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

News photographers scramble for Rafferty pic

Great news photography is often about split-second timing. Such was the case outside a  Woodstock, Ont., courthouse yesterday as Michael Rafferty, accused of first-degree murder in the death of eight-year-old Tori Stafford, made an application for a change of venue for his upcoming trial.

With police shielding Rafferty from public view (more for his own safety than concerns about his image), it was a tough assignment for any news photographer to get a clear image of the accused. Several tried, with varying degrees of success. The Woodstock Sentinel Review‘s Elliot Ferguson captured Rafferty’s fleeting appearance between courthouse and police van. London Free Press reporter Randy Richmond got a photo that landed on the next morning’s page A1.

Perhaps the most impressive shot, however, was that of freelance shooter Dave Chidley, hired by The Canadian Press to cover the court appearance. Chidley, who planned to review the assignment and his technique today with his news photography students in both the print journalism and broadcast journalism programs at Conestoga College, said the assignment was a challenge. The resulting photo, used in newspapers and websites across the country, was captured by a combination of great anticipatory timing and a motor drive that shot 10 frames per second. Only two of those frames revealed Rafferty’s face, Chidley said.

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.

Reporting on journalists in harm’s way

There were a number of very interesting seminars and panel discussions at this year’s national conference of the Canadian Association of Journalists in Montreal in late May. Among conferees, the most popular panels were those on “Ottawa’s Information Lockdown and What Journalists Should Do About It” and “The Future of the Daily Newspaper.”

Equally interesting, however, was a discussion titled “In Harm’s Way,” moderated by Cliff Lonsdale, a professor at the University of Western Ontario’s graduate journalism program. The panelists were Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, based in Britain, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on journalists, and Lorne Motley, editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald.

The session was fascinating, given each of the unique perspectives present. Pinder argued forcefully for the need for journalists to report on the casualties among their own — something we’re often loath to do. More journalists die each year around the globe in the line of duty than do aid workers, he said, yet journalists do not often report on deaths or the threat of death within their ranks. Feinstein discussed the prevalence of PTSD among journalists who cover war and conflict, but also made the point that reporters who cover the police, crime and court beats over many years can also suffer from the disorder. Motley provided a glimpse into the emotional journey within his newspaper’s newsroom in the hours, days and months after Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed in Afghanistan (see my previous post).

To promote awareness of these issues in Canada, Lonsdale and veteran journalist Jane Hawkes have co-founded the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, which “promotes the physical and emotional safety of journalists in Canada and abroad. We also address the impact of coverage on people caught up in violent and traumatic stories as well as the effects that covering violence and trauma may have on news consumers.”

One of the Forum’s goals is to make hazardous-environment training — the kind provided by large news organizations to their journalists ahead of risky assignments — more widely available to freelance journalists and others who may not be provided with such preparation. Though many Canadian journalists and their employers agree with that notion in principle, fundraising for it has been a challenge.

My own view is that Lonsdale, Hawkes and the rest of the board of the fledgling Forum are onto something here. As news organizations and their distribution platforms change, and as those companies divest themselves of full-time staff in favour of additional part-timers and stringers, the numbers of freelance and unilateral journalists are likely to swell. And the need for better preparation for dangerous situations will grow too.

New media and the Bandidos trial coverage

There isn’t a more dramatic criminal trial underway in Canada right now than that of six former Bandidos motorcycle club members, each charged with eight counts of first-degree murder, related to the grisly discovery of eight bodies in cars along a rural road near Shedden, Ont., more than three years ago.

Today, that trial moved into high gear with the appearance of the Crown’s star witness — a man who says he was present the night of the deaths.

The Bandidos trial, as the London Free Press has come to refer to it, has provided ample evidence that you can indeed teach an old heritage news organization new tricks. It has effectively deployed new media technologies to augment its traditional print coverage and the results have been outstanding.

During the trial’s most critical phases, a reporter has been dispatched to the London courthouse’s overflow courtroom (on a floor apart from where the trial takes place, but connected via video link) to file short Twitter dispatches. (Today, it was John Miner, who tweets under the name JohnatLFPress; often it’s Kate Dubinski, who is KateatLFPress on Twitter’s servers.)

First thing this morning, however, Superior Court Justice Thomas Heeney imposed a temporary halt to the use of laptops and other devices in the overflow courtroom, as well as a publication ban on the full name of the witness, though it could be used inside the courtroom. I suspect it’s to offer an additional margin of protection for the man, who the Crown hopes will nail down their case for them.

Inside the courtroom proper, justice reporter Jane Sims, recently nominated for a National Newspaper Award for beat reporting, provides the bulk of the daily reportage for print. However, she and other reporters such as Randy Richmond have also produced videos on various aspects of the trial.

These include a video, part of trial evidence, from a gathering of Bandido club members; a video on the trial’s background and the victims of the massacre; and an orientation video to the specially equipped courtroom that is home to the trial, which became required viewing for my journalism students shortly before classes ended in April.

When Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien went to trial in May on charges of influence peddling, the national media were ecstatic over a ruling by Justice J. Douglas Cunningham that would permit smart-phone users to text and tweet the proceedings from the trial in real time. News organizations rightly proclaimed the importance of the breakthrough they’d achieved in justice reporting. They were oblivious to the fact, however, that the Free Press in London had been reporting in exactly that fashion from the Bandidos trial, under the watchful eye of Judge Heeney, for weeks.

Coverage of these criminal proceedings by the Free Press illustrates what can be done, even with modest means, as a 157-year-old news organization creatively deploys a range of technologies across a variety of delivery platforms to cover an important national story. The familiar problem, of course, is how to monetize it all. As is the case with nearly all news organizations with a newspaper at its centre, print subsidizes everything else. At least for now.