The Facts of Life

By VERINA PALMER

If I were to name two things I learned during my college years that have resonated with me throughout my life, it would be these:

  1. Always check your facts.
  2. Never forget how little can kill you or how much you can survive.

The first I learned from the taskmasters at the University of Montana School of Journalism. The second I gleaned from witnessing matters of life and death in the emergency room at Missoula Community Medical Center.

I’m reminded of these two lessons when faced with the inevitable challenges and misfortunes of life. Tragedy, in particular, has a peculiar way of putting things in perspective. It forces us take a moment to reflect on who we are, who we want to be and what’s really important. It should make us realize how much time we waste being stubborn, angry or intolerant of people whose views differ from our own.

A shockwave of emotion rippled through the nation following the recent shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., just a couple hours away from my front door. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured and a dozen others wounded by the gunfire. Six more people died, including a young man about to be married, a federal judge, several retirees and a 9-year-old girl who symbolizes the term “innocentbystander.”

The journalist in me cringed as the news media picked up on unsubstantiated reports by National Public Radio that the congresswoman had been killed. In fact, she had been rushed to the hospital very much alive and surgeons there skillfully repaired the damage caused by a bullet through her brain. Now, you might think death is a natural conclusion from such a traumatic injury, as it seems unlikely one would survive a point-blank shot to the head. Yet Giffords is now responding and recently opened her eyes against all the odds and despite reports of her demise.

It’s tough being a reporter on the street. I’ve been there, scratching for information, listening to conflicting stories and following false leads. Chaos is the mother of misinformation, so the journalist’s job is to gather and verify the facts, not to offer conjecture or perpetuate rumor. Unfortunately, with the public’s proclivity for instant information, digital journalists have developed a “get it now, update it later” mentality. This just doesn’t sit right for those of us who were taught to “get it first, get it right.”

I suppose I’m more wary of subjective statements about life and death because of my hospital job experience. The gig as an ER secretary was completely unrelated to my career goal, but I was a fast typist and naturally inquisitive. Asking strangers for their personal medical information and insurance card came naturally and honed my interviewing skills. Who knew this, along with the intense academic discussion of media law and journalistic ethics, would build the foundation for my professional existence? Watching people die and seeing many miraculously revived made me a better reporter, a more compassionate writer and a believer in human fragility and resilience.

The ongoing news coverage of the Tucson shooting has reminded me of the many people rushed through Missoula’s ER doors. Some patients probably shouldn’t have made it. Others simply should not have died. I mean, how does a razor-tipped hunting arrow pierce a man’s torso yet miss every vital organ? He walked away with a scar and a story to tell his grandkids, but a young soccer player who took a knee to the head never regained consciousness. He should have been discharged with a lump on his forehead and a headache. Instead, he suffered brain death and eventually was removed from life support. I recall the neurosurgeon saying he actually died from a brain aneurysm that possibly ruptured on impact, although there’s no way to know for sure. The doctor said it might have burst before he ever fell to the ground. Either way, it would have killedhim.

There was a luckier boy who waved at us as he left the hospital after surviving strangulation in a freak ATV accident. The teenager appeared to have no serious neurological deficits despite being deprived of oxygen for far too long. And then, in an unfair turn of events, a mere peanut ended the life of a beautiful young woman. The deadly nut allergy shut down her respiratory system, and she was gone.

What I learned from all these souls, aside from life being a crapshoot, is that anything can happen and everyone has an unwritten story. I’ve never forgotten the elderly gentleman who stood shaking and crying as the doctors and nurses worked to save his wife of 50 years. He answered every question I asked — her name, her age, their address, her medications — with a story about their life together. When they met he couldn’t take his eyes off her and he couldn’t believe she had ever agreed to marry him. He rambled on about raising a family, growing old together. Then I watched him crumble when the doctor gave him the news.

On my final day of work at Community I was handed a card from my coworkers wishing me well on my journey to the Southwest. One doctor jokingly added a comment that didn’t hit home until I was entrenched in Arizona journalism. “Watch out for car bombs,” he wrote in reference to the 1976 murder of an investigative reporter who has become a martyr to the cause of journalism. Don Bolles clung to life for 11 days after the bomb under his car detonated in alleged retribution for his investigations into organized crime in Phoenix.

Not long ago I stood on the very spot of this notorious bombing. The weight of journalistic responsibility and its significance in our society can still be felt three decades later. Sure, everyone make mistakes, especially in the midst of pandemonium. Yes, even I made one or two. But Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and continuous news feeds didn’t exist in my heyday. Oh, there’s no arguing I’m an old-school watchdog but even I am learning new tricks – like blogging.

Digital media is a highly useful tool that’s changing the way news is gathered and delivered, but truth, accuracy and ethics must be first and foremost, regardless of the mode. Opinion should be based on analysis of fact and thoughtful discussion, not unbridled emotion intended to incite anger or provide ranting entertainment. That is the slippery slide.

The initial shock of what happened in Tucson is over, but sadness and questions are lingering.  I hope people are taking the time to read the real stories of this tragedy about the valiant husbands who tried to shield their sweethearts; a little girl intrigued by the political process of the free world; and the heroes who took down the shooter, tended to the bleeding victims and saved the life of a public servant. And yes, the story of the young man accused of this atrocity and the impact on his own family. Everyone has a story. If we seek the truth and listen, we might learn from it.