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.

Driving Miss Daisy at Sarnia’s Imperial Theatre

It is a taut 88-minute show with a cast of three and not a car in sight, but Driving Miss Daisy at Sarnia’s Imperial Theatre is imbued with a delightful chemistry that makes it well worth a road trip on a warm summer evening.

The Starbright Summer Festival production features Michael Learned as the aging widow Daisy Werthan and Walter Borden as Hoke Coleburn, her patient chauffeur. Cory O’Brien appears as Boolie Werthan.

Set in Atlanta and its environs between 1948 and 1973, Driving Miss Daisy is probably American playwright Alfred Uhry’s most durable story, earning him a Tony Award, a Pulitizer Prize and and Academy Award. Most of us identify Uhry’s script with the film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, in which the latter brought to life on the big screen the role he had played in the original stage production.

Learned is best known for her role as Olivia Walton in the 1970s television drama The Waltons (though her other stage, film and television credits are lengthy) and it was clear many patrons of a certain age at yesterday’s opening-night performance, who arrived by the busload, came to bask in a little Waltons nostalgia. Learned’s performance, however, was transcendent, powerful and poignant as the widow who ages from 72 to 97 within the space of an hour and a half, as she wages her personal battle against age, loss and bigotry.

An accomplished veteran of Canadian stage and screen, Borden is every bit Learned’s equal as Daisy’s long-suffering chauffeur. His Hoke is delightfully playful and infused with humour. Borden’s timing is impeccable; his performance carries very well the considerable weight of playing opposite Learned, who has portrayed Daisy on other stages.

Accomplished choreographer Dayna Tekatch takes a minimalist approach to the Starlight production of Miss Daisy, in which the set changes hardly at all. She defers to raw acting talent and allows Learned and Borden to carry the show, which, despite a few opening-night backstage bumps and some sound miscues, works very well. One senses that the on-stage chemistry between the two lead actors will grow as the show matures.

The limited run of Driving Miss Daisy at the Imperial Theatre includes only 14 performances; it closes Aug. 20. Click here for ticket information.

Three tornadoes caused Leamington-area destruction

Nancy Whittle’s Mini was crushed by a fallen tree.

Environment Canada has confirmed it was three tornadoes — not one — that wreaked havoc in southern Essex County during the early morning hours of June 6. The first, rated an F1 on the Fujita scale, touched down near Harrow, Ont., while the second and third — an F2 and F1 — tore through southern sections of Leamington.

When I visited the community a few days after the severe weather struck, cleanup crews were still in high gear, clearing debris from streets and yards. The destruction was at its worst along Highway 18 just west of Sherk Street, where houses were splintered and greenhouses shattered. Seacliff Park, near the pier, lost many of its stately trees. In the Cherry Lane subdivision, where my wife and I once lived, large trees where split, shredded or uprooted, while many younger trees seemed to survive unscathed. A little farther east, tree damage was heavy at the Erie Shores Golf and Country Club, while greenhouses and barns were twisted or flattened on farms.

Despite the millions of dollars worth of destruction, however, not a single life was lost. That became the focus of a column I wrote for Sun Media later in the week.

Homes along the north shore of Lake Erie took the brunt of the F2 tornado’s destructive power.

The amazing reach of UWO’s astronomy department

The Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory at the University of Western Ontario

When it comes to community involvement and making impressions on young minds, it’s tough to beat the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario.

For many years, the astronomy faculty and students, supported by volunteers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada‘s London Centre, have offered public lectures and viewings of the stars at the campus’s Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory. The facility is open on clear Saturday nights during May, June, July and August for lecture presentations and stargazing, but it opens its doors on special occasions through the rest of the year as well.

Yesterday’s cool and clear evening provided a great chance to study nearby planets. The observatory’s refractor telescope, as well as three other reflector telescopes, were trained on Saturn and Venus. I’d guess about 100 people were there at various points through the evening (8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.). Roughly half of those took in a 45-minute-long lecture on meteors and meteorites by astronomy professor Margaret Campbell-Brown at about 8:45 p.m. RASC London Centre volunteer Bob Duff and Western astro prof Peter G. Brown helped manage the public viewings.

The age range of participants last night was impressive — from little ones sitting on parents’ shoulders to people in their 60s. One rather precocious junior astronomer, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, asked the majority of questions (and informed ones, too) during the Q&A following Campbell-Brown’s talk.

A young patron gets a chance to view Saturn through the observatory’s refractor telescope.

