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Vol. 10 | October 2004

Murder-suicide funeral: An assignment to dread

Fresh out of journalism school and anxious not to jeopardize his chance of a CBC job, John MacLean felt he couldn't say no.

By: Matt Fegan
Date: Oct. 14, 2004

Dr. Shirley Turner and her son Zachary.
Dr. Shirley Turner and her son Zachary.

It's the kind of assignment many reporters would rather not get. It's the assignment John MacLean drew in August 2003 when he was three months into a four-month contract as a general assignment reporter with CBC radio in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

A couple walking their dog on a beach in Conception Bay found the bodies of a woman and a baby boy. The woman was Dr. Shirley Turner, a Newfoundland doctor who'd been charged with murdering her ex-lover in Pennsylvania. The baby was her 13-month-old son Zachary. The funeral was to be held in the tiny community of Parson's Pond on the west coast of the island. CBC's newsroom in St. John's asked for a radio reporter from the Corner Brook office to cover the weekend funeral. With one reporter on vacation, another already seconded to St. John's and the regular assignment editor away, MacLean was one of only a few reporters available for the job.

Dr. Andrew Bagby: His body was found in a Pennsylvania park in November 2001.
Dr. Andrew Bagby: His body was found in a Pennsylvania park in November 2001.

“All eyes were looking at me because I was the youngest reporter there,” says MacLean, fresh out of journalism school at the University of King's College in Halifax. “I was the only one who didn't have kids, didn't have other commitments. To be blunt, I was the one with no social life.”

He looked into the story. Turner had been charged with killing her ex-lover, Dr. Andrew Bagby, in a park in Latrobe, Pennsylvania after she told him she was pregnant with his child and he told her he was seeing another woman. In November 2001, Turner, a former high school teacher who became a doctor, fled home to St. John's before charges were filed. She said she wanted to be closer to a child who'd been injured in an automobile accident — one of three children from previous marriages. In July 2002, she gave birth to Bagby's son, Zachary, in St. John's. Pennsylvania authorities and the Canadian Supreme Court were negotiating to extradite Turner from Canada at the time of her alleged suicide, on the condition the death penalty would not be sought.

Who would be mourning?

Kathy Porter, executive producer of CBC Radio news and current affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador , says despite the wide coverage of the case, the public still did not know a lot about Turner. She says the funeral was a chance to learn more about her background. “The coverage of Shirley Turner was overwhelmingly negative immediately after her suicide,” says Porter. “Still, she was respected in her own community as a teacher. We wanted to know who would be the ones genuinely mourning her death.”

MacLean was immediately uncomfortable with the idea of covering the funeral.

“Regardless of what Shirley Turner did and regardless of what her background was – and she clearly was a disturbed individual who clearly had problems – I felt the family really had nothing to do with that,” he says. “A funeral is not for the dead. It's for people who are living and trying to cope with a death. It's hard enough to cope without having reporters there during such a private moment.”

He discussed the issue with Bernice Hillier who was acting as assignment editor at the time. Hillier disagreed with MacLean. She says the news value of the funeral meant it was too important to miss. “We felt we needed to cover the funeral because of the appetite out there, in particular with the St. John's audience,” she says. “Everyone was horrified by the story and so people had a desire to know more about it.”

Hillier was no stranger to doing assignments she was uncomfortable with. In 2000, she covered the story of Samantha Walsh, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who went missing in Fleurs de Lys, Newfoundland. Hillier spent two weeks in the small community before the girl was found dead. Police charged a teenage boy in the community with murdering her. Hillier says despite the difficulty of the time, the Walsh family welcomed her into their home. The warm reception, Hillier says, helped her feel more comfortable with covering the story.

Her most difficult assignment, however, was still to come. “I was asked to go back to the community and interview Samantha Walsh's classmates about the loss of their friend, within hours of her body being found.” She drew the line here between professional obligation and human emotion. “At some point you have to say, ‘Enough is enough,'” says Hillier. “I point-blank refused the assignment. I knew the decision would not be looked upon favourably but I said, ‘There's no way I can go and speak to those 13 and 14-year-old kids like that.'”

He felt he couldn't say no

As a newcomer to the business and the CBC newsroom, MacLean says he felt he was not in a position to refuse his assignment. “I felt if I turned it down I would jeopardize any kind of future I had in the business,” he says. “That contract I had was for four months and at that point it looked like it could have turned into something else. I didn't want to put that on the line because obviously I wanted to keep working.”

