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NBC New York’s Jen Maxfield on life as a TV ‘first responder’ and the ten local stories she can’t forget

Maxfield recounts the 10 (mostly Jersey-based) stories, with added context and updated interviews with those involved, in a forthcoming book, 'More After the Break,' set to be released July 12

Tamika Tompkins was in her mother’s living room in East Orange when her ex-boyfriend, against whom she’d filed a restraining order, walked in and stabbed her 27 times in front of her two-year-old and newborn daughters. Her eldest, Amora, seeing her mother in pain, laid atop Tamika as she managed to call 911. 

Tamika was rushed to the hospital, where she underwent four surgeries to treat a punctured lung and lacerated kidney. Three days later, a tipster wrote to Eyewitness News in New York City about that incident, indicating that Tamika wanted to talk.

Station reporter Jen Maxfield and a photographer contacted the hospital, waiting an hour or two, fruitlessly, for a reply. Maxfield (now at NBC New York) and a photographer drove to the hospital in the station’s live truck, anticipating clearance to enter. She had already contacted Tamika on the phone, who affirmed that she was eager to share her story. 

“It was important to her for other people just to know what happened to her and recognize some of the warning signs,” Maxfield says. “She would tell you she did not see enough of the red flags early. Though she tried and did everything she could by getting the restraining order, she hoped other people could see what happened to her and learn from it.” 

So Maxfield asked her managers in the newsroom if she could go up with her iPad, as a visitor, and record Tamika’s story herself, eschewing the hospital’s media protocol—her managers OK’d it. With an oxygen tube in her nose and computers monitoring her vital scenes, Tamika told Maxfield “confidently and passionately” about the attack. 

“How brave that was,” Maxfield says. “To push through her own physical and emotional pain to be able to tell her story for the sole purpose of stopping this from happening to somebody else.” 

Maxfield and Tamika Tompkins.

Less than a half-hour later, Maxfield was out, on her way to interview Tamika’s family and, eventually, to report the story on Eyewitness News that night.

It’s a case study in how field reporters like Maxfield get the kinds of on-the-scene stories that show up on your TV (and phone, et al.) every night—and an example of how that kind of reporting can serve as a public benefit. Here’s a woman sharing an important warning message with her physical and emotional scars on display.

It’s also an example of the limitations of broadcast news—Maxfield can spend a day working on the piece, talking with the parties involved, feel something on a human level that is worthy of being conveyed to an audience, and when it’s aired, we, the viewer, only get the information that can fit into a couple moments of air time. Combined with other stories at the top of a broadcast, particularly if they also involve violence (you know the mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads”), it can be easy to forget Tamika’s story, or make a snap judgment about the situation.

It’s why a book like the forthcoming More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories is so useful. In it, Maxfield recounts covering Tamika’s story and a host of other major breaking news events, largely in New Jersey—Hurricane Sandy, the Paramus school bus and Staten Island Ferry crashes, a bike path terrorist attack and more. Maxfield not only provides context for the stories she covered, but also follows up with many of the participants a decade, give or take a few years, later. 

For aspiring journalists, the book provides case studies on how to cover breaking news events—Maxfield is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she earned a graduate degree from the School of Journalism, and listening to students’ questions helped crystallize the idea to write the book.  

Meanwhile, for the general public, the book fleshes out the stories they may have only heard about when Maxfield reported them originally. And they’re told in an engaging manner that also takes care to assess the motivations of and effects on the people involved, including Maxfield herself.

Maxfield reasserts the quote that “news is the first rough draft of history,” and that on tight deadlines, and with limited information after events, imperfection is guaranteed—thus the value of taking another look at these stories. Showing up at a scene— as “television’s first responders”—presents the opportunity to see raw humanity and to forge connections.

Sometimes, she says, “we are at these scenes before family show up, before faith leaders. … Because of that, I think that is also how I’ve developed these relationships that have gone beyond the initial news stories. We were with people in formative times of their lives, sometimes it’s great, … sometimes we’re there for what might be the worst part of their lives. We have a bond with those people that extend beyond the day it appeared on the news.”

Maxfield’s report of a toddler in need of a bone marrow transplant, whose donor wasn’t granted access to the country. She recounts the full story in ‘More After the Break.’

That said, we’ve all cringed passing a crime scene with station vans crowding the street or watching a news report where cameras are thrust into the face of a victim’s family moments after they lost a loved one. To report from the scene of a harrowing scene, and to get quotes from those involved, requires tenacity and moxie. But to do it well requires situational awareness.

