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...

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