Category Archives for Writing

Journalist Responsibility When Reporting on Death

What is a journalist's responsibility when reporting on death? A private list with a lot of Canadian journalists discussed this issue last week. It turned out to be a prescient subject. As the week went on, and journalists covering the Montreal Massacre continued naming the mass murderer instead of his victims, I got more dismayed. Given this, I thought I'd share my thoughts with blog readers about the kinds of questions reporters need to ask about their stories. Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

As a baseline, I think that journalists and everyone else reporting on deaths have a responsibility to decide whether they should publish something or not.  If their work does more harm than good, they need to remain silent.

Figuring out this line can be difficult depending on the situation. I have three rules: begin by asking questions that determine the level of public interest and harm a story might do; focus on commemorating people; ask whether someone is manipulating you and if so, why; make sure that you are reporting news not propaganda; and remember that your responsibility is to the public interest, not the private one.

Begin by Asking Three Questions

As people who work in the public, journalists have always faced a hierarchical set of three questions that change whether a story will be published or not.

1. Does a story have a real public interest?

2. If it does, can publishing a story increase the likelihood that someone will act in the public interest?

3. Who gets harmed if a story gets published? Does the public interest supersede that harm, and if so, how? Answering these questions can be tricky, but anyone publishing something should not only ask these questions, but they should refrain from publishing something that clearly does more harm than good. How does that apply to reporting death? That's when the base rules really matter.

Mass Murders

With mass murderers, I tend to agree with readers who want journalists to avoid naming killers and the organizations they belong to. We faced the absence of this rule again multiple times last week. Writers and broadcasters continually named the person responsible for the Polytechnique massacre when the women he killed and the men he harmed remain anonymous. I've been trying to cover their stories instead.

Suicides

I also want journalists and the police to continue keeping suicides anonymous. The anguish of the family and the tendency of copycats means that we shouldn't report suicides when they first occur. We need to write analysis, mental health awareness stories, and other stories later but not immediately after the death occurs. When we do write these stories later, we need to ensure we do so without causing unnecessary harm.

Individual Murders

Murders of individuals fall on either side of the issue. Sometimes, reporting murders is important so that the public knows to protect themselves, particularly when a suspect is on the loose or when the police are looking for clues. But that practice can be abused by the media, for sensational purposes or by the police, for manipulative purposes.

Wars

Wars need to be covered, even when they are street wars. Too often we don't know that these are happening around the world, and its important to be informed. This can be demoralizing when done badly however. Every day, a war takes place somewhere. If you want to know which places in the world are suffering, the Canadian Government offers a list of travel advice and advisories about conflict around the world. The Council on Foreign Relations operates a global conflict tracker that defines wars and other conflicts from a United States of America point of view. Wikepedia also has a page with current armed conflicts.

Accidental Death

We need to cover accidental deaths to prevent future accidents and to commemorate the lives of victims. Just be careful not to shame a victim.

Responsibility to Commemorate People

If journalists remember to commemorate individuals who take worthwhile action, they rarely stumble. Stories to commemorate people are almost always helpful, regardless of how those people died. There's fewer and fewer of these stories available, except when families pay to tell them. I think that's a shame.

Responsibility to avoid Manipulation

Too often journalists forget that there are multiple actors in every story, including our own emotions. The tendency of journalists to take an "unbiased" viewpoint hurts objectivity. People are always biased. I think it's more useful to make sure that readers know our biases rather than pretending they don't exist. Editors and publishers also have biases and making those transparent is crucial. It's tough to recognize how much manipulation of the media takes place. Journalists have always been among the many people manipulated by private interests, including the interests of the private owners of the media for whom we work. Our lack of success at that task has led to a dismal rating of trust by the public.

