Leave families out of news coverage

The 2019 federal election year is upon us and Canadian political discourse is moving at a furious pace.

With new information regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair surfacing by the minute, journalists have been admirably vigilant in their pursuit of presenting the facts, as they are made available, to the Canadian public.

But amidst the various, thoughtful angles presented across outlets in the coverage of the federal political landscape this week, it was incredibly disappointing to see that a production team felt it appropriate to go to the family home of a former public servant — and present the cringeworthy intrusion that ensued as an exclusive interview.

In the wake of the resignation of Gerald Butts from his post as principle secretary in the office of the prime minister last Monday, a CTV reporter and photographer attempted to conduct and film a clearly unwelcome interview with his spouse, Jodi Butts, on the doorstep of her home.

The exchange was painfully uncomfortable to watch.

The reporter ignored any and all respectful social cues as Jodi Butts sternly, and somehow still politely, requested privacy out of concern for the safety of her children — a response that was remarkably patient and graceful considering the circumstances.

Many lines were crossed here — from the producers who pitched the story, to the reporter who awkwardly and inappropriately knocked on her door and filmed the exchange, to the social media writer who misleadingly positioned the video as Jodi Butts “Speaking out about her husband’s resignation from the PMO.”

Perhaps one day Jodi Butts will decide to give an exclusive interview.

It could be on her extensive and distinguished career as a lawyer, her advocacy for mental health and addictions issues, or on the highly dynamic leadership qualities she possesses on the issues she is passionate about.

I hope that if she does, it is on her own terms.

Until then, as a fellow Windsorite and friend, I support her fierce approach to protecting her family from unwarranted harassment, both online and by members of professional media.

There is a Canadian standard that must be upheld of our professionalism in political and public discourse. It starts with the balance of chasing a story while respecting the boundaries of decency.

We each play a role in shaping our culture by what we allow to happen around us. In this case, journalists, political leaders of all party stripes and citizens alike were forceful in their response to the CTV Vancouver segment.

It was widely criticized and appropriately characterized as an embarrassing ambush and disgraceful move on the part of the CTV Vancouver team involved. While it did not air on national news, the very fact that it was broadcast locally and posted across its network online is deeply concerning.

Each time a line like this is crossed, it must be called out.

Our country is richer when more diverse Canadians consider bringing their talents to roles in service to the public. The negotiation with one’s family to serve is a complex undertaking — the impacts on spouses and children can be wide ranging.

But the type of media spotlight we saw last week, on the families of current or former public servants, is never appropriate.

As I write this, the video remains on the CTV website, clipped shorter to remove the most important message that Jodi Butts articulated: her concern for the safety of her children and request for privacy.

The families of our public servants, and former public servants, deserve personal privacy. While it won’t undo what took place, CTV Vancouver owes Jodi Butts and her family a public apology for the ambush at her home, and for broadcasting the exchange that took place. The video should also be removed from the CTV website, in its entirety, sooner than later.

By all means, do your duty to the public good and chase a story from all ethical and professional angles available.

But be decent. And leave the families out of it.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

(Published in the Toronto Star Sunday, February 24, 2019)