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On April 14, 2014, four young men and one woman were brutally stabbed to death at a house party in northwest Calgary. By the next afternoon, the suspect - 22-year-old Matthew de Grood - was in jail and the city was in shock.
It was a horrific tragedy. Emotions spilled over. Families were devastated. It was a time for solemnity and respect.
Nonetheless, within less than 48 hours, Canada’s largest daily paper, the Toronto Star, published intimate details about the victims and the suspect.
De Grood, readers learned, grew up in the Calgary neighbourhood of Scenic Acres. He had completed a degree in psychology from the University of Calgary. A friend described him as “nice, if a bit shy in school.”
Friends and family are reliving that horrible night again this week as the De Grood trial unfolds in Calgary. And, as expected, the media are covering it closely.
Media get a lot of flak over coverage of shocking events - fatal crashes, murders, etc. People feel for family members being doubly traumatized by seeing their personal tragedies play out in public. That compassion is universal, and is shared by those who report the news.
On the other hand, it seems many in this province consider even the slightest intrusion into personal background to be a shameless plunge into sensationalism. We are exploiting tragedy, titillating curious minds - nothing more. This is unfair, to say the least. One can only imagine the outcry if the media suppressed coverage of such gut-wrenching moments.
Who is this victim? Is it the same person I know? Who could do such a thing? Was it a random act? Was it someone the victim knew?
The police hold many of these facts close to their chest - not so much to preserve privacy, but because of a zealous desire to protect evidence.
It’s left to the media to fill in the gaps as accurately as they can.
Yes, people have morbid curiosities. They also have empathy, concern and charity. We want to know more about these terrible stories because they represent the rawness and randomness of the human experience. They help us understand and feel for others and, in turn, teach us about ourselves.
There are boundaries, but they aren’t well-defined.
For example, readers want to know why we’d post a photograph of a smashed up car. In part, it’s because that brutal reality can serve as a visual warning to drivers about the potential cost of losing focus for even a second or two. It can mean lives being changed forever, or lives being lost.
Can we go too far? We can. And readers will let us know when we do.
But don’t expect us to shy away from the ugly side of life. This is the beating heart of news, a mirror on ourselves.
It is, in short, our job.