“That is a lot of what I talk about in the book, not just going into the scene, trying to get the interview or get the story, but it’s also trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes and trying to be sensitive about what happened and never losing site of how to treat people. I grew up with the ethos which I got for my parents which is treat other people how you want to be treated.”

While undoubtedly presenting a case for the greater good of the on-the-spot reporting, Maxfield is refreshingly open about how the job can seem voyeuristic from the outside. Of the Paramus school bus crash in 2018, which killed two people, including 10-year-old Miranda Vargas, Maxfield reflects on the uneasiness she felt while covering Vargas’ funeral.

“I have a nagging sensation of guilt on these assignments,” she writes. “I shouldn’t be here, I think. They don’t want us here. Am I making this even worse for the family? I was embarrassed and even ashamed that morning, thankful for the tinted windows in the funeral procession cars so I didn’t have to see the mourners staring back at us.”

But the reporting gave the crash a higher profile, Maxfield says, and thus a greater platform from which solutions could be derived. For instance, Vargas’ friend Zaina Matahen has gone on to speak before Congress and the Governor, leading to tighter regulations in New Jersey that might have prevented the accident—“Part of that was because the story received so much coverage on the news. Everyone knew about that story,” Maxfield says.

Jen and Zaina Matahen.

Or take the case of Darren Drake, a New Milford, New Jersey, man who was killed when a terrorist hit him with a truck while he was riding his bike on the Hudson River path. Sharing that story, Maxfield says, resulted in Drake’s parents receiving consolation cards from all over the world and survivors of 9/11 attending their son’s funeral, sharing a dubious connection. “The community rallies around people at the center of the stories,” Maxfield asserts.

Getting that story, Maxfield showed up unannounced at the Drakes’ home—a shaky position for a reporter (and, a  human being) to be in, especially with no other reporters around. It required gumption, and one could say it represented an invasion of privacy. Nonetheless, the Drakes allowed her in and shared details about Darren’s life and personality that would ultimately resonate with viewers and paint a truer picture of the person who was lost.

“I am grateful that people are as willing to speak with us as they are. whether they’ve witnessed something or experienced something themselves. People say no to us all that time and I respect that. No means no, and I will always respect that, but I do feel it’s my obligation as a journalist to ask the question and give people the opportunity to tell their side of the story, and more often than not people do want to talk with us.”

Any one of the ten stories in More After the Break would take a toll on a reporter, let alone a passerby or neighbor. Maxfield says, “I even have dreams about some of these people sometimes; that can tell you how much the people are in my subconscious.” In acute, overwhelming moments, she’ll take a break and get some air before resolve kicks in and she finishes the story. But long-term, one wonders what the toll of being first on the scene at tragic events is, and how it doesn’t bleed into other parts of their lives.

Maxfield, who has three children, says she makes it a point to be mindful at home, to not check her phone or social media and let too much of the outside world in.

“I need to distance myself to be present for my family,” she says. “In order for me to be a good mom and a good wife and sister and daughter, I need to turn it off at a certain point.”

The book is, in a way, a return to Maxfield’s roots—she first became interested in journalism because she liked to write. Growing up in Tenafly, and then attending college, she wrote for her school papers but never viewed it as a career choice. But on a chance internship (while still on a pre-med track) with CNN, the world of broadcast journalism, and a road within it, opened up. She took a job as a reporter for a station in Binghamton, before getting to anchor the show only six weeks later, when the lead anchor left. She then moved onto Eyewitness News and is now at NBC New York.

Having the time to report these stories has been a refreshing change of pace from her work at the station.

“What a luxury it has been this last year and half to be able to sit with someone for hours and talk to somebody for a longer period of time without checking my watch, or [thinking] ‘I better get this video sent back because it’s airing in one hour.’ It has been liberating for me in some ways to not have that intense deadline pressure and to be able to sit with people and think through these stories.”

Though many of the stories in the book deal with tragedy (and, to be certain, many of Maxfield’s stories over the years deal with good things that happen to people), Maxfield asserts (and I can attest, for what it’s worth) that the overarching message is the resiliency of people.  

“While the people may have wound up on our newscast because of traumatic things happening, there’s a lot of beauty and joy in the book,” Maxfield says. “I think there’s a lot of lessons in the book that when life doesn’t go as planned and terrible things happen, people are so strong and resilient. I think all ten of the families are a perfect example of being able to triumph.” 

More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories will be released on July 12. Pre-order it here.