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.

Tips for reporters on dealing with grief-stricken families

At 2:20 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1997, 20-year-old Catherine Newton stepped onto busy Richmond Street in downtown London, Ont. The bars had closed and she had skipped ahead of her girlfriends, anxious to meet up with her waiting boyfriend, Rob. As she moved through the crosswalk at Pall Mall Street, however, she was struck by a pickup truck driven by a man who would later be convicted of impaired driving and sent to prison. Catherine died in hospital a couple of hours later.

The death of Catherine Newton was one of the most memorable stories during my years as a supervising editor on The London Free Press‘s city desk. It was burnished into memory for two reasons: (1) its powerful symbolism of the hazards and tragedies of impaired driving, and (2) the graciousness with which Catherine’s parents, Al and Pauline Newton, met reporter John Herbert at their door when, a day later, he knocked on it for what in the news business is called a “pickup.” Rather than slam the door, they invited him into the emotionally charged atmosphere of their living room to paint a vivid picture of their deceased daughter.

Catherine Newton died in the early hours of Aug. 24, 1997. For its Aug. 25 editions, The London Free Press managed only a bare-bones brief, using information supplied by police.

The “pickup” is nearly a reporter’s worst nightmare. It means intruding on the private grief of an individual or family to get a story and/or a photograph, which will, in turn, have the effect of making their private grief very public. Social media such as Facebook have changed the nature of this type of newsroom assignment significantly over the past half decade — photos, personal details and lists of acquaintances are often quickly available, and tribute pages have a way of popping up within hours of an unexpected death. But for many reporters, intrusion into the lives of the grief-stricken, usually within hours of life-changing, painful loss, is still a necessary part of building context and assembling a complete story.

I asked Al and Pauline Newton to visit my Journalism Ethics class this week at the University of Western Ontario to offer some suggestions to students in the graduate journalism program on dealing with bereaved individuals and families. Once again, they were gracious in their acceptance.

Al Newton began by chronicling the events of that fateful night: the 2:45 a.m. phone call from police, the anxious trip to the hospital, the pronouncement of his daughter’s death, the panicked phone call from Catherine’s sister Diane in Kingston, Ont., and the arrival of reporter John Herbert at the door of their north London home the following day. Pauline Newton then followed with tips for reporters on doing their jobs amid such overwhelming grief. She and Al both spoke extemporaneously, but the following are her 12 suggestions for journalists assigned this type of story.

1. Don’t ever say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Rather, say something such as, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Similarly, the line, “I’m sorry for your loss,” sounds mechanical and insincere to a freshly bereaved family.

2. Convey that you want to tell the victim’s story; that your hope is to impart personality, meaning and context to a life suddenly ended.

3. Use the victim’s name in conversation, rather than referring bleakly to “your son” or “your daughter.” He or she was, until just recently, a real person with a real name.

4. Ask family members if they would “share” the story of who the victim was, rather than say that you’d like to “interview” the family or “ask questions.” That terminology will sound calculating and aloof.

5. If family members ask to be left alone, respect that. Period.

6. Family members may be sobbing uncontrollably. Those seemingly “in control” of their emotions aren’t — they are simply in shock or denial. Remember that your interview subjects are disoriented and will find it difficult to focus on anything for more than about 30 seconds at a time.

7. Ask open-ended questions about sharing the victim’s story. It will likely differ substantially from the police report’s coldness and sterility.

8. Leave yourself lots of time. Do not rush this process. If you do, the visit will seem mercenary or disingenuous.

9. Ask to see a photo. Personalize the victim in your mind. Ask about its possible publication later, before you leave.

10. Ask permission to use extremely personal details — information that may have been offered in a moment of grief-induced weakness.

11. Expect that the story you get will be disjointed and even somewhat contradictory. Try to get facts and chronology right, even if it means reviewing them repeatedly with the family.

12. If you get a “no” at the door, ask whether there might be another individual — a relative or family friend — who might be able to speak for the family.

The full story, following reporter John Herbert’s interview with the Newton family and supporters in their living room, appeared on the London & Region section front of The London Free Press on Aug. 26, 1997.

Goodden’s blue heron to perch near the Thames

In a news release, London, Ont., mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best called it a sculpture that “will indeed become a key component of our downtown revitalization.”

That may be a bit of a stretch. But the prospect of a 500-kilogram great blue heron, made of steel and suspended from the upscale Renaissance Tower above special masonry below, bears all the marks of a very successful public-private partnership. Think London’s Via Rail station or the central branch of the London Public Library, except that this project will be much more about art than function.

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Ted Goodden unveils a model of his great blue heron sculpture

At a news conference this afternoon in the lobby of the newly built tower immediately south of the John Labatt Centre, artist Ted Goodden unveiled a small model of his sculpture and spoke eloquently of the images he hopes it will evoke. The steel bird will “gesture” toward the forks of what the region’s First Nations called the Antler River — the waterway European settlers later called the Thames. For both aboriginals and Europeans, the river was the locus of community life and commercial activity. The great blue heron was, and still is, a common sight. In crafting his sculpture, Goodden envisioned the heron ascending toward King Street from a resting place on the river.

Goodden’s three-by-five-metre heron, when installed, will also function as a kind of seasonal timepiece, its left wing outfitted with a sundial-type orb that will track the sun’s movement and register the summer solstice and points of semiannual equinox on the brickwork at street level.

Goodden’s installation will mark the end of a competition that included more than a dozen entries from across Canada. The juried selection process was led by the London Arts Council. The project is worth $100,000. Tricar Group, owner of Renaissance Tower, was granted a higher residential density during the project’s development in exchange for a contribution in the form of public art, guided by the city’s public art policy, which was adopted in January.

Goodden’s sculpture should be in place by the end of the year. Its design has already been tested by the Alan G. Davenport Wind Engineering Group at the University of Western Ontario.

London Free Press video of this afternoon’s event is here.