Monday, July 19, 2010

Why I could never be a daily reporter

I loved being a reporter. I loved the buzz of getting a story done on deadline, finding a new spin on it, getting the perfect source to give me the juicy tidbit no one else had. A lot of people asked me why I stopped doing it on a full-time basis.

Out of j-school I landed a news editor's job, followed by a reporting job on Parliament Hill. Then I moved across the country. I started freelancing for niche publications - community papers mainly, various magazines. Why not be a reporter full-time?

Well, the natural step would have been to start hunting down a job at a major daily. Better money, greater recognition. Sounds just about right. Except for one thing. In most cases, you don't start with a sweet little niche. You start with general city reporting. City Hall I could handle, I'd done the politics thing. But the guy goes crazy and shoots his entire family? It's that kind of shit I couldn't handle.

When I was 12, there were a few missing-kids' cases in Toronto. I won't forget Christine Jessop. Her body was found on New Year's Eve. My dad was a TV reporter. He got the call shortly before midnight that a body, likely hers, was found. It was confirmed the next day. I honestly don't know how my dad did it without it destroying his spirit. And reporters will continue to do it for many years to come. Not me though. I have issues with death and remaining detached when I write about it simply doesn't happen.

Some of you may already know how upset I was by the passing of a teenage boy, Edward Sun, who drowned at Alice Lake last weekend. I won't ever forget seeing his feet and swimming shorts as two people performed CPR on him. He looked so small (simply my perception, only being able to see the bottom half of him) that initially, I thought he was a younger child. I hope this picture I found of him tonight will help me erase that image.

When we left the park, I handed my son to my husband and cried. I didn't want to hold my son as I wept because I was worried I would scare him by squeezing him too tight as I bawled. I couldn't get it out of my head: he was somebody's child. Not mine, but somebody's. When I heard that he had died the following morning, I just kept thinking about his mother. How dare I claim such sorrow. How must she feel? The friends who were with him that day?

I'm certainly not saying the daily reporters who can do it are heartless - my dad continued doing it for more than a decade after Christine Jessop died, though he did move on to cover politics. He can be grumpy, but he's certainly full of heart. I am saying I can't do it. I'll write promo stuff, I'll blog, and I may write for papers and magazines again about causes that move me. But I'm simply not made of the right stuff to make a go of the mainstream dailies.


  1. I'm a reporter at a 50,000 circulation daily paper. And situations that you described are by far the worst part of my job. But strangely enough, possibly the most important as well.

    When someone dies we pounce the minute the name is released. Sooner if we can confirm the identity through other channels. I've been doing this for years (in fact I did it this past weekend) but still the walk to the front door of the family who lost a loved one mere hours earlier is still terrifying.

    Sure some of them hiss at you and tell you to beat it. And rightly so. But 95% of them do the opposite. They let you inside to meet the family. They sit down with you and talk about who they just lost. They let it all pour out. The crazy thing is, they thank you for it. It's cathartic and it helps them deal.

    That having been said, it does take a toll. It is a vital part of my job to stay detached, and that's why I "flip the switch" and turn off all emotion. I'm there to tell a story. I can cry later, but not then. Because although unpleasant, it's my duty to report what's happening and to do it fairly and accurately.

    People always say they hate the media and ask how we could intrude during such an awful time. Then those same people are the ones with their noses in the story the next day soaking in every word. They like the sausage, but don't want to see how it's made.

    I'm honored to do a job most people can't handle. I'm honored to tell their stories to the best of my ability. Sure it's morbid, but it's also necessary and I happen to be good at it.

    But I completely understand why people would avoid it like the plague too.

  2. I've always had issues with flipping that switch - I remember my grandmother telling me I had a soft heart years ago. Give me some drab policy or a convoluted bill to dissect and I'm there (and I'm sure this is something that would make many reporters cringe). But make me deal with human emotion when someone may be at the worst point in their life? Ugh.

    Though my dad was pretty good at flipping the switch, I do remember him losing it with me around the time Christine Jessop went missing because I took off with a friend without telling anyone. On a school night. I'll never forget him asking me, "Do you know how many stories I've had to do about missing kids?"

    I'm grateful for people like you and my dad who can do the job and do it well.