By Diana Pereira
It's refreshing to read a book that tells real reporters’ stories from the front lines.
That's Why I'm a Journalist by former CBC journalist and current Ryerson journalism professor Mark Bulgutch is made up of essays from 44 Canadian journalists who write about the most memorable stories that they've covered.
The stories are varied, but most are sad, devastating or eye-opening. Each piece is clearly written and full of detail, often bringing you right to the scene.
If you haven't been lucky enough to have the opportunity to be a foreign correspondent, you get the chance to go behind closed doors with journalists who have been everywhere, from the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge to watching the Berlin Wall come down.
The two themes that stick out in most essays are characters and small details.
Peter Mansbridge, for example, wrote a detailed account of spending time in an underground tunnel at Vimy that is closed to the public. He noticed names of soldiers still etched in the walls in what looked like pencil. A few included drawings. "Someone from Nova Scotia drew a fish. A guy from Quebec drew a canoe. A guy from Ontario drew a maple leaf. A guy from Manitoba ... we weren't all in agreement as to what it was" Mansbridge writes.
Brian Stewart, who reported on the Ethiopian famine for the CBC in the 1980s, offers a stark reminder of what was one of the biggest stories of that decade. Stewart got interviews with "nuns and nurses saying that people were dying because they were just too tired to go on."
The most haunting detail for Stewart? The coughing. It's an ugly thing to read, but important. Stewart and his crew were filming at a feeding centre with 80,000 people dressed in rags. "You might expect 80,000 people to be very loud but all I could really hear was coughing. The prevailing sound was coughing."
There's a story about Karla Homolka in the book. Joyce Napier interviewed the notorious murderer for Societe Radio-Canada. At the end of the interview, Napier asked Homolka what the first thing she wanted to do as a free woman. Her response: "I'd like to have an iced cappuccino. An iced cappuccino from Tim Hortons." It’s an unforgettable and unreal detail.
Reporter Alison Smith covered 9/11 for CBC and interviewed a Canadian man who was only one of four people who escaped from the south tower at the World Trade Center from above the spot where the plane crashed into it. "I often say it was one of the easiest interviews I ever did because all I had to do was let him speak," Smith writes. "The only thing I had to ask was, ‘And then what happened?’"
Before they met for the interview, Smith said the man was so calm and matter-of-fact on the phone that she was afraid that the interview would be emotionless. It ended up being the opposite, so much so that Smith kept in touch with him over the years, even having him over for dinner when he came back to Canada to visit family.
I recommend That's Why I'm a Journalist to anyone who is a news junkie or who simply loves a good story.
Even more so, I recommend the book to seasoned (and maybe tired) journalists since the book is an amazing reminder that jobs that provide rich experiences still exist in media. Young journalists should read it for the same reason.
Diana Pereira is the Digital News Editor for 680NEWS.com and CityNews.ca. When she's not in the newsroom, she's teaching journalism at Ryerson University or photographing Toronto sculptures for her weekly series on CityNews.ca. In her spare time, she writes for J-Source and 416 Mag.