Responsibility to Report News versus Propaganda

The challenge of making sure that we report the news rather than participating in propaganda can be a challenge. We have a responsibility to our readers to do so anyway. Most of us continually face awkward situations. Our media bosses push for more pleasant coverage of advertisers. Advertisers ask us for favours. This is the constant advertising versus editorial dilemma, and advertisers have won. In the 1980's, the Toronto Star tried to take an editorial stand in the travel industry. It looked like the paper won that battle in the short run. I think we all lost the battle in the long run. Partly, because readers have different views about what they want in the travel pages compared to what they want in the news pages. There, they prefer to read pleasant travel stories. They don't want to know why they shouldn't travel somewhere. Nobody wants to read only negative material all the time, even though they want to be informed.

Responsibility to Protect Public Interest

Given that most media owners are private individuals, and the fact that publishers can simply pull stories if they don't like something, the private interests of a publisher usually win out if there's a conflict between a private and public interest. Journalists have a responsibility to avoid this. Even public media operators face private challenges, particularly as they try to raise funds, that can put the public interest in second place. The need to sensationalize stories to attract attention often works against the public interest. The editorial versus publisher fight became so idealized in the 90's and early 2000's that publishers realized that their best bet was to simply fire as many people as they can. That turned readers off and led to the demise or fall of many. Just look at where it led Postmedia. Then publishers realized that perhaps they could get readers back by sensationalizing stories in the way the Buzzfeed and Huffington Post do. Also, advertisers know how to get what they want. When they couldn't go to publishers to get something, they went to journalists directly. The Huffington Post publicized that issue when it cracked down on writers who were subsidized by advertisers, but the practice has long been prevalent. After all, someone has to pay. Those of us with more idealistic endeavours often find out that we are the ones paying. If not with money, perhaps with time and frustration.

Public Housing Story Example

Several years ago, I did a series of stories about the lack of hygienic conditions, the harassment of people who complained and administrative corruption in public housing complexes. While I was able to help some individuals, the practices that I uncovered continue to this day. People who complain still get kicked out easily, the process for having legitimate complaints heard remains long and convoluted, the number of spots in the system remains inadequate and the court system that handles complaints gets manipulated by bad actors. Plus, my stories added to public misconceptions about poverty and housing. I stopped covering that beat because it took too much effort for limited results. Every now and then, I think it would be worth while to cover again since few others are doing so, but I haven't yet figured out how to do so effectively without being demoralized about how bad things are. If you have ideas about how this subject can be covered more effectively, let me know. In the meantime, I hope everyone thinks carefully about their publishing responsibilities, regardless of how large an audience they reach.

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December 6: Montreal Massacre

Today, let’s remember Barbara-Maria Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Barbara and 13 other women died during the École Polytechnique Massacre on this date, December 6, 1989.

The 31-year-old nursing student got shot enjoying a cheap meal with her husband in the cafeteria. Newspapers ran a photo of her collapsed in her chair for days afterwards.

She and her husband had emigrated to Canada from Poland two years earlier looking for a safer life. A failed referendum left little room for solidarity activists like them.

Klucznik-Widajewicz spoke five languages and held degrees in engineering and economics when she arrived. She worked as a nanny and her husband worked overnight in a nursing home before they had enough to go back to school.

While he studied to be a psychiatrist, she studied nursing.

The Berlin wall came down a month before she died. The cold war ended. Europe was safe again. Would they go home?

We’ll never know where their dreams might have led. They died with her on December 6, 1989.

Her husband Witold Widajewicz spoke of his shock examining her body to a Gazette newspaper reporter a year after her death.

I opened the zipper and I found a hole in the left breast, the breast that I had kissed that day — one hole that finished everything, the American dream in this country,” said Widajewicz, then 30 years old.

We all empathized with his plight. Many of us remembered the photo of her slumped in her chair. The multiple bodies on stretchers rolled out of the school. All of it so horrific.

Poland repatriated Barbara’s body after she died. Her husband and all of Canada faced an enormous loss.

Too often, stories talk about the gunman, giving him a notoriety he doesn’t deserve. I’d much rather commemorate Barbara and her contribution. She’s the one who deserves to be famous and remembered.