Through the school year, the UWO department runs a community outreach program called “Exploring the Stars,” geared to a wide range of age and interest groups. See the website for additional information. Later this summer, the university will hold two open houses at its Elginfield Observatory, home of its research telescope, as well.

The Economist and digital-image manipulation

The digital manipulation by The Economist for its cover, left, of a news photo taken by Reuters photojournalist Larry Downing, right, is a recent example of the ethical challenges posed by imaging technologies.

Since the advent of digital photography in the early 1990s, there have been hundreds of cases of manipulation of news photographs by newspapers and magazines for editorial, artistic and cosmetic purposes. The practice, of course, preceded Photoshop and its competitors: Airbrushing, touchups and other forms of darkroom sleight-of-hand have been in use for decades, especially at magazines. But the arrival of digital photography software in the newspaper industry and at the consumer level introduced a new set of ethical questions within journalism.

The current debate over the use of an image of President Barack Obama at the Gulf of Mexico, with an oil platform in the background, is only the latest. In it, a cover version of the Reuters photo, manipulated by The Economist, has local resident Charlotte Randolph digitally scrubbed away, while another figure in the original shot, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, was cropped out.

An article yesterday by Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times cogently presents the arguments for and against such treatment. It’ll be a good case study for discussion at my journalism ethics class at the University of Western Ontario tonight. Reuters, meanwhile, has issued a statement saying the edit at The Economist violated its policy.

For a good summation of the view commonly held in newsrooms, both in Canada and the U.S., see this essay by photographer Frank Van Riper in The Washington Post.

The proposed takeover of The Canadian Press

If a deal by CTVglobemedia, Torstar Corp. and Gesca Ltée gets federal approval, one of the fixtures of Canadian journalism for nearly a century will be fundamentally changed. The companies, which operate CTV and The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and La Presse, respectively, have announced they’ll take The Canadian Press private.

The Canadian Press has a long and distinguished history in the annals of Canadian journalism. The news cooperative was formed in 1917 by Canada’s newspaper industry as a means of sharing news across the broad expanses of an emerging country which, only a dozen years earlier, had grown to stretch from sea to sea to sea. The real catalyst for its creation, however, was the First World War and the growing appetite among Canadians for news from the front. Information was relayed via telegraph wires.

Over the ensuing decades, CP, as it became known, became the mainstay of print journalism in Canada. It was maintained by member newspapers, which also contributed stories to the service to supplement CP’s own national staff and news agenda. A photo desk was added as transmission of pictures over great distances became feasible, and broadcast news services were added as television took hold in the early 1950s.

As might be expected in an enterprise where the public interest and corporate interests frequently conflict, The Canadian Press has been close to collapse several times in its history. Canwest pulled out of the cooperative on July 1, 2004, to form its own news service to feed stories to both its newspapers and Global Television outlets. Quebecor Media Inc. formed QMI Agency last year for similar purposes; its participation in The Canadian Press ended on July 1 of this year. The agency’s pension plan continues to be hugely underfunded and needs urgent attention.

If the three-way deal gets Ottawa’s approval, it will be interesting to see how the new owners (currently, the three largest members) integrate the news service into their operations and what impact that integration will have on jobs at all four entities. Of national concern should be the extent to which the Canadian Press news service will make its content available to other subscribers — and at what price. Will small, independent or start-up news operations in small communities be able to afford the news services offered up by Canwest, QMI or The Canadian Press? How will information flow across the country be affected? Will competition between the three major companies improve national news coverage or will a narrowed focus by the three corporate news-service owners, as they seek to service the needs of their own properties and divisions, constrict that flow? If, as playwright Arthur Miller said, “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself,” is a robust news service, or a series of them, vital to the conversations of a nation?

Far less important, but esoterically interesting among those who teach journalism, will be the question of how The Canadian Press’s new owners deal with the question of style at their operations. The Canadian Press Stylebook differs in many respects from The Globe and Mail’s Style Book, which is different again from Toronto Star style. In classrooms and labs, the importance of learning to adapt one’s news writing to some style standard — whether it be The Canadian Press (the standard at most Canadian schools) or some other — is the bane of many a j-school student’s existence. Some additional consistency here might actually be a good thing, though there are strong arguments for the differences between the news organizations on niggling points. And the style purists won’t be easily persuaded.

How the Maple Leaf became our national emblem

The “Maple Leaf Forever” tree at the corner of Laing Street and Memory Lane, April 25, 2010

More than any other single factor, it was because of Alexander Muir’s song, The Maple Leaf Forever. See my column in today’s Globe and Mail.

The adjacent photo was taken the day of our visit to the tree in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood in April.

Happy Canada Day!