On the late David Dewees and trial by sensationalist media

black_ribbon2277879Anyone who knows me, and my story, knows that I have no tolerance for child abuse – with very compelling reasons why. Nothing so horrible was alleged in the case of the late David Dewees. While no doubt serious the charges, which led to him taking his own life long before they would go to court, seemed to have more to do with the question of intent and yet something else about all this has been bothering me. It turns out it was a memory, stuck like food between my teeth. The sudden, widely-publicized nature of his death (usually treated with anonymity in the media) was starkly seen for what it was, at least in part – a direct result of the media’s over-the-top coverage of his arrest.

Back in 1985, when I was a radio reporter in St. Catharines, thirty-two men were charged in a bust of the Fairview Mall washroom. One of the men, a Sunday school teacher, married with two kids, committed suicide when his name was released to the public. What also upset me, however, and the feelings have returned with the coverage of this case involving the Jarvis Collegiate teacher, was that the local St. Catharines newspaper, The Standard, was the only major media outlet in the region not to release all the names to the public – including the man who, on the morning the charges were announced, burned himself alive when he torched his car out in farm country to the west.

Our newsroom had a very vigorous discussion as to whether the names should be released – I was dumbfounded but tried to make my case for the feelings of those involved, their families, and the minor-unless-sensationalized charges involved. I lost and, although I was never compelled to read the names myself, I was deeply ashamed of my boss and his it’s-all-about-the-ratings excuses. I don’t remember much about the follow-up other than most of the accused pleaded out and were given non-custodial sentences.

Back to the now deceased Jarvis teacher – the Sunday evening edition of Global News included a reporter going up to the front door of David Dewees’ parents in west-end Toronto for a reaction to their loved one’s suicide that morning. I don’t know how the person who answered the door maintained her composure long enough to say that, under the circumstances, there would be no public statements. That reporter, Lama Nicolas, probably would have asked next when they might begin to feel a sense of closure – a phrase that should be lobotomized from every reporter’s vocabulary. Such is the calibre of journalism in its ugliest, sensationalist form – television.

Late addition: CTV Toronto reporter John Musselman also knocked (very loudly) on the door of the family home Monday. No one responded and Mr. Musselman is now on my list of media cake-holes, speaking of which The Star’s Rosie DiManno – who I will not dignify with a link (but who is properly handled here) – should be ridden out of town along with the idiot there who incorrectly overstated the charges against Mr. Dewees, which may or may not have influenced his final decision.

Suicide column sparks reader fury – thestar.com

Here’s a link to the shallow, intrusive Global report.

Regardless of how upsetting the now-forever-unproven charges against David Dewees may have been to Global viewers – and the same home visit likely would have been made whether or not Mr. Dewees had ended his life – I fail to see any need to get a comment from a family member in such circumstances. Were “journalists”, whether they be beat or “spot” reporters, to have consciences that they might examine they would know that any thinking viewer, which admittedly might not be among theirs, has no need for first-hand evidence that the accused had a family, much less what they have to say. Getting their refusal to talk on the record merely satisfies the reporter’s ego, cementing the already unsettling report in tabloid form, as if the refusal to answer questions is beneath the morally-bereft urge to ask them.

CTV quoted Jarvis Collegiate teacher Mary Jane Purcell on Monday, speaking of her colleague, “He was an extremely good man and a brilliant teacher — and he was driven to his death. And I’m very sad about this.”

Now I only hope that his family doesn’t have to run a media gauntlet during the next few days of such acute mourning. I found it particularly ironic that the Star was selected to carry the notice of his death but the words are dignified and loving:

Dewees 1569204_20091005204548_000+DP1569204_CompJPG_231445David James Redington Dewees February 16, 1977-October 3, 2009 Born Toronto, February 16, 1977, died October 3, 2009, in Toronto. Beloved son of Don and Ann Dewees; brother of Jonathan (Sarah); grandson of Margaret Taylor; nephew of Don (Lynn), Nancy (deceased) (Greg), Mary Kay (John), Richard (deceased); cousin of Christy (Steve), Katie (Mike), Jamie, Daniel (Karen) and Robert (Shannon). David showed an early love for both language and music, passions he pursued throughout his life. He attended Pioneer Camp as a camper, then served as a leader in various capacities. He graduated from Royal St. George’s College in Toronto and Queen’s University where he majored in English and Classics. He taught English and Classics, first at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute and then at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto. He was beloved and respected by students and teachers. He sang in choirs throughout school and was a member of the tenor section of the Mendelssohn Choir in Toronto. He devoted his life to teaching and mentoring. His sudden death is a great sorrow to his family, friends and students, both past and present. Friends may call at the Turner & Porter Yorke Chapel, 2357 Bloor St. W., at Windermere, east of Jane subway from 3-5 and 7-9 p.m. Thursday. Funeral Service will be held at Runnymede United Church, 432 Runnymede Rd., on Friday, October 9 at 11 a.m. If desired, donations may be made in David’s memory to Ontario Pioneer Camp staff bursaries or Toronto Mendelssohn Choirs.