The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was sitting in a restaurant Tuesday morning having breakfast with my spouse, our daughter and her friend when I happened to check the Twitter feed on my mobile phone. “Yes!” I exclaimed, feeling suddenly self-conscious about my outburst as other patrons were trying to caffeinate their way to alertness.
“That sounds as if you might actually be getting excited about something,” my wife said. (I’m not generally known for pouring a lot of emotion into everyday conversation.)
I’d read a tweet about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in a case where “responsible journalism” had been the key argument in a libel case — a ruling that provides for additional protection for journalists and news organizations when careful, balanced and methodical work on a story is in the public interest, even if it happens to tarnish the reputation of an individual.
In the annals of Canadian journalism, the lack of this type of precedent has killed hundreds of stories, no matter their importance to the public interest and national discourse, for fear of libel and slander litigation.
The challenge for news media now, of course, will be to live up to the demands implicit in the judgment. The danger lies in citation of the Supreme Court decision by journalists without the requisite hard work and care in reporting. As is so often the case in other spheres, with increased freedom comes increased responsibility — and that will be the message journalism instructors will need to relay to their students.
I expect the ruling will, in a roundabout way, also increase the impetus toward the professionalization of investigative journalism, if not in a formal sense, then in its practice. And like the proverbial tide that lifts all boats, it reminds every thinking journalist of the imperative of nailing down every detail before publication.