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.
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.
Like some other readers, I’d wondered why The London Free Press had recently allowed its groundbreaking coverage of the Bandidos trial via Twitter (see my earlier post) to dissolve into a hit-and-miss affair that, increasingly, is absent altogether. Stories and updates by justice reporter Jane Sims have been reliably constant, but as for tweets, well, the birdie seems to have fallen out of the tree.
Reporter Kate Dubinski, the journalist most often assigned to Twitter duty at the Dundas Street courthouse, provided some answers in a post on her blog late yesterday. The trial, already into its sixth month, is cutting into the summer vacation season — a period when the paper is trying to accommodate holiday requests while still getting some semblance of a news report out onto the streets and up online. Language in the newsroom employees’ CEP contract with Sun Media’s London division stipulates that each staff member has the right to take two weeks of his/her annual vacation allotment during the summer months. The result is a managerial scramble to fill reporting, copy editing, photo and other duties in a vigorous attempt to keep the machine running. During the high vacation period, it can feel like the entire operation is being held together by duct tape and baling twine.
Dubinski also explains the additional difficulties posed by an order from the judge regarding media coverage during the appearance of the Crown’s star witness, who may only be referred to as “M.H.” Tweets from the overflow courtroom — the place from which earlier Twitter dispatches originated — were forbidden. Reporters were permitted to send tweets only from outside the main courtroom. This poses an additional challenge for journalists, but is not really an issue in terms of the decision on whether to double-team the trial coverage with a Twitterer.
The credibility of M.H. could have an important bearing on the outcome of the trial. Having broken important journalistic ground through the use of Twitter in the courtroom setting, it’s unfortunate that the Free Press couldn’t follow through with consistent Twitter coverage during the latter part of this particular witness’s testimony.
I’m guessing there are at least two additional issues here.
First: Dubinski’s “followers” on Twitter number about 850. Pinch-hitting reporter John Miner has about 350. Sims, not generally concerned with Twitter updates as much as she is about the newspaper’s main trial stories, has fewer than that. The bottom line is that, regardless of the novelty of the tool and complaints by some far-flung Twitter users that the paper is letting them down, the potential readership of courtroom tweets tops out in the hundreds. With stories on city-worker absenteeism, traffic fatalities, storm damage and a string of downtown arsons (or any other such set of calamities on any given day) to be doled out to a mere handful of reporters, any assigning editor at a regional newspaper will redeploy staff to yarns that will appeal to readers in the thousands or tens of thousands instead.
Second: While I was a page editor at The Globe and Mail, the newspaper made an interesting discovery during the case of Robert Pickton. Like other national media, it had planned for a year’s worth of wall-to-wall, witness-to-witness coverage of the trial of the Vancouver-area man accused in the homicides of six women and the suspected in deaths of 20 more. The Globe provided saturation coverage during the first week of proceedings, then surveyed its readership. The results were somewhat surprising and illuminating. To simplify, they showed that readers were intensely interested in the start of the trial and the Crown’s opening account of what exactly had happened. Readers wanted to know that someone was on trial for the horrors that had become evident, and they wanted to be kept abreast of developments. They certainly wanted to know the end result of the trial. But they said a clear no-thank-you to daily detailed accounts of a gruesome case that was expected to run for many months. The Globe, as well as other national media, revised their plans accordingly — and somewhat drastically. Public curiosity and tolerance, even in sensational cases, appears to have its limits.
I get a discomfiting sense of unease during occasions such as today’s marathon coverage of the Michael Jackson funeral and memorial service, watched by hundreds of millions around the world. Media (and news media in particular) are, at times, the ultimate bandwagon jumpers, trying desperately to create the illusion of leading a parade from somewhere around its middle.
I was never a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, though I’ll gladly acknowledge the enormous impact the child-cum-man had on popular art forms, including dance and the recording industry. In the annals of the pop music history of the past century, his contributions will stand alongside those of Elvis, Sinatra and the Beatles. He should be given his due.
The current avalanche of newsprint, broadcasts, website excitation, tweets and blogs would sit better with me had the same news media, which today bathed itself in the Jacksonian legend and aura, not so recently been just as hyperbolic in their scathing coverage, documentaries and commentary-laden reporting of child sex abuse criminal proceedings against him. News anchors clucked their shock and disapproval and shot each other knowing glances. The prose of reviewers, writers and columnists dripped with sarcasm, innuendo and double entendre. Jackson’s plastic surgeries and personal quirks were the stuffing of a million punching bags. Mockery and raised eyebrows were de rigueur. And yet today (not to mention the past week), most news media rushed from port to starboard — the side of the ship that asserted how misunderstood, human, sensitive, pioneering and charitable the man was.
We’re still a long way from understanding Jackson in any kind of context, thanks largely to the celebrity- and pack-type journalism that devalues restraint and context, deferring instead to the immediate, the sensational and the glib.
Sure, journalism is about reporting the news. But it should also be about balance, frames of reference and perspective.