Helping journalists cover mental illness

DownloadedThe morning that the booklet on which she and Cliff Lonsdale been been working was to be unveiled, Jane Hawkes allowed herself just a little satisfaction.

“After operating in a bubble for months, we really didn’t know if it would finally resonate — and [we're] grateful that it seems to be,” she wrote in an email. “Interestingly, [there's] just as much buzz outside Canada — [we're] hearing from journos and mental health groups in Australia, Thailand, Israel, England, Ireland, U.S., Vietnam, Spain, Mexico, Kenya.”

The “buzz” is regarding Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health, a new resource by journalists for journalists, intended to improve the reporting of stories that touch on mental health issues. The slim 42-page field guide is available in booklet form or as a free download, in English or French, from the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

At a reception ahead of Thursday night’s launch at the Glenn Gould Studio inside the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, Lonsdale credited CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin with an unrelenting drive to keep the guide short and practical.

That, it is. Through seven short chapters and a quick reference compendium that includes a best-practice checklist, interviewing dos and don’ts, and guidance on language in cases of suicide and addictions, Mindset should take its place alongside a reporter’s dictionaries, stylebooks and legal guides on desktops and in backpacks, rather than on the shelves of newsroom libraries or inside yellowing manila folders.

Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health is published by the Forum in association with CBC News, with partial funding from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It’s a valuable resource for reporters who, in today’s newsrooms, are generalists far more often than they are specialists. And the dynamic website promises the guide will remain useful for years to come.

Below is the video, featuring Linden MacIntyre,  that led off the panel discussion at the booklet’s launch. The discussion, chaired by World Report host David Common, included Enkin, neuropsychiatrist Anthony Feinstein and André Picard, public health reporter at The Globe and Mail.

 

 

The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait

Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

Western University journalism award winners

Journalism graduate Tyler Buist celebrates his hat trick of awards with journalism program specialist Wendie Crouch.

Gold medalist Tyler Buist celebrates his hat trick of awards with Western University instructor and media specialist Wendie Crouch.

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity, each summer, to teach a course in journalism law and ethics as part of Western University‘s master of arts in journalism program. It’s intensive, rigorous and lasts 12 months. Yesterday, the class of 2013 crossed the stage at convocation, heard a speech by Toronto Star journalist Chantal Hébert and then returned to the North Campus Building for a reception and awards ceremony. Here’s a list of the awards and their recipients.

Good luck to all the graduates in their future endeavours.

Corus Radio London Scholarship: Natalie Paddon
The London CAC/Rogers Cable TV Student Awards in Journalism: Tyler Buist, Katrina Clarke, Ryan Mallough
Haaksaan Responsible Journalism Scholarship: Katie Starr
J.B. McGeachy Gold Medal and Prize in Journalism: Tyler Buist
The Hugh Bremner Prize (Silver Medal): Katrina Clarke
The J.L. (Bud) Wild Prize (Silver Medal): Katie Starr
The Ursula Walford Memorial Award (Silver Medal): Ben Forrest
The C. Edmund Wilson Prize for Media Research: Blair McBride
The Western News Award: Ryan Mallough
John James Grier Memorial Scholarship in International Relations: Blair McBride
K.A. (Sandy) Baird Prize for Humorous Writing: Rubab Abid
William French Prize for Cultural Journalism: Katie Starr
Jerry Rogers Award in Writing: Blair McBride
The Walter Blackburn Award: Mekhala Gunaratne
David Murray Bowes Award: Ben Forrest
The J.M. Penny Crosbie Prize for Investigative Journalism: Kristina Virro
Norman Jewison Prize for Creative Writing: Brent Boles
Honorable Mention: The IDRC International Development Journalism Award: Katrina Clarke
Honorable Mention: The Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship: Idil Mussa

The award that Western’s David Mills didn’t win

CBC sportscaster Scott Russell, who hosted the retirement event, is flanked by David Mills and Wendie Crouch. For hundreds of Western journalism alumni, Mills and Crouch have been enormously influential instructors.

CBC sportscaster Scott Russell, who MCed the retirement event, is flanked by David Mills and Wendie Crouch. For hundreds of Western journalism alumni, Mills and Crouch have been enormously influential instructors.

