How a Los Angeles Times reporter captured powerful reactions to beating, death of Kim Pham
“Nga Doan, right, of Fountain Valley and her 21-month-old son, Frederik Doan, say goodbye to their niece and cousin, Kim Pham, 23, at a memorial outside The Crosby nightclub in downtown Santa Ana.” (Photo taken by Allen J. Schaben and used with permission from the Los Angeles Times.)
Many news organizations have reported on what happened to Kim Pham — a 23-year-old who was beaten to death outside of a nightclub in Santa Ana, Calif. Fewer, though, have reported on how Pham’s death has impacted family, friends and the hospital workers who cared for her.
In a piece published earlier this week, Los Angeles Times reporter Anh Do did just this. Her story takes readers inside the hospital where Pham was treated and paints an intimate picture of a life taken too soon. Her story is an example of a genre we’re calling Restorative Narratives — stories that show how people and communities are coping with difficult times. They convey resilience and feelings of care, love and respect.
“I’m curious about how hospitals handle high-profile patients, so it gave me a chance to kind of learn about that journey from the eyes of people in medicine,” Do said in a phone interview with Images & Voices of Hope. “I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals personally for my own family members, so I’m very at ease, unfortunately, around that environment.”
Do, who covers multicultural communities with a heavy focus on Asian Americans, witnessed how much the hospital workers cared for Pham.
“Nurses not assigned to her would check in on her, hugging one another in the hallways for support,” she writes in the story. “A security guard prepared spreadsheets of all the visitors who made the somber pilgrimage to St. Joseph. Administrators put aside their visiting-hour rules, letting family members and friends stay days at a time. They all wanted to take care of this broken 23-year-old who never opened her eyes or uttered a word.”
I asked Do why she thinks so many people were drawn to Pham.
“We talked a lot about this inside our staff,” Do said. “The fact that she was so young, I think caught a lot of people off-guard, and she’s very photogenic. … And I think part of it is they were able to get a sense of her personality through the mass media coverage — not just ours, but tons of organizations had gotten involved, even media in foreign countries.”
Additionally, people heard that bystanders didn’t try helping Pham when she was being attacked, “so there’s this sense of outrage,” Do said.
The hospital workers Do interviewed say they were struck by a variety of factors. Dr. Shadid Hayat, one of the doctors who cared for Pham, told Do: “It was startling — the circumstances bringing her to the hospital, her age, the extent of her injuries — and that they’re irreversible.” Shannon Semler, who admitted Pham to the hospital, said: “My heart was just aching for this family and the tragedy they were experiencing. We didn’t know what was going on in the outside world. We didn’t follow the news.”
Like the hospital workers, Pham’s family and friends have opened up to Do and her colleagues. When interviewing them, Do listens and allows time for silence.
“I always try to remember in crisis reporting and in any kind of reporting, we can’t underestimate the power of listening,” she said. “People deserve to have their say and for us to explore what they say a little deeper.”
Interviews, Do says, are a give and take experience. As she obtains information from her sources, she gives them the freedom to ask questions of their own. She does her best to answer their questions and put them at ease — something that’s especially important when interviewing people who aren’t used to being in the spotlight.
“A lot of times, immigrant families, or just the average family that doesn’t come in contact with the media a lot … get nervous. Or they’re worried about saying the wrong things. My style is I’m very patient, and I don’t come on too strong.”
It helps, too, that her voice is noticeably calming. “People who call me — they always think they just woke up, but I’ve been long awake,” she says.
Do’s story is a reminder of the value of covering deaths of everyday people, not just the rich and famous.
“I think life is just a treasure … so we need to give individuals the attention that they deserve,” she said.
While reporting about Pham and the nightclub incident, Do has tried not to take sides. She says she’s curious about the emotional well-being of the defendants, who haven’t been accessible for interviews.
“During the pretrial hearing, we heard that the victim threw the first punch from the defense lawyers and their witnesses. Then we heard the prosecutor say it doesn’t matter, ultimately, because look at who is not alive. I really try to be careful not to form any notion about blame and just to listen to the multiple sides,” Do said. “I worry a lot that people rush to judge or label someone for what allegedly happened. I really try to back away from those assumptions because again, we were not there. We’re just documenting the story.”
The defendants, who face murder charges, are scheduled to go to trial in mid-April. Do says she’ll help cover the trial as needed. Until then, she’s continuing to respond to readers — who have reached out to her in the comments section, on social media and via email — nearly every hour since the story was published online Sunday.
“For me personally, it doesn’t matter whether they respond negatively or positively,” Do said. “I think I learned from reading what their views are, so that helps me quite a bit.”