Or, if we must say a man’s name today, why not weep for then engineering student, Sarto Blais? Sarto was at the Polytechnique that fateful day, but was unable to stop the shooter. The graduate killed himself in remorse in August 1990. His parents killed themselves ten months after their only son’s suicide. He and his parents deserve to be remembered too. We need to combat the mental illness that stems from trauma like the massacre.

Montreal, Quebec and Canada lost too many wonderful people 30 years ago today. On this, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, let’s remember them.

Remembering 11 women

In addition to Barbara, Sarto and the Blais, we also remember:

  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student

Remember Geneviève Bergeron

Geneviève Bergeron was a twenty-one year old second-year scholarship student in mechanical engineering that year. She sang in a choir, played the clarinet and loved swimming, gymnastics and playing basketball. Then Mayor Jean Doré knew her as the eldest daughter of Thérèse Daviau, who then served as city councilor for the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. As a teenager, Bergeron went door-to-door in 1984 to help Doré win his first election. She also babysat Doré’s 3-year-old daughter.

Her sister spoke to CBC radio reporter Laura Marchand for an article published today.

She was my hero,” Bergeron said, smiling. “I remember her as a sunshine. That’s what we used to call her: our Sunshine.”

Catherine had an article in Le Devoir in 2005 that you can still read today.

Elaine Audet, whose daughter attended FACE with Geneviève also wrote a letter about her.

Remember Hélène Colgan

Hélène wasHeleneColgana 23-year-old mechanical engineering student on the day she died.

Finding information about what she believed in is difficult. All I could find is references to three job offers she was considering at the time, including one near Toronto, and her desire to do a masters degree. There’s also a brief statement about her energy from her father Clarence in a book about the events.

That’s all the more reason to miss her now. Who knows what she might have accomplished had she lived.

Her brother Claude Colgan, spoke about her in French on a video.

Women Engineer Success

If you prefer to commemorate today looking at the future instead of the past, join Mary Wells in celebrating 30 successful women in the engineering field who graduated within three years of that time.

Wells graduated from McGill as an engineer two years prior to the Massacre.

Her tribute page “30 years later” gives us just a small sense of what Canada lost when so many women engineer students–and one nursing student and trained engineer–died.

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Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII

Imagine turning a corner and seeing rows upon rows of green painted wooden buildings as far as the eye can see. One minute, there was nothing. The next minute, an entire town appeared in front of me.

For just a moment, I shared a bit of the awe my ancestors must have felt on day one of their military training during WWII.

The experience took place while I was touring wineries near Picton Ontario last summer.

A former airfield and military base on County Road 22 operates as the Picton Airport and Loch-Sloy Business Park. It includes 54 historic buildings and six airplane hangars on 701 acres of land.

Local businesses rent space

The Prince Edward Flying Club offers “prior permission required” landing services for pilots.

Fifteen other business tenants rent space there too. I saw listings for carpenters, furniture makers, glass manufacturers, landscapers, mechanics, and stone distributors. There’s even a yoga studio on site.

Driving and walking through the park feels like taking a step back in time.

The Picton airfield originally opened on April 28, 1941 as a bombing and gunnery school for the war effort.

Canada, with the support of Britain, built new or expanded existing fields into more than 100 such facilities in less than four years.

The effort became known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Looking back it is difficult to grasp the BCATP in all its dimensions,” wrote J.F. Hatch, in his 1983 book describing the project. “In themselves, the statistics are impressive: 131,553 [plus 5,296 RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel trained prior to July 1, 1942] aircrew trained for battle, through a ground structure embracing 105 flying training schools of various kinds, 184 support units and a staff numbering 104,000. When war was declared the RCAF had less than two hundred aircraft suitable for training, many of them obsolete. In December 1943 there were 11,000 aircraft on strength of the BCATP.” [1]

My ancestors Paul Emile Hurtubise, Jean Charles Mathieu and Richard Himphen all trained at Ontario-based military installations just like this one, although the ones they went to were in Camp Borden, Dunnville and St. Thomas rather than Picton.

