No Mercy

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Why media aren't obliged to cover "the positive"

In Saturdays Telegram, there is a letter to the editor, complaining about its coverage a week earlier of the lawsuit launched by people who have been through the provinces residential schools.

About 3,000 former residents mostly Inuit and Metis say they suffered the same abuse as students in other residential schools across Canada. They are attempting to launch a class action lawsuit, because they cannot afford to present their cases one at a time. This is the point upon which the judge will rule.

The Telegram letter is not online, but the writer, a James Lewis, opens by recalling a conversation he once had with a former resident of Mount Cashel, who claimed he saw nothing but kindness at the orphanage.

Lewis then complains that theres no mention of kindness in The Telegram story about residential schools. He goes on to talk about various public schools and institutions established over the years to help those in need.

In times past, government legislated and taxed to build and staff those schools, Lewis writes. And before that, teachers and nurses and doctors, like the Moravian missionaries and the Grenfell people volunteered to come and work in remote places, often for small reward I find it hard to believe that all these good intentions have produced nothing better than what you report in your front-page story. Surely there must be another side, which you will perhaps let us see on another day something about kindness, generosity, respect and loving care.

This type of letter pops up with some regularity in this province, particularly when an institutional-abuse story is making headlines. The Sunday Express followed the Mount Cashel story with some vigour, and was often criticized for focusing too much on the negative.

Mount Cashel did a lot of good, people would say. Why dont you tell that story too?

I fielded a lot of calls like that, when I sat at the editors desk. So I will repeat now what I said then, for all those who still cling to this misguided point of view.

It isnt news when anything be it institution, person or machine works as intended.

For example, an airplane lands safely, without incident. Not news.

An airplane crashes, killing all on board. Big news.

A parent raises a healthy, well-adjusted child. Not news at all. But when a parent abuses or even murders a child, that makes major headlines.

A policeman enforces the law to the best of his ability. So what? A policeman gets busted for taking bribes from the mob? Tell me more about that

More to the point, an orphanage raises children in a caring, nurturing environment. Nice, but its working as it should. It isnt news. But when an orphanage physically and sexually abuses children in its care, thats a blockbuster. The world needs to know about that.

When someone accused our newspaper of being too negative, I responded with a line learned from publisher Michael Harris:

We are not concerned about positive or negative. We are concerned about accurate versus inaccurate.

Fortunately - and coincidentally - there was also a balancing viewpoint in Saturdays paper. Columnist Bob Wakeham wrote about a CBC documentary he produced in 1997 about Belevedere Orphanage, operated by the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy.

Again, people will point out all the good that was done by the Sisters of Mercy. But consider this: of the 43 former residents of Belvedere who were contacted by the CBC, 38 told stories of physical abuse.

Mercy, indeed.

Its not only the average Joe who doesnt understand what constitutes a news story. Our premier is guilty of the same mistake. On June 9 (not to be confused with yesterday's outburst), while talking on Open Line about our health care system, Williams attacked the media for not accentuating the positive. Heres the quote:

You know whats lost here, which really saddens me and really sickens me? Williams said. There are thousands and tens of thousands of wonderful stories that come out of that place over there, and every other hospital in this province. There are tens of thousands of health care professionals that are doing an absolutely outstanding job. There are thousands and thousands of patients who are delighted with the health care that they get, and all we get from the media is the negativity and the bad stories and the tough stories. I think it is about time people started to congratulate the health care system in this province.

Yeah. Whatever.

The premier, like many in this province, doesnt realize its not the job of the media to stand behind him, singing in the choir.

Their job is to be in his face, asking tough questions.

Its a fundamental law that will not change in a free society.

However, as we saw yesterday, the premier has some trouble debating contrary ideas and dealing with tough questions.

If he cant take the heat, he really should get out of the kitchen.

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  • paul
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    The good of the orphanages was definitely overshadowed by the pedophiles who operated within its walls. The big problem I have is when people who are aware of this problem of abuse deny it, as in the case of Jim Hickey who was forced into admission of his abuse. Then there is the Church who quietly tries to cover up this abuse by moving the perpetrators around and hide and stonewall the evidence in the courts. Without the church's consent many of these crimes may never have happened. Good for Michael Harris to work so hard to expose the truth at the time. Unfortunately the Telegram chose not to cover the story initially when it came out years before. The truth is not always glamorous.