By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
Graduates of Western University’s journalism school told a London conference focusing on end of life issues how reporting on death and dying has changed them as reporters and as human beings.
Alexander Ballingall, Lauren Pelley and Adela Talbot all graduated with master’s degrees from the university’s journalism program last year.
They appeared at the conference, entitled A Life Well Lived-Current Issues at the End of Life, at the London Convention Centre Wednesday (May 2) alongside one of their instructors from the program, Meredith Levine, a former CBC producer.
Last year, the trio, along with 13 other students who signed up for Levine’s journalism course on health and medicine, were given a unique opportunity.
“I decided to turn it into the first ever journalism course on dying,” Levine said. “I worked at CBC for a decade. I partnered with CBC Online to be a media outlet for the work.”
The students prepared stories on palliative care, people facing death, caregivers who work with the dying and other end-of-life topics.
The stories were published and aired on CBC’s website last spring.
Talbot’s story focused on shortcomings within Canada when it comes to pediatric palliative care.
She interviewed a Port Colborne couple whose son and daughter died from Sanfilippo syndrome, an inherited, degenerative metabolic disease.
An emotional person by nature, Talbot said she was concerned going into the interview about losing her composure and so she prepared questions ahead of time and focused on taking notes instead of really connecting with the family.
That course of action, she said, was a mistake.
“I shouldn’t have prepared for that interview. I should have just gone in and let them talk,” Talbot said. “It was very formulaic, very rehearsed. I was doing that to sort of curb my emotions mostly. The better story would have been if I just went in, asked them about their experience and asked them questions based on their experience and just let them take the lead.
“And it would have shown me as more understanding, compassionate and to have really have listened to them.”
Since the interview, Talbot, who now works for the university’s Western News newspaper, has changed how she approaches difficult news subjects.
“That was the last interview, actually, that I went into with questions prepared. I haven’t gone into a difficult interview with questions prepared since then.”
Pelley, who wrote an article on how losing a partner can shorten a person’s lifespan, said the lessons learned from the project are helpful for reporters who often have to deal with death when covering car crashes, murders or other tragedies.
But, she added, such lessons can apply to any career.
“The earlier you learn how to handle these emotional scenarios, the better,” she said. “For a group of future journalists, and the same things apply to medical students as well, the earlier you learn how to cope, how to deal with people who are under such emotional stress, it just gives you a head start. It gives you more time to practise and to understand how you’re going to handle those situations.”
Now a reporter and producer at CHCH News in Hamilton, Pelley said her experience with the project at journalism school taught her to look at subjects from the perspective of not just telling a story about someone dying, but telling a story about someone’s life, without the fear of bringing up the difficult subject of death.
“Just the fact that even though it’s such a difficult topic of conversation, it’s one that we really need to talk about… whether we’re journalists or doctors or whatever profession, or just as human beings. It’s given me the incentive to ask those difficult questions, to confront the topic.”
The students’ stories, and how the project affected them, kicked off the daylong conference, which was touted as a “geriatric medicine refresher day” for people who care for the elderly.
Nearly 500 health care professionals came out to the gathering to learn about the latest strategies and ideas for caring for elderly patients.
Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry’s geriatric medicine division hosted the conference with support from St. Joseph’s Health Care, London’s Specialized Geriatric Services, the provincial Health and Long-term Care Ministry and the Southwestern Ontario Regional Geriatric Program.