John White: Being human while covering tragedy

John White: Being human while covering tragedy

It’s been a challenging few weeks to be an editor here at the Castlegar News.

It’s been a challenging few weeks to be an editor here at the Castlegar News.

Any time we have to cover tragedies in the community, it is imperative that we balance the public’s need to know and the overall news value with the sensitivities of potentially causing undue additional harm to the survivors left behind. This is rarely an easy decision to reach.

It began with our coverage of the London terror attacks that resulted in the death of Chrissy Archibald, a young woman with a history of philanthropy from Castlegar. We were on the story quickly on the web, and were tracking details and reports as they were confirmed. A family spokesperson came forward to handle media inquiries, so we did not attempt to contact the family directly.

There were explicit details of the attacks available to us but we chose not to glorify the violence and instead focus on the kind of person Chrissy was to friends, family and coworkers.

I attended the peace vigil on Sunday as an editor/reporter, but found myself overcome as family, friends and city leaders tried to help us all work through our collected grief. I shot video of all of the statements, and posted video from Chrissy’s father Greg Archibald as soon as I returned to the office, as I was so struck by his words.

I did not try to get extra comments or an additional interview from Greg or his family out of respect for their grieving.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, we’d heard a report of a serious crash on Highway 22 just south of Castlegar. It sounded like a head-on crash involving two vehicles. Reporter Chelsea Novak went to the scene to investigate. She managed to get several photos of the aftermath, and she was shaken by what she saw.

We waited to post the photo of the crash on the website until the next day, because we did not want the family to find out about the crash from the internet. Even then, we were criticized as being insensitive to the family by posting it at all.

It’s a valid criticism.

Posting photos from crashes and fires is always a tough call.

This was a very public incident on a major highway known for serious crashes. For that reason we felt it necessary to post, partly as a major news event and partly as a reminder of the potential dangers on area highways. But I still debate each case on its own merits.

It may surprise you to learn that I actually found out about two serious incidents through the media — the first one involving my father getting hijacked, beaten and left for for dead as a Sheriff’s officer in Manitoba when I was 10, which was broadcast live on the 6 o’clock news, and the second when my father-in-law was seriously injured in a truck crash.

The shock of learning of the attack on my father — as they interviewed him live on TV locked in his own handcuffs, bleeding from the head with blood covering his shirt — haunted me for many years.

As you can imagine, I’m very sensitive when considering coverage of tragedy and will always be.