Saturday, December 20, 2008

Covering the Memorial Service

My previous post discussed the sad story of the Hawkins family of Woodstock, Ontario, who were tragically killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in their home thanks to a blocked fireplace vent.

Because I don't get the same dose of local news outside of my work days as I do when I am there, I managed to miss the announcement of Laurie's passing until the following day, thus the reason why my previous message didn't include information of her passing.

This past Tuesday I got an e-mail from my supervisor asking me to cover an evening event on Wednesday that no one else was able to cover. The event, a memorial service for Provincial Constable Laurie Hawkins and her family. Without hesitation, I accepted the chance to be there.

To those of you who have never worked in the media industry, let me suggest that anyone journalist struggles with one of these, no matter how seasoned they are. Sure, some may have a better ability to hide their feelings, or are able to detach themselves from it, but it is still a difficult story to write and report. There is a sensitivity that must be observed, interviews are hard to come by, emotions throughout are running high. And yet, in spite of all of this, the story must be told.

Having said that, I struggle worse than most. Perhaps because of my upsetting coverage of the events of 9/11, or the engraved memories of the elder abuse scandal, but sometimes, it just isn't that easy for me not to feel the emotion of a story. The tragic circumstances that percipitate the need to assign a reporter to coverage of a memorial service could also explain the reason why. Or perhaps, I just haven't experienced it enough.

For 45 minutes I stood at the back along reporter's row, furiously listening to capture the quotes that could truly express the night's deepest emotions. Several former co-workers shared their experiences with Constable Hawkins, whose work as the OPP's Community Relations officer in Ingersoll made her the true focus of the service. After all, people had lost a dear friend and a strong advocate for the youth of the small town. If the words weren't enough, the faces that accompanied them told what was left to be said.

At the end of the night, as I sat at my laptop trying to make sense of it all, I found myself looking around to figure out if I had actually captured a true sense of it all. I started to realize that it wasn't my abilities, or lack there of, as a journalist that were making the stories so slowly to craft. What I was beginning to realize that I had no reference point. I have seen loved ones come and go, some very close, and some very distant. But I was feeling the need to reference a time or a place for the moment that could parallel this time. And it wasn't there. Not because I couldn't think of it. Because it didn't exist.

I'm glad my supervisor and my boss were happy with my reports. I'm still not sure if they truly were quality reports. But how can you truly express an emotion, a sense, a loss, a tragedy, if you have never felt it yourself???

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A truly upsetting story to write...

For one of the few times in my journalistic career, I found myself faced with a story that I did not want to cover, did not want to write.

I can remember my first like it was yesterday. So many in my generation wrote their first truly upsetting story on the exact same day, September 11th, 2001. I remember spending 3 or 4 hours battling with my boss that day over his desire for a story that day, and me fighting the good fight. I was a university student, and friends of mine were crying on my shoulder looking for answers from a student journalist. I obviously didn't have the answers, and I didn't want to ask the questions either.

This past weekend I had a similar reaction as a press release crossed my desk while in the newsroom on Sunday afternoon.

If you aren't familiar with the story of the Hawkins family of Woodstock, Ontario, let me first provide some context.

On Monday, December 1st, Provincial Constable Laurie Hawkins failed to show up for work. Officers went to her house to check on her, and found Laurie's husband and two children dead, and Laurie unconscious. The cause of the deaths were carbon monoxide poisoning thanks to a blocked fireplace. Constable Hawkins was transferred to Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto in critical condition. An outpouring of grief and support came from throughout Woodstock, the surrounding community, and police officers from throughout Ontario.

On Saturday, news came that Hawkins had been transferred to North Bay Hospital, where her family could care for her and be with her around the clock. When the news came, it didn't surprise to hear, as to me it only makes sense to want to care for a loved one.

Enter Sunday afternoon when the headline about Hawkins' transfer still stayed as one of the dominant headlines in a community that has been glued to news of the hopeful recovery. I had just finished the 5:00 news when I noticed there was a new e-mail in my Inbox. Here is the first two paragraphs of text from the release, sent by the Ontario Provincial Police.

"The families of Laure Hawkins (nee Gignac) and Richard Hawkins are issuing the following information to members of the media, public and police agencies whose support has been so overwhelming during this time.

Provincial Constable Laurie Hawkins remains in critical condition and the family has advised that her recovery is not anticipated. She is surrounded by loving family and friends around the clock providing support to her and each other."

How do you break that news? I stared at the release for a good 10 minutes before realizing that I had to get on with my 6:00 news. So I left the release and moved on for a few hours to get the first run of casts done for the night.

I took another look at the release, knowing that I was sitting in one of the few active newsrooms in all of southern Ontario, and I was obligated to write this story. But I froze. I couldn't come to terms with how to write a story to inform the public that she was not expected to survive. How do you convey that message to a public waiting, hoping, praying......

As a few more hours passed, my mind started telling me that I should have checked my emotions at the front door, and it was time to proceed with the writing of the story. From my view, good reporters check their emotions at the front door, but never lose the emotional perspective in their reporting. So I stepped outside for some fresh air, took a deep breath, and sat down at the computer and wrote the story.

If you heard my 11:00 newscast that night, yes, that's how long it took me to come to terms with the story, you would have heard my unflinching read of the news. It took me far too long to get to that point, but I got there. It may seem ridiculous to the hardcore news reporters that it took more than a few seconds to start writing the story, but sometimes you have to weigh the true impact of your comments.

At least that's my perspective...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is it really a 'coalition'???

It was an interesting start to a Saturday afternoon in the newsroom...

I picked up the phone just a few minutes after I arrived to listen to a listener tell me that we had an inaccurate newscast. He told me that we LIED in one of our stories.

As you can imagine, I stood bewildered as I tried to figure out how on earth my colleague had managed to make such a glaring mistake as to lie about something in one of our news stories.

The gentleman continued his conversation by telling me that the joint government of the Liberals and the NDP was not truly a coalition. I pondered the thought, and drudged back into the faint memories of university history courses to figure out what on earth the man was talking about. And then it finally registered.

While I couldn't remember the professor, nor could I remember the class, I remembered the subject matter because of the debate it once caused. The professor had told me that while the general definition of the word coalition was basically two or more groups working together for a common cause, the political definition was slightly different. It was taught to me that the political definition of the word meant two or more groups working together in the government AND thus representing at least 50.1% of the vote.

This was the very definition the disgruntled listener was referring to. He himself had been taught, and still believed, in that very definition of a political coalition, and that any such beast that did not represent that percentage of votes was not actually classifiable as a coalition.

I continued to discuss the issue with the man for a few minutes, even so much as quoting him the articles that were written on the wire that I was to pick from. I told him that I would do my best to avoid any direct reference to the Liberals and NDP in fact having a coalition, and he obliged my efforts and went on his way.

Three newscasts later, I have not heard another word from the man. I think that perhaps I have appeased his small desire to have someone reference the term accurately.

It may be a foolish thing, but it feels like a small victory to me. Even if some of you think I have formed a coalition against the coalition...