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Reporters needed to cover child’s funeral

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I stood outside Davidson United Methodist Church only long enough for one motorist to roll down his window and shout how awful it was that we were covering the funeral of Michael Heinen Jr.

Charlotte Observer photographer Patrick Schneider bore the brunt of the public's anger. More than a dozen drivers slowed to express their outrage over what they saw as an intrusion into the worst moment imaginable — burying your 6-month-old son after he was left all day in his car seat. Some shouted "Vulture!" Others screamed "Media ghoul!" The one driver I heard said, "I hope you all are proud of yourself."

I appreciated our critics' concern, and high emotion. But as difficult a decision as it was, I believe we needed to be at that funeral.

As a journalist, parent and person of faith, I am glad I had this chance to chronicle as respectfully as possible one family's sorrow.

My hope is that Patrick's photograph and my words helped the community better understand life, death and forgiveness.

The day after the funeral, several colleagues said it must have been hard to sit through those 40 minutes of tragedy and tears.

Of course it was hard to think about that child strapped in his car seat all day, dying of heatstroke. His father, a veterinarian, has said he thought he had taken the child to the baby sitter, but instead left him in the car seat for hours.

It was heartbreaking to look down from the church balcony and see those two devastated parents (the child's mother is a doctor) whose lives will never be whole again. Pastor James Howell was right when he said God is weeping over this.

And yet I believe we needed to be there to help the community take what it could from the tragedy.

Hospice chaplain Harold Hudson, who once swam in a club with Michael's father, talked about needing to learn to deal with death. Perhaps our coverage could help others confront their fears, he said.

"I like to see people have opportunities to get in touch with that," said Hudson, who attended the funeral. "It's such a big part of life."

As Howell preached about the fragile nature of life and how even the most imperfect deserve forgiveness — including a father who made one horrific mistake — I feverishly took notes.

Then I rushed back to the office knowing these were words worth sharing beyond the sanctuary.

Newspapers have no right to barge into a family's most private moment without working to minimize the intrusion.

Bob Steele, who directs the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the press needs to let a grieving family know in advance (through a pastor or friend) that it plans to cover a funeral.

Reporters and photographers need to stay out of people's faces.

Patrick, the father of two young sons, stood across the street from the church; I never tried to interview anyone at the funeral. With our editors, we chose words and a picture meant to inform, not pry.

We tried to do all that.

And when the job was done, I drove home feeling terrible about the tragedy and the lives ruined, and yet hopeful that Patrick and I had helped further the causes of mercy and understanding.


Ken Garfield is the religion editor at The Charlotte Observer. Write to him at: The Charlotte Observer, 600 S. Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28232.