Done With Dignity

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Rod Etheridge opens up about the Gideon Stairs story

This has been a difficult week for CBC News reporter Rod Etheridge.

He brought us the story of Gideon Stairs, which I wrote about in my previous blog entry. He did a fine job with a difficult story; one that required the sensitive touch of a seasoned journalist.

I sent Etheridge a note on Friday evening, right after deciding to write the blog item. Here's my note to him:

Rod:

That was a pretty powerful piece tonight. I have just one question. Well, maybe three.

You're only human, and, if memory serves, a father yourself. Was this a hard story for you to do? Did you find yourself fighting back tears?

What thoughts went through your mind as you drove away from there?

Thanks...

Geoff

This morning, the province awoke to terrible news: that three children, all under age 10, had died in a house fire on Bell Island. And the person covering the story, providing on-the-spot reports from the scene of the tragedy, was Rod Etheridge.

It has definitely been a harrowing week for the reporter.

Late Saturday night, at just after midnight, I received a response from Etheridge. He kindly took the time to sit down and write, in some depth and detail, about the events of these last couple of days. It's an engrossing, revealing look behind the scenes indeed, inside the mind of a journalist at work.

Reporters may put on a cool exterior, but, as this letter shows, they are no less human than you or me. Sometimes they even shed tears.

Here is Rod Etheridge's note, in its entirety:

Hi Geoff. Sorry I took so long to get back to you. As soon as I got into work today and word got out about Bell Island, the TV/Radio demands started. And I didn't get a break until just before seven and then I had to rush home because my son has been practicing guitar for about two weeks, wanting to perform in tonight's 'open mic' show at the Villa Nova church. So, it was a strange day - trying to write journalistically strong, yet sensitive, stories about the death of children, while knowing my 12 year old was anxiously waiting for me to come home and watch him perform.

I wanted to tell you how Gideon's story came about. When I first heard about the Stairs family on Thursday, I knew it was a story that had to be told because of the impact it would have on people. Usually, like many reporters, I hate calling families when it involves death, but I had been told they really wanted to talk publicly, to thank people, so that made it easier to contact them. It was Dean who asked us to come to the Janeway and do the interview in Gideon's room. When I called Eastern Health, I was quite surprised when they agreed, without hesitation.

Myself and Tony Snow, one of our cameramen, got there around ten o'clock. The nurse seemed hesitant and she immediately took us aside to say that Gideon had a really rough night and she wasn't sure Dean should do the interview. I told her that Dean and Stevie explained to me that Gideon was very ill and probably only had a few weeks left and this nurse - who works on a cancer unit and who probably has been through this hundreds of times - started crying and told us Gideon didn't have that long. Dean came out and he looked exhausted. He had big circles around his eyes and he said he'd been up most the night, calming Gideon, who had been very anxious most of the night. I knew then that we had to leave the story in Dean's hands, so I told him that if he wanted to change his mind, we'd be very willing to leave to let him focus on Gideon. The nurse also encouraged him to do that. She even suggested that the interview, if it was going to be done, shouldn't be in Gideon's room, but rather in a conference room. But Dean said he wanted us to come in and see Gideon and he also wanted to stay by his son's side.

When we went into the room, Dean pointed to the guitar on the floor and said he uses it to comfort Gideon. He said when he plays music, it seems to slow Gideon's heart rate, calming him down. He explained that Gideon has always been around music because of Dean's production studio. I knew that would be a powerful image. Dean agreed to play some guitar for Gideon and was kind enough to let us shoot it. I don't know if you know Tony Snow, but he is very good at his work and it was his pictures that captured the emotion of the moment. I just structured the story and provided the narrative. I don't think I'm telling tales out of school, but Tony found it a tough shoot - he even cried a bit while we were in the room.

Later, when we were in the studio mixing it for the news, Tony told me that he's done a lot of shoots over the years (including a lot of Janeway Telethon productions), but this one he found the toughest yet.

I also found it emotional, but not as much during the interview. As you know, when you are recording people, you have the mechanics of the job to think of and you are also listening to their answers, trying to think of the right wording for questions so you get the best information from them. However, in cases like this, you're also struggling because you are watching them closely to know how far you can go in your questioning. It was only when we were in the studio mixing, did I realize what a powerful story this was. As Tony and I edited it together, I was very moved - and every time we ran the tape of Dean playing guitar, we both had tears in our eyes. That's a strange feeling when it's your own work. Usually, it's someone else's pieces that have an impact on you.

When I was heading to the hospital, I was thinking about how rare it was to be allowed inside the room of a dying child. I also knew - journalistically - it would be compelling for the viewer if I did a standup there. But again, I left it in Dean's hands. I told him I had put together some words about Gideon and his family and could record it in the room while he was sitting by the bed, but only if he was comfortable with that setting. Again, without hesitation, he said he had no problem with that. I found it amazing that he and Stevie were willing to put so much trust in us (two strangers) and all they asked is that we show Gideon 'dignity' with our story.

As we were packing up to leave the room, I noticed Stevie had gone to the side of Gideon's bed and was staring intently at him. I knew right away I was looking at what would possibly be the best shot for the story. But, as you know in journalism, much of what we do comes down to a judgment call, and I decided that to ask if we could record a little more would be overstepping the boundaries. So, I left it alone.

When we got outside the room, we walked quite a ways down the hallway without speaking. I finally looked at Tony and just said 'wow.' And saw that he had tears in his eyes again.

One other thing I want to mention, when I got home from my son's performance tonight, and after covering the Bell Island deaths of three kids today, I checked on Dean's family's website and saw that he had posted a note just moments before. Gideon died today around noon. It's just been a real sad day all around.

And now, I've just read your words about Gideon. And I want to say thank you. Reading your column and all the well-thought-out comments people have posted to the CBC website story re-assures me that Tony and I handled this story well. Thanks again for your comments.

Rod

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  • Megan
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I worked with Rod at CBC St. John's about ten years ago before moving to CBC North. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Merry Christmas to both of you.