People take jobs. Big jobs. High-profile jobs.
But that doesn’t mean their families have taken the same jobs. And in the media, it might worthwhile for us all to remember that.
Earlier this week, CTV News aired a clip of a reporter going to the front door of former Trudeau principal secretary Gerald Butts, who resigned in the midst of the fallout from another resignation, that of former justice minister Jody Wilson Raybould.
Butts’ wife answered the door, and rather politely answered a few questions that were then aired. That’s right, a member of Butts’ family who is in no way involved in this story.
And the only thing I could think of is, why is the media even doing this? Who thought it was a good idea to go to that door, and then to run the footage?
If the reporter was looking for Gerald Butts and he didn’t come to the door, why didn’t the story end there?
I remember covering the Mike Duffy trial in Ottawa and seeing as sad a spectacle as you could imagine: Duffy’s wife, doing her best to angle the family car into the curb so Duffy could get in and they could drive away after the day’s court proceedings. The car would be surrounded by jostling reporters, photographers and camera operators, and you’d catch a glimpse of her face, stricken. It was not something she wanted to be in the middle of, and frankly, she didn’t deserve to be. It was hard to watch, and I can picture it still.
I mean, it’s one thing for reporters to chase Duffy through the kitchen of a restaurant after he refused to answer questions about whether, as a senator, he should be working the campaign trail for the federal Conservatives doing fundraising events. He had made his own decisions; consequences sometimes flow from that. I can understand and even defend that.
It’s something quite different to drag family members into the melee.
I think, in the media, we all have to stop and consider what we’re trying to achieve: is it news, or is it just some kind of revenge theatre?
I know I have a different view of personal space than some journalists, and maybe that made me not a particularly good reporter.
Once, early in my career, I was working in television and was sent out to cover the death of a child in a sporting accident.
“Don’t come back without a photo of the kid, even if you have to keep knocking on their door until someone comes out,” my producer told me.
I was young, not used to standing up for myself, but I did that day. “Then send someone else,” I told him.
I’m still glad I refused. I also told my producer that if one of my children was killed or injured and a reporter and camera person showed up on my steps asking for a photo, I’d feel perfectly justified in chasing them away with a snow shovel. He sent out a reporter who didn’t have children.
Later, though, I was told to go to the home of a defeated provincial politician to get some comment after he refused, and I wondered, as I was encircled by his angry family members, just what sort of news value was being achieved. Heat, there was in that situation; light, there was never going to be. I regretted it for years, and still feel I deserved every bit of abuse those family members gave me.
I think, in the media, we all have to stop and consider what we’re trying to achieve: is it news, or is it just some kind of revenge theatre? Is it answers to legitimate questions, or the cathartic public castigation of someone — anyone, even if it’s not the “guilty” party — being worked over for our benefit?
There’s news, and there’s abusing your power. It’s not really a fine line.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.