The 2013 journalism award season is nearly over, except for the annual Michener Awards, to be held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 18. The Ontario Newspaper Awards were given out at a gala in Waterloo, Ont., on April 27, The National Newspaper Awards were celebrated in Ottawa on May 3 and the Canadian Association of Journalists honoured its best the following night in the same city.

For anyone who attended Western University‘s graduate journalism program at any point over the past 35 years, however, one of this year’s most important journalism milestones arrived at the end of April with the retirement of broadcast manager David Mills. Though not officially deemed “faculty” at the school, Mills was one part of a dynamic duo that gave hundreds of students the practical, hands-on training that allowed them to blossom as fully formed multimedia storytellers. The other, as any Western alumnus will quickly tell anyone who asks, was media specialist Wendie Crouch. It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance and impact of Mills and Crouch to the Western program.

All of that was evidenced by the warm and spirited retirement reception for Mills hosted by the university’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western’s Great Hall on April 25. Tributes flowed effusively. Professors emeriti came out. There were tears of joy and appreciation. And testimonials from graduates, both in-person and via video, spoke to Mills’s long and deep reach into the successes of the program’s alumni. Among the characteristics most frequently mentioned were his patience, resourcefulness and friendly mentorship. He was a master of the Socratic method: He taught by helping students think through their difficulties and challenges, rather than by simply answering their questions.

David Mills was a significant part of the education of hundreds of Canadian journalists who have gone on to win nearly every type of award in the national panoply: NNAs, CAJs, ONAs, CABs, Geminis, Canadian Screen Awards and dozens of lesser-known honours. If ever the Canadian journalism community were to create an award for an instructor who has had a significant, long and lasting impact on both individual journalists and their craft, candidates such as David Mills would win it. He didn’t — only because it doesn’t yet exist.

An “Immanuel” moment, a year ago

The calendar says it’s nearly Christmas. For me, however, it’s unlikely that anything that occurs in the coming week — no family gathering, no preacher’s words — will surpass the “Immanuel” moment of nearly 13 months ago.

My spouse and I were amid the fields of rural Waterloo County when we got a phone call that our first grandchild was about to be born.

Like shepherds who had just been visited by an angelic host, we looked at each other in awe and excitation. Our adrenalin was pumping; our pulses racing. And after a night of restless sleep followed by a day of work-related obligations, we began our pilgrimage.

Born last November, she is now just over a year old.

The little baby is now just over a year old.

There were no hills and craggy trails along our journey; only a mildly congested highway. No tax collectors, livestock or dusty feet, although there were inns, crowds, shops and the bustle of a busy Toronto neighbourhood on a Saturday night.

We climbed the front porch and rang the bell. Our son answered. He led us up the stair, around a corner and toward the street-facing bedroom, where, despite the large bay window, the light of day was now nearly gone.

And there, against the slate-grey walls, white trim and yellowish incandescent light, was a modern-day crèche: a tiny, perfect baby swaddled in a white blanket adorned with brightly coloured diamonds, in the arms of her enervated but radiant mother. Beside the bed sat a time-honoured family cradle. In the background, the family’s Polish lowland sheepdog bellowed her excitement and approval.

I couldn’t help but pause for a few moments at the foot of bed — the very spot where just a day earlier a young woman, great with child, had given birth — to take in the mystical tableau. It was the end of a long anticipation; the culmination of a very personal season of advent.

It was a deeply moving moment. Not that there was any particular cosmic or historic significance in the birth of the little cherub — after all, she was only one of about 100 babies born in the city that day and one of a half million born worldwide.

But in that instant, long before I held her in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the nativity of old, which is celebrated at Christmas but around which circles the language of God’s immanence and presence among humankind.

Specifically, I recalled the ancient Hebrew word “Immanuel,” a symbolic name to be given to a child foretold by the Jewish prophet Isaiah, and referenced again some 600 years later by an anonymous, genealogy-obsessed writer in his curation of the recollections of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples. The word means, “God is with us.” Us, as in humankind.

