Op-ed: Reporting on taboo issues and why it's important
- Jeanelle Mandes | November 06, 2016
In journalism, there will always be stories that are known as ‘the pink elephants in the room’, everyone is aware but no one wants to talk about them because it tends to make people feel uncomfortable.
I soon learned about this after I covered the recent suicides in Northern Saskatchewan. Within a matter of five weeks, six girls took their own lives. This is a serious issue. I felt this issue’s importance needed to be covered. Here is why.
I read most of mainstream’s coverage about the first two girls, from Stanley Mission, who took their lives. They were all labelled as ‘young Indigenous girls’, which is accurate. But who were they? What kind of lives did they live? What were their dreams, hopes and aspirations? What were their hobbies? What were their families’ favourite memories of them? These were the questions that were overlooked in mainstream’s coverage.
I pitched the story idea of covering who these girls were to my Eagle Feather News (EFN) editor. After he gave me the go-ahead, I proceeded to find at least one of the family members of one of three girls.
I found Lynda Roberts, mother of Jadene Anna Irving, from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. I explained to her why I was interested in writing the story in this angle. I approached her in a sensitive and respectful manner. After engaging into a discussion about the topic, she kindly agreed to tell the story of who her daughter was and how she wanted people to remember her daughter. It wasn’t an easy interview to do. I felt her pain, but as a professional, I needed to have that thick skin to proceed. I thanked her for sharing her story and I told her that I would write the story of how she wanted others to remember her daughter.
After the interview, I took off that invisible shield and cried. Simply, because I am still human.
There are stereotypes out there about journalists who cover hard stories like this. The common one is that journalists are like robots, in which we don’t show compassion or empathy in the stories we cover. For the most part, that is false. We are all trained to have thick skin in order to report accurately, fairly, and to remain neutral. But once we take off that journalist hat and return to our homes, the pain from the tragedies that we report on remains with us.
After I submitted the story on, “Northern Sask Crisis: Who was Jadene Anna Irving,” I had other stories to work on, as well as my homework in my Journalism Master’s program. In midst of typing one of the stories, my mind was focused on Lynda and her family. Every time I reflected back on her interview, an immediate lump appeared in my throat. I took mini-breaks to refocus my attention but it still lingered in my mind. That weekend, I went back to my reserve for a visit and one of my family members questioned me if anything was wrong as I wasn’t my usual self and I reassured him that I was fine. But clearly, I wasn’t.
The topic of suicide isn’t new to me. I dealt with the loss of my best friend, who took her life a few years ago. It was a devastation, which I hadn’t dealt with completely because I swept it under the rug, as suicide is an uncomfortable topic to talk about.
This is why I took on covering this issue with compassion simply because I care. These are girls who had dreams of becoming something such as a veterinarian, they had families who cared for them—they were someone important in these effected communities. In the media, I didn’t want them to become just another young Indigenous girl who took their life.
The second story, I wrote about the fifth suicide in Northern Saskatchewan, which happened in Loon Lake. As careful as I thought I was, my story was pulled as it had some people upset from the affected communities. It wasn’t my intention to offend our readers and I apologize to those I’ve upset. At the time, it was four weeks since the Prime Minister and Saskatchewan’s Premier responded in the wake of the Northern Saskatchewan suicides. The story was merely a follow-up on the government’s words and what has or has not been done to address, as some of the provincial chief’s call it, the “suicide crisis”. I overlooked one protocol in the reporting suicide guidelines—which I wasn’t aware of. In journalism school, we weren’t taught about reporting on suicide, because many news outlets avoid covering it unless it’s considered a crisis.
But after meeting with the EFN staff, we re-worked the story and reposted it to be respectful to the families and communities.
Reporters have that duty to inform the public on what is happening in the news but we also need to take care of our own well-being. When you’re consumed with emotions after covering a hard story, debrief with your news team. They are your biggest supporters.
Overall, I still feel this story is essentially important to cover because suicide is an issue that doesn’t need to have a taboo label. Creating that dialogue amongst our readers may help families prevent suicide in their communities. Affected family members and their community leaders strongly urge families to continue to reach out and talk to your children and be aware of any warning signs.
To those who may have suicidal thoughts—know that there is hope. Know that you are loved and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Continue talking about this issue and let’s not allow it to be swept under the rug.
The Kids Helpline is open 24 hours a day for phone and web counseling at 1-800-668-6868 and at www.kidshelpphone.ca.