The Death of Con Boland and a Time to Grieve
20 years ago, there were few bigger names in Edmonton, (if you don't count politicians or athletes), than Con Boland. He did portrait photography for everyone from Pierre Trudeau to Wayne Gretzky, along with dozens of other famous Canadians. His name was also in the headlines for bizarre encounters with former girlfriends and he once had acid thrown in his face.
Boland died last week from reported heart problems at the age of 69. As the local media tried to get a report of his death confirmed, a grieving family was upset by requests for confirmation and comment that came so quickly.
Boland's story provides an important lesson on how the families of famous people need to be prepared in a terribly difficult time.
Reading the News on Facebook
The news of Con Boland’s death came last Tuesday afternoon, but I didn’t learn about it on the TV news, or in a newspaper. A friend of Boland’s revealed his death in a Facebook post.
A social media post such as this causes a real problem for traditional media. It can’t report what’s being talked about on Facebook as fact. It needs to get confirmation. That’s one problem. The other is timeliness. Prior to the days of social media, the only competition to get a story confirmed and on the air came from other media competitors. Now the length of time before people first see a story on Facebook and then see it in the newspaper or on the TV news is a similar competitive reality for mainstream media. The longer it takes to get that story on the air, or in the paper can hurt credibility. Let’s face it; something you saw on Facebook two days before it’s finally in the newspaper doesn’t look good. We still expect traditional media to be on top of major events, despite countless cutbacks in reporters and other personnel.
In the case of Boland’s death, confirmation in the media didn’t come until the next day. While most people likely don’t see this as much of a big deal, I’m pretty sure media outlets want to get a story like this confirmed and on the air as soon as possible. That was the way the game worked when I was in the business 25 years ago and I don’t think much has changed.
Sometimes though getting the story confirmed can be an issue.
A Grieving Family
I don’t think there’s a journalist anywhere who likes contacting a family member or friend to confirm a person’s death. I know I didn’t when I was in the business. I usually apologized to the person for having the ask the questions about the reported death, but then as tactfully as possible, asked if it was true. If it was, a series of follow-up questions ensued, including how old the person was, when he or she died, what did they die from and the one that was the hardest – could we do an on air or on camera interview?
As hard as it is for a journalist to ask these questions, I’m sure it’s even more difficult for a family member or friend to answer them, as was the case in Boland’s death.
A media source of mine in Edmonton has told me that when the media started asking people around the Boland family if his death could be confirmed and if somebody could go on camera to honour his memory, family members got upset, feeling they weren’t given enough time to grieve before being asked to react.
Awhile later the media got a call from a family spokesperson and interviews were done with several media outlets. There’s no question though, the requests from the media put a strain on the family.
A Tough Time to Talk
A situation like what happened after Boland’s death isn’t unique. Family members want far more time to grieve and aren’t prepared to speak about the death, or even what a person like Boland meant to photography, or the community. That’s understandable. I can’t blame them for that. I also don’t blame them for being upset when the media does come calling wanting somebody to talk.
I also can’t criticize the media for wanting to get the story confirmed and get it on the air with some depth. Don’t forget that Facebook post started the clock ticking in terms of getting the story confirmed and on the air. Like it or not, social media has become a factor in the way news operations are run. Whether it’s a story that emerges, or somebody’s reaction to it, traditional media constantly follows developments in social media because it can provide reporters with a huge edge.
Why a Media Spokesperson Works
I suggest when a prominent person dies, or is involved in anything newsworthy such as an arrest for a major crime, those close to the person should expect calls from the media. In the case of a death, the immediate family should ask somebody fairly close to the person who died to act as a spokesperson. The media would prefer speaking to somebody as close to the person who died as possible, such as a spouse or a child, but knows that isn’t always possible, so it will be happy with somebody connected to the family to confirm some details, talk about the person and any preliminary plans for a funeral.
The main purpose this accomplishes is giving the media what it wants, which is a confirmation and some content to use for the story, while giving the family what it wants; time to grieve without being pestered by the media.
The Right to Privacy
You may be asking the question - what about the right to privacy a family expects in a situation following a death? Shouldn’t the media back off and wait until somebody from the family wants to speak?
Simply put, that’s not reality when it comes to well known people. When a story starts on Facebook of a prominent person in any city dying, it’s the media’s obligation to confirm the report and provides details on the story.
We have no problem when this happens to a celebrity from another part of the country or the world, but when it happens at home we get defensive and suggest the media’s becoming too aggressive. Maybe we’re just too sensitive because it’s happening here and affects people we know instead of somebody we saw in a movie or in a video. Those people have families too and they likely were asked the same questions by the media when they died.
I do have a feeling the personal lives of people and their families receive less media scrutiny than they used to. As an example, it’s become much more common for the cause of a person’s death not to be reported in the media. That used to be an important detail that was rarely left out. It’s also less common to say somebody has died, but instead talk about their “passing”.
I’m not sure we deal with death better than we used to, but I do know it brings out the same emotions for families and difficulty for the media as it did decades ago.