It’s called a “pick up” or a “death knock,” and it’s among the most unpleasant tasks a general assignment reporter on the city desk can draw.
The most experienced of our breed can get a grieving mother to unchain her door, make a pot of tea, and unspool woeful stories of her lost love, usually urged on by an invitation to “set the record straight” about son Jimmy the Bank Robber or make sure Little Emily the Heroin Addict isn’t misremembered. The most tenacious of us leave the widow’s home with an entire photo album under our arm so there are no pictures left for media outlets late to the tea party.
This is another one of those tasks that journalism school can’t prepare you for.
So many years ago, in Deep Cove, B.C., a nine-year-old boy left home on his bicycle early one morning. When he didn’t return for lunch, his parents wandered the neighbourhood, calling his name. When the police later knocked on their door, they said the helmet-less boy had been found at the bottom of a cliff. It was assumed he’d accidentally plunged to his death.
My assignment: knock once again on the parents’ door, get a few quotes about proposed B.C. bike helmet law, and a photo of their lost boy.
Two hours after he’d been found dead, I got out of the cab to face the long driveway to their ranch-style home. Although I’d rehearsed potential questions and condolences in my head, as I approached the front door, I began to giggle like a mad woman.
At the time, I was taking 60 mg a day of prednisone to knock out the runaway inflammation around my heart and lungs from my recently diagnosed lupus. But it wasn’t corticosteroid mania that made me laugh. It was nerves and shame, rooted in immaturity. I’d never before spoken to anyone who had just lost a child and couldn’t convince myself it was my business to do so then.
By the time I knocked at their door, the corners of my lips were still curling upwards; suppressed chortles escaped my throat, as though I was laughing at an inside joke.
When the stricken mother opened the door, my laughing words spilled out. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m from the Vancouver Province . . .” She closed the door as I was still making the pitch.
The story the next day ran with only a photo of the bike at the cliff’s bottom; a reminder that I’d failed at my first pick up.
Human drama is dampened
The need to make a pick-up or a death knock has diminished with the rise of social media. Instead, young journalists troll grieving friends’ or families’ Facebook pages to scavenge photos of dead and sick children, lifting quotes off social media. Instead of making cold calls, they send emails. The human drama is dampened and the heart of the tragedy is lost.
Young journalists prefer to keep the face-to-face contact out of their reporting. It’s a nuisance and a throwback. They also prefer to leapfrog over the role of “general assignment” reporter to something more glamourous, highbrow or movie-worthy.
I was a writing coach for summer students and interns for more than a decade, and also a lecturer at the Carleton School of Journalism. I can’t think of one young journalist who aspired to be a general assignment reporter. Instead, they covet foreign reporting or writing long-form features for newspapers or, preferably, magazines.
How can you cover a firefight from a foreign locale if you’ve never covered a five-alarm blaze back home? How can you write 5,000-word magazine feature when you’ve never structured a 500-word piece from city hall with a provocative lede (opening), suspense, exposition, and conclusion?
Most journalism students have at least undergraduate degrees or even master’s degrees. Their parents didn’t pay for all that fancy education so they could write up press releases or race to the low-income housing development to see if a worm had really been found in a can of Dr. Pepper.
Recently, I helped a j-student I mentor apply for jobs as an intern at a raft of magazines that she’d never read. She has zero desire to cover crime, cops, courts or city hall — the four c’s at the core of news reporting that young journalists students should cut their teeth on. There is nothing wrong with thinking big, but working as a general assignment reporter and learning to cover every type of story is essential if you want to know how to structure a more complex story, or ask essential questions to explain a difficult issue.
Lupus in constant flare
Still, by the time I was in my fourth year at the Toronto Star, I was desperate to get off general assignment.
My lupus had been in a constant flare since I’d taken a job at the Star four years earlier.
I’d discovered my illness had a rhythm that seemed to coincide with menstruation. From the time I ovulated until when my period began, the pain in my joints, or sometimes tightness around my lung, got progressively worse. Autoimmune diseases disproportionately strike women during their childbearing years. In the case of lupus, 90 per cent of sufferers are female between the ages of 15 and 45. Something about the rise and fall of my hormones sparked disease activity but medical researchers didn’t know what. They still don’t.
I could also see that the unpredictability of general assignment work, marked by night shifts, difficult and erratic assignments, was not good for my health. I’d also come to question the importance and impact of so many of my stories, whether it was shouting questions at Nancy Reagan, wife of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, during the G8 summit, or writing about teen prostitutes and having to pretend I was a teen prostitute for the photo (see above) or following marathon swimmer Vicki Keith across the Great Lakes and riding on her shoulders before crossing Lale Superior. It was all fun, but irrelevant. Stories that really mattered, like the outcome of the elementary school teachers strike were covered by beat reporters. I wanted to be responsible for a topic area and cover it from all directions, so I could break stories and reveal hidden issues.
I’d applied for beat jobs — environment and education, in particular —but had only gotten a courtesy interview. I guess I wasn’t seen as a serious candidate. But after covering the massacre at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, I finally earned an in-depth assignment that I thought could lead to bigger things.
It wasn’t exactly a ‘beat’ but close to it. I was to spend six months covering the selection of the Ontario delegates who would eventually select the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, who one day might become the next Prime Minister.
The Star is a big “L” Liberal paper, which hoped to see the next leader defeat Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives.
My first assignment was to take all of the Liberal powerbrokers out to lunch. They all had a power play to make, mostly political but sometimes sexual. It was a minefield. They all wanted something from the Star, an endorsement, a favourable story about their candidate or an unfavourable story about their rival. I existed as someone to be charmed, cheated or cajoled into giving them what they wanted. I quickly learned that real scoops were unlikely, but instead my luncheons led to “controlled leaks” from various Liberal backroom boys to the benefit or detriment of someone.
My stories documented every possible dirty trick, sneak attack and prank that would be committed in the process of democracy.
A fake asbestos scare was concocted to keep Paul Martin supporters away from a delegate selection meeting. Locations of meetings were changed at the last minute; or delegates were wrongly told the location had been changed. Saboteurs posed as party officials to intimidate Martin supporters. Fake lists of delegates were distributed to make supporters vote for the wrong people. Prank calls were made to police to stop the bussing of delegates to meetings.
My stories exposing Liberals as cheats didn’t make my career. Not by a long shot. It made the Liberal paper I worked for uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the hunt for these stories was exhausting. The delegate selection meetings were on weekends and dragged on into the wee hours of weekday work nights. I’d hobble around, on swollen knees and ankles. I wondered what I was doing to my health and if it would ever end.
In the midst of all this, my Ottawa-based boyfriend learned he’d been posted permanently to the capital. It seemed like an escape route had suddenly been provided.
After four years as a general assignment reporter at Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper, I wondered if I had the courage to leave my “dream job,” or at the very least, reconsider whether this line of work was detrimental to my health.