That first, big story

As a young person looking to make your mark in any career, there are certain scenarios that you dream about.

Whether it’s an NRL hopeful visualising that grand final winning try or a mechanic itching for their first crack at a Ferrari engine, everyone looks forward to that first career-defining moment.

As a journalist, it’s your first big story.

Mine came last Thursday, just over a month into my career, when Tathra Surf Life Saving Club member Christine Armstrong died after she was tragically taken by a shark.

But such horrible circumstances make you wish that moment had never come.

Nearly an hour behind the wheel on the journey to Tathra gave me plenty of time to think about what was coming.

A phone call from the regional editor only added to the sense that this was it; ‘the big story’.

“This will make national news,” she said.

By the time I arrived, the initial commotion had subsided and the search was well and truly underway.

As I walked past and onto the sand, notepad and camera in hand, it was hard not to feel intrusive.

The beach was closed, but people still lined the area immediately behind the sand, grim looks and shock on their faces.

I felt their eyes watching me go past.

What were they thinking?

Were they silently cursing me; the person who was about to put a permanent reminder of the horrific scenes out into the public?

I told myself I was there to do a job, and to tell a story that needed to be told.

But all the early signs pointed to a tragic death, and the victim’s family deserved privacy and the full attention of all emergency personnel.

Would asking a police officer or surf lifesaver for an update prove to be the distraction that would mean they were only seconds away from saving the missing swimmer, if she was still alive?

Unlikely as it may seem, these things cross your mind when you’re dealing with such a delicate situation.

Police officers, surf lifesavers and paramedics – all professionals who have received intensive training to prepare them for these difficult situations – appeared despondent.

Bega Police Inspector Jason Edmunds assured the media that every effort was being made to locate the victim, but conceded there was little hope of finding her alive.

It summed up the mood; nobody was giving up, but the discovery of human remains made it hard to be optimistic.

Almost poetically, the morning sunshine began to disappear as news of this filtered through, replaced by clouds and a steady flow of rain.

By now, the media pack had grown significantly.

I had arrived that morning to find two other journalists on the beach, but the afternoon arrival of the “metros” from Canberra and Sydney, with cameramen in tow, had taken the number out to about 20.

Their massive tripods made me far less conspicuous, far less intrusive.

It was pouring by the time Inspector Edmunds addressed us for the final time, reading a statement from Christine’s family.

“She will be sadly missed by all who loved her, especially by Rob, her husband of 44 years.”

That’s when it really hit home.

44 years, more than twice my lifetime.

It got me thinking more about the human cost; the effect it would have on Rob and everyone else who knew and loved Christine.

I thought about this on the drive back home, and I’ve thought about it ever since.

Over the last week, we’ve heard more and more stories about Christine’s life, and her selfless nature in her work as a volunteer surf lifesaver.

We’ve seen Rob, a man who has just been through the most traumatic of times, go out into the community to offer his support to others, even speaking to Nippers on Saturday to ensure that Christine’s passion of swimming is not lost because of her death.

And that’s the real story here.

That’s why we report on these things, because these stories need to be told.

Because whether you’re a 21-year-old journalist or a 70-year-old retiree, I think we can all learn something from Rob and Christine Armstrong.

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