Remembering a tough day at the office

This came up on my Facebook memories feature today:

Teresa was right, it was a tough day…

I was four hours into my morning drive news shift (around 7am) when I started hearing a lot of chatter on the radio scanner**… this is what I wrote on my desk notepad.

April 30 Notepad2

The scribbles probably don’t mean much to you, but it was my first indication that two men had just been shot and killed, and two others wounded, at a Western Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo.

The notes were quickly roughed out, and don’t include everything I heard.

I was news director, and had just one reporter on staff.  Step one – text reporter and get her down there.  Step two – call the RCMP desk sergeant and see what he’ll tell me (just a grudging confirmation that there was an incident underway and that they were responding). Step three – make a judgement call, and a quick one, about what I will and will not say to lead the 7:30 news.

The temptation was there to throw out everything I’d gleaned from the radio chatter. At least one man with a wound to the face, a second in cardiac arrest and critical, more ambulance crews staging because it wasn’t known how many people were injured. I didn’t, instead I went with only what I could verify and had to push to get confirmation (in the end, another outlet was first to confirm the news that two of the shooting victims had been killed).

I know I’m not the first person to offer lessons from the front lines of stories like this, but here’s mine for what they’re worth:

-The first, and biggest, lesson for reporters covering something like this; It’s a rough day for you, but it’s an absolutely devastating and life-changing day for the people living the story. It’s too easy to lose sight of that in the heat of things.

-Many reporters will have a PTSD-like reaction. I wrote an e-mail to my brother (who’s also in media, and was at a major market news/talk station at the time) after his first brush with a similar story – the October 2014 shootings on Parliament Hill. I’m sure he won’t mind if I share my side of the conversation, censored a bit for salty language:

“… Days like yesterday are what we do best in radio.  I don’t know if you guys talk about this at your shop much, but whenever we get a day like yesterday I realize how many days like yesterday I’ve actually had over my career. And I want to warn you there is a bit of a crash… even when we’re not right in the hot zone.

Take care, try not to bring it home with you, and know it’s OK once in a while to go “F**k, yea! Nailed it.” even when we’re delivering sh***y news, and everyone around you in your team is feeling the same mix of elation and guilt at realizing that somebody’s tragedy is responsible for you doing some of your best work.”

I gave similar advice to my reporter on that April day two years ago, who was dealing with a story like this for the first time.

-Reporters are, by nature, a bit tribal. On tough, tragic, stories we lean on each other for support in ways that can seem a bit strange – even callous and offensive – to outsiders. Bad, sometimes very bad, jokes full of dark humour. Cold beers and cold, clinical dissection of the story afterwards (often later the same day). And just plain goofy stuff like selfies at the scene with new industry friends, or old ones we haven’t seen in a while. It’s all part of our coping mechanism.

-Then there’s covering the funerals. I hate covering funerals, and have gone to great lengths to avoid it, but as our newsroom leader at the time of the Nanaimo mill shootings I didn’t have that luxury.

Reporters tell themselves a special little lie about how we’re helping because victims of tragedy want to share their stories, they need to share, and we’re just offering an outlet. It’s certainly true in some cases, but a good reporter never forgets that the opposite is equally true in a lot of other cases.

The Nanaimo shooting is a good example. One victim’s family was incredibly open and generous with media; always taking calls, returning messages, and specifically inviting reporters to the funeral and making a special effort to help us cover it easily without getting in the way. The other family did not welcome the attention, and refused most media requests. It was impossible not to cover that victim’s funeral, but it was a great lesson in humility and diplomacy and a reminder that there are days when someone else’s needs will, and should, trump your effort to get a good story.

-Postscript: I doubt I’ll ever forget that day, and I suspect no one who worked in Nanaimo media at the time will either. The man charged with the shootings – Kevin Addison – is still awaiting trial on charges of murdering Michael Lunn and Fred McEachern, and 2 charges of attempted murder. Lunn’s family started the Red Shirt Foundation, which is working to address issues of workplace violence.

** A note on radio scanners: Scanners used to be standard newsroom tools. They’re falling out of use these days, partly because police are moving to digital encryption that makes scanning their channels pretty much impossible. But, in this part of B.C. at least, we can still hear fire, ambulance, Coast Guard etc en clair. I think, used with care and a professional understanding that you need to verify everything you hear, they are still a valuable ‘early warning system’ and an essential tool for covering breaking news.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s