July 12, 2006

This is why I left daily journalism

UPDATE, July 18: I've decided to remove the earlier entry that was in this spot. Someone whose opinion I trust in these matters said it was unusually emotional and unflattering to me, and they're probably right. I was angry at the Toronto Star after reading this article and I wrote things I now am uncomfortable seeing on a screen.

In the course of that response, I made one specific allegation that unfairly impugned the reputation of Toronto Star reporter Jim Rankin, whose byline is on the story. I'm sorry for that. Although I've received no specific legal threat from Mr. Rankin to date, I understand he was unsatisfied with my first attempt to clarify this posting with an earlier update, which was too long and rambling in any case, leading me to remove it as well.

Let me try again. The Star article is poor form, a cruel and distasteful piece of work for several reasons, all or most of which would have been mitigated by waiting a few days to fully tell the "other side" of Cpl. Anthony Boneca's story.

1. It interfered overly with a grieving family. After hearing from Cpl. Boneca's girlfriend's father that the young man was unhappy with his job and considering pretending to be suicidal to get out of it, Rankin and the Star did not obtain further comment from the man's family about those controversial statements prior to running the piece. Because the story the Star told was so different from the comments that the family had given to other reporters on the story that day, the family had to take what must have seemed excessive time in the midst of the worst day of their lives to react to the Star story, rather than focussing on remembering and mourning their son. You can say that's the fault of the person who talked to the Star, but it was the Star's decision that gave that person standing.

2. It permanently poisoned a young man's memory in the public's mind. The Star's editors had to know that the editorial and public responses to the "unhappy soldier" story were going to entirely obscure any other information anyone will ever remember about Cpl. Boneca when they were run, so they might have waited until the poor fellow was at least interred first. The same issues about the Afghan mission of interest to the public could still have been raised a day or two later. This has nothing to do with Afghanistan or the Canadian Forces, it would be the same with anyone who died in the line of duty at their jobs: cop, firefighter, hydro worker. The striking thing about the Star's initial article is how poorly Cpl. Boneca is portrayed. Not only was he an unwilling and mopey soldier, but he was also not too bright and poor at high school sports, at least according to the Star. Imagine if you can how the story might have read if Cpl. Boneca had not died in Afghanistan, but of some sudden circumstance back at home in Thunder Bay. Mr. Rankin's story has only the one other revealing anecdote from the football coach. In the absence of a military angle, would he really have led with, "A young Thunder Bay man killed yesterday had trouble with simple instructions on the football field and rarely managed to score, his highschool coach said?" Of course not. So why was it okay to say what was actually said in the lead paragraph in Cpl. Boneca's case, again?

3. It told only one side of the story. A defender of the article might say that the public interest trumps the kinds of niceties I've talked about above. But then wouldn't the public interest have been better served with a fuller initial account? Mr. Rankin was not only unable to receive any response from the man's family to the "unhappy soldier" angle before going to press; the story did not include any other response from anyone else to the girlfriend's father's statements. (There are details in the initial Star story that could have benefitted from first being confirmed: some questions have already been raised about Cpl. Boneca's claim about having been denied medical treatment for a broken ankle, for instance.) In any event, another day or two could have given the Star comment from the guy's buddies, his padre, his CO, in addition to the family. On the page, the initial report unfortunately looked like nothing more than single-sourced hearsay, which only served to heighten public emotion on all sides; the rushed aspect of this, although commonplace in daily journalism, shows an undue deference to deadlines over anyone else's best interests that does the Star no credit here.

In any case, my advice to people who are one step removed from those in mourning (high school coaches, girlfriend's fathers, etc.) is still the same. Daily news reporters on a tight deadline do not generally have your best interests at heart. Try and remember that they work within a law that says, among other things, that you cannot libel the dead. If they're calling you, as opposed to direct friends or family members, it's also highly probable it's because they've been unable to get sufficient copy from those closest to the person who died: there's probably a good reason for that. You really are better off hanging up. The reporters can wait.

Posted by BruceR at 05:41 PM