MacLean overcame his nerves and completed the assignment. He interviewed the priest and an estranged uncle of Turner after the funeral. He says the rest of Turner's family and relatives refused to talk to the media and were hostile towards any signs of their presence at the funeral. He says at least two family members warned him “in no uncertain terms” to leave the church grounds.

“That was the first time in my journalism career, from being a student to being a reporter, that I was ever told to get out and seen such a hostile reaction to my presence. I felt totally like a tabloid reporter and it was not what I had signed up to do.”

John MacLean: Covered the funeral of Dr. Shirley Turner in August 2003.
John MacLean: Covered the funeral of Dr. Shirley Turner in August 2003.

Funeral “had to be covered”

Bruce Wark, associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, believes journalists like MacLean have “an individual power to decide if a story conflicts with their personal ethics.”He says he would not have felt comfortable covering the funeral of Turner but he understands the need for a reporter to have gone. “Journalists have a responsibility as story-tellers,” says Wark. “The funeral was simply the latest chapter in the on-going story of Shirley Turner. Her case was very much in the public eye so the funeral had to be covered.”

Keith Maskill, a former television reporter with Radio-Canada and now a staff representative with the Canadian Media Guild, says most reporters have found themselves in a similar position to MacLean at some point in their career. He says he was no exception but found a way of approaching such an issue. “I always set a rule for myself that I would make my arguments clear if I was uncomfortable covering a story,” he says. “If I couldn't come up with a better story, I told myself I should shut up and do the story.”

Maskill advises reporters who, like MacLean, are uncomfortable with covering a story, to meet with their assignment editor and producer to discuss their issue with the story. He says it is often possible to either exchange assignments with another reporter or to find an angle the journalist is more comfortable with. If no alternative can be found, he says, the reporter has no option but to cover the story. “A reporter does not have an unfettered right to refuse a story,” he says. “If they do, they would most likely face either a dressing down or something more serious.”

MacLean admits he could have contacted the union for guidance. He remembers meeting Gerry Whalen, a regional representative of the Canadian Media Guild, a few weeks before the Turner funeral. MacLean says Whalen encouraged him to contact the union should he ever need its help. On the advice of his CBC colleagues, however, MacLean decided not to. “The other reporters warned me not to call Gerry Whalen,” he says, “because that is a sign to the CBC that you're not a team player. If you get Whalen and the union involved – and I had only been there three months – that was a sign that you would not work for the CBC. I didn't know if that would be true or not, but that's what I was being told and I had no reason to distrust that.”

Whalen does not recall meeting MacLean. He says since he was unaware of the reporter's discomfort with covering the funeral, he is unwilling to comment on the issue.

Glenn Deir, a reporter for CBC Television's Canada Now in St. John's, Newfoundland, can relate to MacLean's difficult assignment. When Canadian corporal Jamie Murphy was killed in Kabul , Afghanistan in January 2004, Deir approached the grieving family at their home. The family agreed to an emotional interview that was broadcast, unedited, on CBC's Newsworld, soon afterwards.

Deir says his experience proves the benefits of overcoming any nerves a reporter might have covering a story. “You can't assume because someone is grieving that they don't want to talk,” he says. “It's a fatal mistake not to bring yourself to go up to the door. If you don't, you're doing a disservice to not only yourself but to the people behind the door because they might very well want to talk. They can use you to speak to a wider audience.”

Not reasons to be proud of

MacLean says he found comfort in the promise of 18 hours overtime pay as well as the chance to appear in a live television broadcast (which never happened). In hindsight, he admits these factors are not reasons to be proud of. He says, all things considered, he is pleased with the job he did on the radio report. “I proved to myself that I could do a story like that because I had never had to before,” says MacLean. “I'd covered sad stuff before but nothing that up-close-and-personal. I did the best I could.”

Hillier says MacLean made the most of a difficult situation. “We sent John on a mission that was almost destined not to succeed, but you always hope you can find something,” she says. “Sometimes people in small communities will surprise you with something they might say or know. But all things considered, John put up the best story we were going to get.”

One year on, MacLean is now a freelance journalist in Halifax . He is currently applying to Law School . He says he learnt a valuable lesson from his experience but would still challenge the assignment if it was handed to him again. “The best thing I learned from that funeral was how to treat a story that you don't want to cover but you have to,” he says. “How to treat something that's got a whole lot of controversy surrounding it and still not vilify the person that's involved. I tried to do it with as much dignity as possible and hopefully that comes across in the report.”

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