Covering death on intimate and grand scales

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JUST BEFORE Christmas, The Sun published a four-part series that focused on a critically ill child named R.J. Voigt. The detailed narrative by Sun reporter Diana K. Sugg chronicled the boy's illness, treatment and eventual death at the age of 12.

The series, titled "If I Die," was structured to help readers relate to the boy, his mother, Michele, and the hospital caregivers in an intimate way. It also examined a complicated ethical landscape where the slim chance for a medical miracle intersects with a parent's efforts to do what is best for her child, and the ramifications after a child dies.

The articles were almost unbearably real for many readers because a child's death is a parent's biggest fear. The extraordinary access granted Sugg and Sun photographer Monica Lopossay and powerful writing made the series very personal.

It was an emotional journey that could be difficult for some readers to take. But the experience appeared memorable for most who did.

"Dear Ms. Sugg: Thank you for your story on the issues that surround the care of terminally ill children," said Claire Acey. "It was absolutely riveting. The candor and the sensitivity with which you wrote the story made it one of the most eloquent I've ever read."

"Thank you for a well-written, not maudlin piece, that took us on a journey none of us want to take," said Dr. Del Harvey. "What courage it takes to take on this beast: cancer and the young. Ethicists get to ponder. Parents and children and caregivers get to maneuver their way through faith, hope, love and reality."

Just four days after the series ended, an undersea earthquake in southeast Asia triggered a tsunami that created one of the worst natural disasters in modern times. The impact, borne by many children as well as adults, is, as one reader said, "unfathomable" - an estimated 150,000 dead and 5 million left homeless.

Yet many readers initially absorbed the tsunami stories from an emotional distance; their reactions far from the turmoil stirred by the "If I Die" series.

On one level, mass tragedy is simply less gripping than an intimate experience with death. But then more and more powerfully affecting news photos and gripping personal tales of tragedy, heroism, loss and deliverance began to appear on the pages of The Sun. And readers began to connect.

For some, the flow of emotion from the life and death struggle of 12-year-old R.J. Voigt and the larger tragedy unfolding halfway around the world was nearly seamless and powerfully personal.

Reader Judith Kaplan said she "felt a confusing pain about who is spared and who is not" after reading the "If I Die" series. "The pain of that young man's mother was so personal that in a sense I felt guilty for being grateful it wasn't me," she said.

On Dec. 26, the day the tsunami struck, Kaplan realized that her 24-year-old son, who teaches English in Japan, was on vacation with friends in Sri Lanka. "It was no longer an abstraction for me," said Kaplan. "As I was waiting to get word about my son, I felt like I couldn't breathe." After a number of agonizing hours, she learned that her son had never arrived at the Sri Lanka beaches and was safe inland.

Kaplan said she related more than ever to the mother in the series and her need to try to control events. "But so much of what happens is beyond our control. When it becomes so personal, especially involving our children, it can make you feel powerless," she said.

In the early stages, readers said, photographs connected them to the reality of the tsunami disaster more than articles, headlines and graphics - the U.S. Naval officer carrying an injured child; a mother grieving for her drowned child, and a dazed woman holding a photo of missing relatives.

"These photos are narrative, detailed and particular and, thus, helped me conceive of these people's horrifying tragedies," said Lucille McCarthy. "As with the mother in 'If I Die,' I put myself in their shoes and wonder what they are thinking and how they go on."

Photographer Lopossay's work for "If I Die" pulled readers into a world that became more familiar as the series progressed. Each image supplied specific information that moved the narrative forward.

McCarthy and others reacted differently to the tsunami photos. "I study them to make sense of them, whereas with the 'If I Die' photos, I needed only to glance at them," McCarthy said.

If some readers struggled at first to make sense of the tsunami, powerful journalism has helped almost everyone recognize and react to this enormous tragedy as the scope of devastation continues to grow.

The Sun's intimate story of R.J. Voigt and the epic of the tsunami were about the same thing: the life-and-death struggle all humanity faces. One story offered an intimate look at a boy and his family as they dealt with illness and death. The other encompasses so many deaths that readers have to find their own ways to comprehend them.

The connection for Judith Kaplan came some time after receiving good news from Sri Lanka. "I found myself thinking about my own son and R.J. Voigt and his mother."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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