Seasonal lights may twinkle and congested shopping malls may cough up gifts for under the tree. But above all else, Christmas is about the fact that there exists a spiritual connectedness between humans of all creeds and cultures and the eternal presence or consciousness that pervades the universe, which many of us simply call God. God is with us. God is among us.

The birth of a baby — the coming into existence of a human life where, minutes earlier, none had existed — is the perfect symbol for such a spiritual notion. Ancient prophets and writers understood its metaphorical power and it still communicates today.

Christmas, however, is about something else too; something expressed by the Christian season of Advent, which ends at the stroke of midnight tonight. It is the fact that the eternal, the sacred, the profoundly spiritual cannot be fully encountered without expectation, preparation or effort.

The baby in the cradle is merely the end point, the destination. Christmas is about undertaking the journey, making the trek, climbing the stair toward the discovery of God’s immanence, whether it is across town, across the street or just to the front door and finding God there, whether in the guise of an infant, a neighbour, an old friend, a co-worker, a parent, a child.

The old saying, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey,” has been attributed to a variety of authors. The pilgrimage toward the nativity is no different.

Christmas invites us to undertake our pilgrimage through life with courage, and to discover the sacred and eternal along its rocky trails and open thoroughfares — but especially within ourselves and the fellow travellers we meet along the way.

(This blog post is based on a column published in The London Free Press on Dec. 24, 2011.)

Gun violence: Could Hollywood lead where lawmakers fail?

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 3.05.31 PM“They had their entire lives ahead of them.
Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.
… Our hearts are broken today.”
—U.S. President Barack Obama

No words can adequately sum up the horror and loss experienced by the community of Newtown, Conn., in the wake of Friday’s massacre, in which most of the victims were children. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed the sentiments of more than just Americans when he said “our hearts are broken today.” Nearly every parent, every teacher, felt the same.

Within hours of the shootings, the inexorable debate began in the United States again: What can be done to stop gun violence? Obama himself signalled that the time for political action had come. “As a country, we have been through this too many times,” he said in his address to Americans Friday afternoon. “Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Just as quickly, though, the intractable voices on both sides of the U.S. gun-control debate began their braying. And given the current state of the U.S. Congress, where both the bipartisan relationship and ability to move forward on meaningful legislation ranges from dysfunctional to gridlocked, it’s already clear that no action will occur anytime soon.

Could Hollywood, however, lead where American lawmakers fail?

Let me preface my main point by saying that this is not a condemnation of the American motion picture industry. Like any other industry, it has produced some spectacular failures and some radiant gems. At this time of year, we revel in some of its best work — classic holiday films that lift spirits and convey real meaning about life and love and giving. We can scarcely imagine the holiday season without the classic celluloid of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooge or White Christmas.

Film has, and has always had, an enormous influence on American culture and its youth. Historically, television and motion pictures have pioneered attitudinal change and the cracking of stereotypes on issues such as race, culture, class struggle and sexual orientation. Hollywood’s film industry played an enormous role in America’s coming to terms with its own ghosts and nightmares — Vietnam, assassinations, the civil rights movement, Richard Nixon, Iraq, and 9/11 among them. The film industry, which employs some of the most creative minds in the country, has enormous power, reach and influence.

So — could it lead on the issue of gun violence? Gunplay is a staple of modern filmmaking. Consider what’s on screens in theatres right now, even as Newtown mourns its dead: Killing Them Softly, Skyfall, Jack Reacher. Consider that movies such as Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Taken 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3 and The Bourne Legacy have been among the most profitable films of the year.

This is not to suggest that gun violence be scoured from the movie industry — an impossible and impractical idea. Nor is it a plea for Hollywood to return to a kind of Hays Code as far as guns are concerned.

But in memory of the children of Newtown — zip code 06470 — could some single calendar year (perhaps 2017, given existing post-production timetables) be one in which Hollywood’s studios forgo, for merely 12 months, the release of motion pictures that portray gun violence? And in so doing, could the creative minds of the movie industry begin, in their own way, to blunt the national American obsession with bullet-riddled death? To my mind, Hollywood has an opportunity here, once more, to lead — and to accomplish, however incrementally, what America’s atrophied politics cannot.

The victimsCredit: The New York Times