Camp Borden still operates as an active military training facility. The ones in Dunnville and St. Thomas are long gone.

Picton is probably the last BCATP centre in existence—with original buildings and triangle airfield layout intact—anywhere in the world.

Heritage Structures Intact

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) used the buildings and hangars for storage and equipment maintenance after WWII.

After that, the Royal Canadian School of Artillery (anti-aircraft) moved in to train anti-aircraft gunners, gunnery radar operators, technical assistants and artillery instructors. The first battalion Canadian Guards infantry unit also used the site for a while.

During part of that time, AVRO Arrow test models could be found in some of the hangars.

In 1969, the Department of Defense closed down CFB Picton and the H.J. McFarland Company purchased the land and buildings.

Loch-Sloy bought the site from the McFarland family in 1999.

Dreams for a Period Museum

That’s when the company began a slow challenging effort of reconstructing the former buildings into a period museum that they hope will eventually open full-time. They produced a fun video describing their dreams in April 2013.

Until that happens, you can arrange private tours of the site or contact them for upcoming public events.

I highly recommend the experience. It connects you to the past in a way that reading documents just can’t achieve.

– 30 –

If you want to read more about my WWII military ancestors and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, refer to the following stories:

Fairwell Sergeant Himphen

Evening Serenade

Shot Down Three Times

Vincent Massey and the BCATP

 

[1] Hatch, F. J. The Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945. Ottawa: Directorate of History, Dept. of National Defence, 1983, 222 pages.

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Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer

Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer

This week, we commemorate the public service contributions of trained dietitian and Montreal philanthropist Mary Catherine “Kitty” Freeman. Freeman was born in Prescott, Ontario 98 years ago Sunday.

During the war years, Freeman helped feed wounded soldiers using limited rations at hospitals in Liverpool, England and Bruges, Belgium . She described her experiences to Bronwyn Chester in 2004 for a newsletter article.

If someone became diabetic, for instance, you’d look after that,” she told Chester. “But mostly you did the best you could with what you had. We had 600 patients at one time, and to break the monotony of meat with a lot of fat in it, along with potatoes and canned and dried food, you’d just go out and buy strawberries.”[1]

Freeman frequently donated to McGill during her lifetime. She also left Macdonald College a million dollar endowment after her death on March 13, 2009. Today, a well-equipped 12-person food laboratory commemorates her contributions. Another $25,000 went to the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research.[2]

Clearly, the study of food and nutrition meant a great deal to her, perhaps because she grew up during the Great Depression.

As a young woman, Freeman pursued a Bachelor of Household Science from Macdonald College and dietitian training at Royal Victoria College.

She signed up for the Canadian Army’s Medical Corp as soon as she turned 21 and became eligible for service.

Freeman told Chester that she travelled from Halifax Canada to Liverpool England as the only dietitian on one of three Army hospital ships.

Hospital Ship Travel

Hospital ships carried wounded soldiers from Europe to Pier 21 in Halifax. There, trained technicians transferred patients to hospital trains sent to hospitals across Canada. Military personnel and soldiers then boarded empty ships, just as Freeman did. The ship then returned to Europe for more patients.

Painted white hospital ships displayed large red crosses on each side to indicate that they should receive safe passage.

You can see a photo of one such ship on Roger Litwiller’s website. We can assume that this photo shows a later probably larger ship than the one Freeman sailed on. The Lady Nelson hospital ship didn’t exist until April 1943. It boasted an operating theatre, x-ray machine and wards for 515 people. The December 1944 Index to British Warships document shows only the Lady Nelson in existence that particular year, only two years after Freeman’s passage.[3] That couldn’t be accurate, however. The Letitia hospital ship was refitted with 200 medical personnel and the ability to ship 1,000 patients in 1943 and continued to sail in 1944.

