Fatal Fire Interview No. 1: Valerie Schremp Hahn

For my first interview with a journalist who has experience covering fatal fires, I spoke with Valerie Schremp Hahn, the night police reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We talked for a little more than 25 minutes. Some of what she said was enlightening, some was a bit disappointing, but all of it was fascinating, given what we’ve learned this semester.

First off, I found it disappointing (though not surprising) that the Post-Dispatch doesn’t have any sort of in-house counseling available for reporters. It’s good that they can get that sort of assistance with the health care the Post-Dispatch provides them, but reporters would be more likely to notice those problems and feel comfortable seeking help if there were something available in the workplace.

The most interesting thing I gleaned from our talk had to do with the frequency with which Valerie covered fatal fires. She said that fires aren’t usually deadly, and even when they are, the job of covering them gets split up among the different members of the police staff. Therefore, she only covers a fatal fire about once a year. Granted, she’s worked there for 17 years, and she covers other traumatic events that aren’t fire-related, but I began to wonder if the size of staffs was an important factor in deterring the negative effects that can come from covering traumatic incidents.

However, the infrequency with which she covered these fatal fires seemed to create an inconsistency when Valerie talked about follow-up stories. She compared the decision to follow up on those affected by fires to the way the Post-Dispatch covers crashes.

“You know, we can’t write about every crash where somebody is hurt, so we don’t, usually,” she said. “We usually only write about fatal crashes, because if you write about every crash, you’d be writing about crashes all the time.”

This didn’t seem to jive with her previous statement.

Also, Valerie mentioned that people are often in shock right after a fire when she interviews them. This is important, because some journalists believe that the interviewees are A-OK (and Valerie did echo this a bit in the way she kept expressing surprise at their graciousness) instead of realizing that they are just suffering from shock. It’s good that she is aware of that, but I wonder if her reporting process should advance past mere awareness.

Overall, however, I felt like the way the Post-Dipatch (or Valerie, at least) covers these events was satisfactory. Valerie said she made sure to take caution to not be a negative influence and she really seemed to understand the importance of humanity when reporting on these kinds of situations. I’m not sure, from what she told me, that the Post-Dispatch environment would be an entirely helpful place if a reporter was really suffering mental duress from covering trauma. But at the very least, it sounds like they have a big enough staff that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on one reporter.

Some highlights from the interview are above and you can read the entire transcription by clicking here.

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