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Hannah Dellinger On being an honest reporter

February 22, 2019

I experienced something I never have before as a reporter on Feb. 13.

Tears welled and my heart sank when I saw her casket. I wasn’t just another member of the media hounding a high-profile story. I was a woman mourning the loss of another young woman.

As reporters, we’re taught not to get emotionally involved in stories we cover. But as a woman, a survivor of intimate partner violence who has been sexually assaulted multiple times and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I couldn’t help but cry.

I cried for Valerie Reyes, a 24-year-old New Rochelle, N.Y., woman who was allegedly kidnapped and killed by an ex-boyfriend, at the funeral Mass I was assigned to cover. I cried for Reyes’ family. I cried for her friends. I cried for all the women who’ve ever been hurt, stalked, belittled, threatened or controlled by a man. I cried for myself.

The idea that the life of a woman who was the light of her family, who brought joy to many, who had dreams for the future, could be extinguished with such carelessness made me sick. I felt the sensation of plummeting into the same unbearable grief as everyone around me in the church.

As women, we learn from our culture that our bodies are not our own, that they only exist for the gratification and objectification by men. Seeing headline after headline about women killed across the country by partners further ingrains this message into our collective consciousness.

I cried because I realized Reyes’ death is just another example of that ethos. I cried because I felt helpless — like the pain of so many before her hadn’t been enough to push our society to end the scourge of sexual violence before it reached her.

I cried because the nature of Reyes’ death indicates an insidious kind of violation. In that moment, I felt that violation to my core.

I’ve covered more than a couple dozen murder cases in my brief tenure as a reporter, many of which involved domestic violence. With each story I’ve covered, I’ve done my best not to get emotionally involved.

But I believe that emotion makes me better able to cover issues such as intimate partner violence. Having a diverse perspective as a survivor allows me to identify stories that have been ignored. I contribute a point of view to newsrooms that may have otherwise been devoid of it, which allows me to empathetically and ethically interview survivors in a trauma-informed manner. I can offer a small amount of solace to those mourning lost loved ones by giving them a voice. I can show care in an industry that often lacks it.

As I find my voice as a writer, I’m learning my experiences aren’t a burden, but an asset and that I don’t need to suppress my humanity. By having empathy, I’m learning to put myself in other’s shoes and feel a small part of what they are going through. I’m becoming better at communicating their feelings.

In an age in which accusations of “fake news” are rampant in public discourse, journalists have grappled with how their biases are reflected in reporting. In some of my previous newsrooms, I was essentially told not to have an opinion. To not be human. To ignore my own experiences.

But that type of reporting isn’t honest. It manufactures a reporter who is detached from human experience and therefore isn’t fully equipped to cover it.

Being an honest reporter means accepting and acknowledging your experiences and biases. Only by realizing our implicit biases can we be vigilant about not letting them slip in where they shouldn’t. I can let my experiences give me insight into different ways to approach a story, but that doesn’t mean they will affect my ability to report the facts in a balanced way.

As those tears rolled down my cheeks, my notebook temporarily tucked into my jacket, I gave myself time to let the sadness culminate.

It was a tragic moment, but within it was a small epiphany: My past, my trauma, my emotions, my strength are all an inseparable part of who I am. And I am learning to be grateful for all of it.

Hannah Dellinger is a staff writer for Greenwich Time, a Hearst Connecticut newspaper.