Tragedies make headlines. How can journalists go beyond?

Cowichan Valley reporter Jacqueline Ronson reflects on reporting the difficult story of a young man killed by police.

Yesterday was a terrifying day for me. The Discourse published a 6,300-word story that I reported and wrote about Chris Bloomfield, the young man shot and killed by police near Shawnigan Lake, B.C., late last year.

It’s a strange thing putting a story like that out into the world. It shows up, whole and fully formed, concealing the thousands of tiny decisions that got it to that point. The biggest of which was whether to pursue the story or not in the first place. And after that, whether or not to continue. As I write this, my editor doesn’t yet know how close I came to pulling the plug on the whole thing, to refusing to put the pieces together after months of collecting them.

I heard Chris Bloomfield’s name for the first time when most of us did: After he died, when a short flurry of local news coverage blasted his face across social media. I was disheartened to see some of the online comments — the people who jumped to conclusions, who felt the need to take a side.

I was disheartened, too, by some of the news coverage itself. The Times Colonist printed rumours and hearsay shared by neighbours who gathered at the scene of the crime, including speculation about Chris’s relationship with his mother that was not confirmed. News reports painted a picture of a “troubled” young man and heavy drug user, with little input from those who knew him well.

At the time, I wrote a short piece urging people not to paint the death in black and white with so little information available. I had no intention of pursuing the story further — I had enough already on my plate, and no clear way to add this to my reporting plans. But over time, community members shared with me little bits of knowledge of Chris’s personal story, and little bits of knowledge of the local RCMP’s perspective, beyond what had been reported publicly (this is a small community, after all.) People told me that there’s more to the story worth telling, that people would benefit from greater understanding on all sides, and that I might be the person to do the job.

And, for a while, this felt like a story I wanted to tell. I got my editors on board after pitching the story as a piece of in-depth coverage around mental health and addictions in the Cowichan Valley. This choice was guided by community feedback, but also, if I’m being honest, personal. As someone who has seen severe mental illness in people I love, my instinct has been to research, to dissect, to strive towards a better understanding of these issues.

When I finally got the courage to contact Chris’s mom, Marilyn Bloomfield, she welcomed me into her home and shared her story without reservation. Chris’s friend, Kyren Teufel, also opened up to me. After the interview, he gave me a hug and said he could tell I cared about doing a good job telling his friend’s story. It meant a lot.

But I knew, too, that I wouldn’t tell this story unless I felt I could give full and fair consideration to the RCMP. This was harder. The RCMP’s communication team quickly told me that they would not comment on the specifics of this case, and they also rebuffed my repeated attempts to get someone on the phone to speak about officer training with regard to mental health issues and use of force in general. A spokesperson ultimately offered an emailed response to some of my questions. I filled in as many gaps as I could with research, largely from news reports and public documents.

I also got to know the RCMP better through reporting I did for a separate but related story on the neighbouring North Cowichan/Duncan detachment, which has piloted over the last two years a program to pair up an officer with a psychiatric nurse to do community outreach and patrols and be available to respond to people in crisis. This piece was important — I was able to speak with current RCMP officers about mental health training and gain confidence that I had heard at least a slice of their perspective.

But while the reporting pieces were coming together as they should, I was experiencing a bit of a crisis over whether my storytelling efforts were misplaced. Over the months I worked on the story, I was deepening relationships and listening to different individuals and groups in the community. I was learning that there are so many worthy stories out there that are overlooked entirely by the media. If I reflected back on my past work, I tended to follow threads already picked up in the local news and worked to add depth and context to those conversations, rather than bringing untold stories to light. I heard that the media’s intense focus on extreme cases could be harmful: by skewing public perceptions, which might lead to a diversion of public resources based on attention, rather than evidence. I wanted to highlight solutions and talk about everyday struggles that affect the many, instead of rarer tragedies.

I forged ahead, but never stopped asking myself if this story was one worth telling. I maintained a mental pros-and-cons list. Pros: Doing justice to the people who generously shared their personal stories with me; giving the community a fuller, more nuanced understanding of who Chris was and what happened to him, than earlier media coverage had offered; giving the community a greater understanding of mental health and addictions issues; giving the community a greater understanding of the role and training of police when it comes to responding to people in crisis; potentially spurring improvements to systems for response to people in distress. Cons: Causing harm to readers, particularly in people with a personal relationship to the story; prompting hurtful comments on social media, some of which will fall beyond my reach to moderate and respond to; increasing division rather than understanding among some readers.

Ultimately I published the story knowing it would cause pain to many who read it, knowing that I’m not in control of how people react to it or whether it will spur any positive impacts, whether they be in terms of individual compassion and understanding or improvements to mental health response systems.

That was a really hard thing to do. And I’m not sure I’d do it again if I were to start over. Hopefully this helps you to understand how I got from here to there. But also, I hope you’ll send me an email and let me know what you think. What should I, as a reporter, take into consideration in the future when deciding which stories or issues to throw a spotlight on?

You, my community members, are my most valued editorial advisory board. Thank you for being with me on this vulnerable, imperfect, learning journey. [end]

Cowichan Hospice Society offers support to people grieving the death of a loved one in the Cowichan region. The Vancouver Island Crisis Line can be reached 24/7 at 1-888-494-3888.

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