Musi-Café. The words resonate in a more tragic way now than anyone could have imagined. Once symbolic of music and friendship, the name of the popular Lac-Mégantic watering hole is now inexorably linked to tragedy and loss.
It is understandable then that Andy Blatchford, a reporter with the Canadian Press, found that his most challenging moment in covering the aftermath of the event was approaching the staff of the former downtown bar.
They had begun to gather outside Polyvalente Montignac high school, just two kilometres from the downtown core, where the Red Cross had erected its temporary shelter. They were all hugging each other, Blatchford recalls, sitting underneath a tree away from the entrance to the school. Some of them were wearing Musi-Café t-shirts.
“I sat there, not far from them, for almost an hour,” he recalls. He knew they had lost a lot of friends and coworkers in the accident. “I was so nervous to approach them. I didn’t want to upset them. I thought I’d be rejected.”
When he finally approached the group, he proved himself wrong.
“A couple of them didn’t want to talk to me, but a couple of them did, and they spoke at length and they were happy to talk to me.”
— Andy Blatchford (@AndyBlatchford) July 7, 2013
Why did people choose to talk? For Blatchford, the answer is simple: “First and foremost we’re all humans, right? You have to treat people like human beings, and not just a clip machine.”
For some journalists, this may be a difficult task. After all, it’s the job of the reporter to get clips to tell a story. But first, Blatchford says: “Sometimes if you make the person feel comfortable they’ll tell you a whole bunch of things you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to reveal on their own.”
Firefighters fight blaze in Lac-Megantic after massive train explosions pic.twitter.com/6to3WFktMd
— Andy Blatchford (@AndyBlatchford) July 6, 2013
Beyond telling the stories of the victims’ families, some reporters found covering the tragedy and loss in Lac-Mégantic overwhelming. Blatchford — who was there for nearly 10 days straight starting only a few hours after the event and has returned a handful of times since — says he was able to overcome his distress by focusing on work.
“I had colleagues for sure, and I’ve spoken to them at length and I’ve heard their stories at length, who did have emotional difficulties while speaking to these people or thinking about them afterwards,” he says. “I didn’t. I definitely felt sad — I mean, there’s no way not to — but I think I’m sort of able to separate that when I have, as I sometimes say, my reporter’s hat on.”
Blatchford believes that the reporter’s ability to wear that “hat” depends on personality more than experience.
“Some people say it’s experience. I’ve heard people make that argument. ‘If you have more experience as a reporter, in these types of situations you may have learned how to take a step back and not let yourself get drawn in emotionally.'”
But Blatchford disagrees.
“I personally think it just depends on the reporter’s personality.”
LISTEN: Blatchford talks about Canadian Press policies around accuracy: Accuracy and naming the dead in Lac-Mégantic