I tried to be as empathetic as possible going into it. I asked if he was OK to talk about it and asked how his staff was doing, too."
Jake did what the best journalists do in these situations -- ask simple questions and let people talk. In my experience, most people want to open up after a difficult experience. It can be cathartic.
"Just being quiet sometimes allows people time to gather their thoughts and provide additional details they might not otherwise think to share," Jake said.
Jake wrote a thorough first draft of the story, with gripping descriptions of how firefighters went back into the burning house over and over, attempting to save the girls.
I came aboard midmorning, updating the story as details became available. By searching social media, I learned a family friend had launched an online fundraiser for the survivors; from that I was able to get the girls' names and those of their relatives.
The Daily Herald didn't publish those names, however, until we confirmed them with law enforcement sources. That's important.
While I worked from home, photographer Joe Lewnard and reporter Doug T. Graham were at the scene.
"Going door to door as a reporter looking for information in the wake of a tragedy is always uncomfortable, but doing it hours after the deaths of two children within sight of the fire-blackened home where it happened was especially stomach-turning," Doug recalled.
So, with much discretion, Joe and Doug spoke with people who knew the Evanses, and Joe took photos when appropriate. Some neighbors clearly were too distraught to talk; others were open to being interviewed, and Joe and Doug delicately drew out their stories.
"I'd learned early in my career that it's always best to ask about the people first and the tragedy that made their lives the subject of a newspaper story second, and only if necessary," Doug said.
In the end, we delivered a package one Daily Herald editor called "relentlessly thorough and touching."
I can't think of finer praise for such a story.