Photo: kojihirano/Shutterstock

When Journalists Don’t Respect the Dead

by Candice Walsh Aug 30, 2011
Sometimes our need to find a good story clouds the question of whether or not we should hit “publish.”

I’M TRYING NOT to make this political.

But it’s a little political.

A week ago, Canadian New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton succumbed to cancer. The man whose party formed the official opposition for the first time in Canadian history during this year’s federal election was no match for the invasion of disease.

News networks moved in, covering the story and paying tribute to Mr. Layton’s life. It was everywhere: my friends talked about it, the TV buzzed with it, and my Twitter stream was flooded. It became a trending topic.

And then National Post journalist Christie Blatchford wrote a rebellious article titled “Layton’s Death Turns into a Thoroughly Public Spectacle.”

The outrage spread further than the actual news of Layton’s death. People were angry, angry, angry! I read the article myself, stewing in spitefulness, and then shared it on Facebook. And when I saw that Blatchford was Twitter trending as well, I immediately regretted sharing. She was getting exactly what she wanted: lots and lots of attention.

Why? Let’s consider.

The title. Journalists want to create the “next big sensation” story. Coming from a journalistic perspective, our lives become a story. We’re constantly thinking, “How can I make this BIG?” Just look at the title of this article, for example.

“Public spectacle” is a harsh phrase. When does someone’s death become a “spectacle”? The word draws images of frenzied photographers, horrified onlookers and delirious old maids.

But we gathered at candlelit vigils, wearing printed t-shirts and expressing our condolences. For the most part, we were peaceful and quiet.

She hits more nerves than an oral surgeon. Blatchford is a smart woman. She makes valid points in her article, touching on the fact that other journalists don’t give a shit about a person until they became a news story. She then tries to wrap up her piece with a few kind words about Layton, but the sincerity is veiled by bitterness and language that seems as if every word was handpicked from a thesaurus.

In reference to the now famous letter Layton left behind to his loyal NDP followers, Blatchford says:

Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption and released by his family and the party mid-day, happily just as Mr. Solomon and his fellows were in danger of running out of pap? Who seriously writes of himself, “All my life I have worked to make things better”?

Are you kidding me? Who DOESN’T think to write a good-bye letter on their deathbed? Last month, in the days before my uncle passed away, he was consumed by the questions of his legacy. Would his daughters remember him? Could they survive? Could he change his mind, because he wasn’t ready to go? The need to have our say is a common thread in humanity. Ask any writer.

The timing. Opinions are worth expressing, but they should be expressed with tact. Publishing a cruel article like Blatchford’s just a day after someone’s passing is more than a little tactless. I was hasty to publish this article as a rebuttal a week ago, but figured I’d like some time to digest what has happened. A week later, I feel the same way. When you truly care about something, it can wait.

There you have it, a recipe for sensation.

Please make no mistake, the grief was real. The “makeshift memorials” and “condolences in social media” were sincere. It is never wrong to express grief over the death of a national icon, or anybody, for that matter. Somebody out there lost a husband, a father, a friend. If you’ve ever witnessed a cancerous death, you know the slow decline of the body and the entire removal of dignity is something you never, ever make light of. The images I have of my own uncle will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But I’ve seen a weird shift in my generation lately when it comes to politics and the welfare of our country. Layton’s death, in some sense, made it okay to say, “I voted NDP.” The graffiti memorials and colourful t-shirt tributes show exactly the type of people Layton influenced: generation-y, the people who will one day inherit this place. For many of us, Layton symbolized change and the ability to conquer against the odds. Perhaps if Blatchford had taken the time to speak to my generation, she’d get it.

The mantra many of us Canadians have taken to heart is an excerpt from Layton’s final letter: “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Journalists, those are words to live by.

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