This First Person piece is by Joelle Jalbert, a journalism student in Montreal who aspires to be a court reporter, For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ,
On a morning this past fall, my dad sits me down at the dining table and waits for my mom to come join us.
Something serious has happened. They know something I don’t.
I’m a journalism student who spends a lot of time in courtrooms, because I get to shadow a judge as part of my law minor. But that day, I wasn’t in a newsroom or a courtroom.
I should’ve known before my parents, but I hadn’t yet looked at the news.
When my mom joins us, my dad tells me someone was killed yesterday.
He says her name, Romane Bonnier,
I say it back to him, like I was asking a question.
He confirms her name.
I immediately think it must be someone with the exact same name as my friend who I’ve known since I was 14.
I look up her Facebook profile on my phone to clear up any confusion. I expect to see her telling friends that it was another person, that she is safe.
She’s not online, but I see one person posted broken heart emojis on her profile.
When I scroll down, I see another message, a terrible message: “RIP”
But I still think there must be some mistake.
I race upstairs, get out my laptop and open all the news sites I can think of. There are articles. I click on one, nervously.
It says she was 24 years old — just like my friend. She was killed in front of her apartment, the same street where my friend lives.
This uneasy feeling takes over and I have to come to the realization: it’s her.
I wonder what would have happened if I’d been scheduled to be at the radio newsroom meeting at school this morning. When I listen to the student broadcast, I learn they had sent someone to report live outside my friend’s apartment, where she was killed less than 24 hours earlier.
At this moment, I can’t help but wonder: what if I had been sent to cover this story?
I would’ve come into the meeting room, trying to finish my last sips of coffee. I would’ve been told by the editor that a woman had been killed yesterday, and that my assignment was to go there and talk to witnesses.
I knew Romane lived in the area around McGill University, but I hadn’t been to her new apartment. I might not have known it was her, unless I recognized someone laying flowers.
I continue to read the articles about what happened to her, trying to find whatever answers I can.
That is when I see there has been an arrest, and the person had already appeared in court. I know the judge who saw the suspect. If not for a schedule change, I would have been shadowing him when the suspect was arraigned.
The days that followed were strange to say the least.
I sat in other court proceedings with the judge who had seen the man alleged to have killed my friend. I had so many questions, but was not allowed to ask them. The pressure to stay professional also made me not want to tell the judge about my connection to this case.
I sat in classes filled with people who discussed coverage of my friend’s death — some of them writing about her.
My teachers discussed the ethics of crime reporting in class, while I received notifications on my phone from journalists wanting interviews. I felt like the material shown in class did not reflect how journalists truly act in the real world — and that made me frustrated.
Why weren’t some reporters taking more care when they reached out to Romane’s loved ones? When someone is going through such grief, shouldn’t a journalist be clear why they’re speaking with them? That their conversations will be quoted?
I knew what those reporters were trying to do, but her other friends and family didn’t. I felt obligated to defend those requesting interviews, since I was the only journalist in our group of friends.
But some things made me feel ashamed of my profession.
I felt an immense amount of responsibility for how my friend would be portrayed in the media.
This is when I really understood something a teacher told us in our first year: Never ask victims of a tragedy how they feel. If you don’t know the answer to that question already, go into a different field.
As journalists, it can be easy to get desensitized by news. After all, someone’s worst day is an assignment like any other for us.
But experiencing this grief while having an insider’s view of what it takes to report a story, I feel now, more than ever, ready to be a journalist.
We write stories about people. We should not forget the people behind the stories.
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