Monday, April 8, 2013

Breaking Down the 4th Wall

The term "the fourth wall" was made popular in the days of public theater.  A major character would break away from the action of the play to address the audience in an effort to add some comedic relief, helpful insight, or desperate introspection about an upcoming scene.

Modern day examples of this include, but aren't limited to Ferris in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", Zac Morris in "Saved By The Bell", JD Dorian in "Scrubs", & Francis Underwood in "House of Cards".

Hopefully these examples put into perspective what exactly it is that I'm talking about.  If not, Google them... they're worth a Google or two.

In the niche of television that I've carved out for myself, the argument could be made that we (tv news crews) break the fourth wall on a daily basis.  We introduce our stories and we tag them out.  We speak directly to the viewer.  We have complete and total control over the amount of information and emotion we inflect into our stories.  Television news performs more as a Greek Chorus than we'd often like to admit.

And as Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker in the movie Spiderman: "With great power, comes great responsibility."

It's my opinion that we often take for-granted the gravity our work carries.  I know I'm guilty of it.  

We rush into peoples lives at their most trying moments.  We ask them questions they don't want to answer. We ask them to recount, recall, and regurgitate horrific and painful moments when it's obvious they'd rather not.  We ask for a recent picture of their dearly departed and then whisk away in a live truck to some vacant parking lot to hurriedly arrange all the content we've just gathered.  We slap it together on a timeline, edit it together, feed it into the station, and begin pulling cable for the next live shot we're scheduled to have.

Often times it borders on exploitation, and unfortunately that seems to be business as usual on most days.  Usually, business is good.

The morality, the integrity, and more importantly, the humanity that we as journalists have, comes into play on a daily basis.  What we choose to do in those gut check moments, can make or break a story.  It can mean getting the interview we need.  I'd be lying if I sat here and claimed to have never been party to an outfit that bullied someone into talking on camera when it's obvious to anyone in a 3 mile radius, they'd rather not.

I started having those gut check moments.  I started asking myself questions like "What are we doing here?", "Why is this relevant?", "Why does this matter?", "Who cares, other than these people?", "Is this wrong? Is it right?"

I've covered alot of things in my short career.  I've told alot of stories.  I've seen police officers peal back crimson stained white sheets to reveal a fresh corpse for a mother so she can identify her dead.  I've followed the first lady around for 3 days in the September heat.  I've watched grown men weep on the steps of the World War II memorial.  I've seen paraplegics water ski.  I've followed Marines through a series of tolerance training.  I've put my lens 3 feet from John Edwards smiling mug as he walked into court to face federal charges.

I've offered kind words and platitudes to victims of great loss, and revelers of great success and joyous occasion.  

Nothing I've ever covered could've prepared me for the chance encounter I had with a lady named Ruth Stikeleather on Wednesday March 27, 2013.  

My reporter and I were assigned to take over a story from dayside and advance it for nightside.  The long and short of it was this: an 88 year old man had gone missing the day before when he left home to meet a former tenant of one of his rental properties, to give him some assistance with his broken down car.  That man's name was Lindsey Stikeleather.  His bride of 69 years was the lady I previously mentioned, Ruth.

We arrived at their house, and they welcomed us in.  One of our crews had been there earlier in the day, so when they saw our van pull up, they treated us like royalty.  We were invited in, given full access to pictures, the home, family members, got an interview with his daughter, and we met Ruth.  

She took my hand, looked me right in the eye and said "If he doesn't come home, I don't know what I'll do."  Call it a woman's intuition or what you will, but I'm almost certain poor Ruth already knew her husband's fate.  She didn't say "I hope he's ok", or "I know he's going to come walking in any minute."  She simply wanted him to be home.  (We would find out less than 18 hours later, Bobby Jackson, a man who was a former tenant of the Stikeleather's, had murdered Lindsey when he'd come to assist him with some automobile trouble.)

After I'd finished shooting and before we left, I saw Ruth sitting in their living room.  With dozens of family members around, she seemed to be alone, in her own little world almost... just sitting.  I sat my camera, tripod, and my gear bag down by the door and wandered over to where she was seated and knelt down.

"What is it young man?" she asked me.  "Mrs. Stikeleather", I said, "I don't have the right words to say to you, and I don't even know if it's appropriate or not for me to even say this, but I'm sorry you and your family are going through this.  For what it's worth ma'am, my wife and I will have you in our prayers tonight.  I hope they find Lindsey and he comes home where you want him."  The little old lady leaned down and hugged me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said "bless you child... bless you, and thank you."  As I exited that house and walked back to my live truck, I paused for a moment and said a silent prayer at the foot of their driveway for Ruth, Lindsey, and their entire family.

I can count on one hand the number of times I've teared up while performing the duties of my job, and this is at the top of the list.

Did I do the right thing? Maybe. Maybe not. I'd broken the fourth wall.  I put the camera down, stepped out of being a photographer, and stepped into being a human. 

Now please understand, I'm not writing of this instance to boast, or gloat, and I don't want to come off as arrogant.  I'm not pious and I'm not a holy roller.  I've been known to utter just as many four letter words while setting up a live shot, as I did when saying that prayer to myself at their house that day.

I just simply want it to serve as an example of leveraging what you do as a vocation, for impact.  Whether you're a Christian or not in this instance is irrelevant.  Offering a prayer for them was my method of choice in attempting to console this family in a moment of great distress.

The people we meet and interview are usually also our viewers.  They're real people, with real issues, and real problems, and real lives.  They bleed red and cry clear.  

It is my opinion that sometimes, turning the camera off, putting the reporter note book down, and talking to our "characters", can only make the story better.  It'll make it more personal.  You'll feel  a greater sense of ownership and responsibility to do the story justice.  You'll probably be better at your job as a result.

I know that meeting my wife changed and quite literally saved my life.  I think that's why this story hit me as hard as it did.  This poor woman would've been married to her husband, her great love, 70 years next month.  That milestone was taken from her.  That family was robbed of that celebration.

The least I could do was try my very best to not let the story of who her husband was, end up as 90 seconds of television, and then forgotten.  And I can only hope Ruth Stikeleather knows that she left as great of an impact on this photographer, as her husband so clearly left of the community he lived and served in.

Do yourself and your craft a favor today... Break the 4th wall down. You might be surprised with the outcome.