The Geneva Convention specified that enemy bombers and submarines weren’t supposed to target hospital ships, but there were no guarantees. According to Wikipedia, 25 hospital ships were sunk during WWII.[4]

Military Contribution

The hospital ship Freeman was on arrived safely in Liverpool with its two mates in 1941. There, her expertise became a much-needed commodity. Britain struggled to feed itself. Canadian exports accounted for 77% of the wheat and flour consumed in the country. The following year, rations would be introduced across Canada to ensure that enough food went overseas.

Freeman took charge of the military hospital food service. Later, they sent her to Belgium to perform a similar role in harsher conditions. After five years of service, she returned to Montreal. She immediately joined the staff of the veteran’s Saint Anne de Bellevue Hospital as a dietitian

She moved to Queen Mary’s Veteran Hospital before retiring in 1978.

According to a 2005 Veteran’s Affairs pamphlet, Freeman’s experiences were duplicated by many women of her generation.

No account of military service in the Second World War would be complete without mention of the contribution made by the four special branches of the nursing service – the Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Dietitians and Home Sisters. Also, the sisters who served on the hospital trains returning the wounded to destinations across Canada. The end of the Second World War brought the closure of military and station hospitals across Canada. A total of 80 nurses, 30 RCAMC, 30 RCAF and 20 RCN sisters joined the permanent force and served at military establishments across the country; many more staffed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospitals to care for hundreds of returning Veterans.[5]

We need to remember the service of these courageous women, including Mary Catherine Freeman.

Sources

[1] Chester, Bronwyn, “Fueling the Forces,” In Focus Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, McGill, Spring 2004, p15, https://www.mcgill.ca/macdonald/files/macdonald/InFocusSpring2004.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019.

[2] “Generous legacy supports dietetic and nutrition research, CFDR Keeping in Touch, Fall 2009, p3.

[3] Index to British Warships, Division of Naval Intelligence, December 1944, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ref/ONI/ONI-201/ONI-201-I/ONI-201-I.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hospital_ships_sunk_in_World_War_II, accessed September 24, 2019.

[5] “The Nursing Sisters of Canada,” Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada represented by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2005. Catalogue No. V32-146/2005 ISBN 0-662-69038-9 Accessed September 24, 2019, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters#sisterhist3

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How journalists can help us agree to disagree respectfully

I just read a captivating article.  In Complicating the Narratives, Amanda Ripley explains that journalists can learn about behavioural science to ask better questions and help us to agree to disagree respectfully.

She published her work in The Solutions Journalism Network a year ago June. I only saw it this week when a journalist friend posted it in an electronic chat discussion.

This article showcases important concepts from leaders in behavioural economics thinking. It also explains how mediation experts use their understanding of these concepts to ask questions that de-escalate conflict.

…I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.

Good writing technique

I love how Ripley used notable nonfiction techniques to tell this story. Notice that she began her article with an anecdote from an event that would probably interest most people.

The anecdote makes readers care about an issue that many hadn’t considered. Then she takes us into her personal investigation into mediation. Then she widens again to explain how her lessons could be applied in her profession. She widens even further to explain how anyone can use what she learned in their own lives.

She suggests journalists ask questions to show that those they interview have conflicting ideas about issues. We should emphasize emotional connections if they take place. We also need to listen carefully and repeat our understanding of ideas in our own words back to the person, something that mediators call “looping.” If we do this when interviewing people, we can demonstrate how issues we are trying to explore are more complex than anyone generally believes.

Political Divisions

Ripley outlines how research from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt applies to political division, such as that experienced in the United States, and to a lesser extent, here in Canada.

Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition…If journalists want to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators.

Rather than harping on diverse opinions, Ripley suggests that commentators explore why people believe what they do so that underlying values and experiences can be understood. She says that when this takes place, people don’t necessarily change their minds. Instead, they become more open to hearing what someone else believes, even when they disagree.

As Canada heads into a federal election this autumn, I think this is very good advice for all of us. Our politicians are going to try to convince us that they know what should be done to run this country.

I doubt anyone has all the answers. It’s more likely that each of us has insight into a few of the things that need to be done. Perhaps we can talk about that for a change.

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