The Difficulties—and Rewards—of Doing Stories That Bring Tears to Your Eyes

Emotional stories are the kind of hard-to-do pieces that seem increasingly endangered as journalism trends toward clickbait headlines and filing six times a day. Emotional stories grow out of editors and writers having the time and place to talk about all kinds of things that interest them.

An example: One weekend I was casually talking with a writer, John Pekkanen, about what was going on in his life. He specialized in health and medicine stories and he said he’d been talking with a hospital radiologist who was dealing with an unusual situation. The top thoracic surgeon at the hospital had developed a cough and the radiologist had arranged a chest x-ray. Looking at the x-ray, the radiologist saw that the surgeon, Paul Adkins. had an advanced lung cancer that neither surgery nor drugs would cure.

Then came the moment when Dr. Adkins looked at his own x-ray.

This was a story that took more than three months to do and for a writer it’s not the kind of piece that’s a sure thing—maybe it’ll be great, maybe not.

The headline on the story, “Hope All Things, Endure All Things,” was taken from Corinthians: “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

The story’s deck: “Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock above the lightbox. It was 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. He took a final look at his x-rays and the thought hit him: ‘I am looking at my own obituary.’”

The story went on to describe a man’s life and the internal battle between what he hoped and what he knew. This kind of story is timeless. If I read “Hope All Things” again—for the 100th time—I’ll still have tears in my eyes at the end.

At the magazine I edited we tried every month to find a story that described people meeting life’s challenges—stories that showed courage, resiliency, compassion, love.
The Pekkanen story also made clear that a lifetime of smoking probably caused Paul Adkins’s cancer and the American Lung Association distributed many thousands of copies of the story in its effort to get people to stop smoking

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