It seemed an astonishing, out-of-touch accusation. Last Friday, after days of cascading, horrifying media reports about alleged assaults at St. Michael’s College, the prestigious Toronto private boys school, two mothers of students walked up to a clutch of reporters staked outside the school and berated them.
“You’re part of the problem!” exclaimed one, who had just emerged from an emergency town hall with police and school administrators. An off-camera reporter shouted back: Weren’t they concerned about the allegations, about rumours of a cover-up? “I’m more concerned with what the media is doing to the school around this incident,” the mother responded sharply.
Clips of the exchange were posted to Twitter by Tina Yazdani, a reporter for CityNews, and cameraperson Tony Fera.
Then the barrage began.
Journalists and others noted indignantly that it was the media that had alerted the police about the attacks, which include an alleged sexual assault recorded on video and shared on social media that authorities have said qualifies as child pornography. They accused the women of not caring about the victims.
What might have prompted the moms to lash out? Other parents, too, were caught on video yelling at reporters after the meeting, the heated exchanges tweeted out. So I sent an e-mail to Christine Nielsen, the one I’ve quoted. Our children attend an extracurricular program together; we are not friends.
She was skittish. She had been ID’d online, her social media feeds flooded with ugly, hateful messages. Trolls had called her a “rape apologist,” and mused baselessly that her son might have been one of the perpetrators. Even the editor in chief of the Toronto Star, Irene Gentle, tweeted: “When something bad happens, the media did not cause the bad thing to happen.”
That’s true, as far as it goes. But does it mean reporters don’t have to consider the effects of what they do? Does it excuse all of their other actions?
Ms. Nielsen agreed to an interview. What she said took me aback: Over the previous few days, as the story had broken, students had been menaced by adults on the subway, called rapists. Boys were arriving at school to find police at the door with guns. A bomb threat had shaken the student body. (Another was called in last Monday.) Students were being attacked on social media.
“The kids are terrified of going to school, terrified of picking up their phones, of seeing what’s on their Snapchat, their Instagram,” explained Ms. Nielsen. “They’re all just trying to process this. As a parent, it’s really hard to watch your children go through something like this.”
And then this: During the question-and-answer session at the town hall, some parents said their sons – as young as 11 years old – were being hounded by reporters for on-camera comments between the nearby subway station and school. Other parents said members of the media had offered their sons money for a copy of the alleged sexual assault video. That is: they were being asked to trade in child pornography. The amounts were vague and no one seemed to know exactly which outlet was making the offer. All they knew was they were under siege.
That feeling was compounded when the closed-door meeting was briefly brought to a halt because a reporter had been discovered in the auditorium and removed by security. Parents who had, up to that point, felt safe to share their experiences, to discuss their children’s state of mind and their own feelings about how the school had handled the situation, felt exposed.
In fact, in her report which aired that night, Ms. Yazdani is seen chasing a series of parents as they left the meeting. Three declined comment, but they ended up on air, anyway: private individuals made public without their consent, a whiff of guilt hanging over them simply for not wanting to talk during a difficult moment they had no role in creating.
(I asked Ms. Yazdani for comment. She responded that she had passed my query to City’s public-relations department, which did not get back to me by deadline.)
Ms. Nielsen told me that, during the meeting, both the police and the school administration had reassured parents that the victims of the alleged attacks, and their families, were receiving extensive support. They were also told the alleged perpetrators had been expelled. And so, when reporters shouted at her as she was making her way to the subway, she reacted in anger, upset with the focus of their questions.
“My interpretation at the time was that the reporter wanted to do a story that wasn’t about the victim, it wasn’t about the students – it was about blaming and pointing fingers,” she said. “That wasn’t helpful.”
Ms. Nielsen noted that the scandal was spurring conversations about culture at St. Mike’s and other schools. “We can create change together. That’s what I would like to see happen.” She sighed, acknowledging that, even by talking about the situation, she might be attacked again. “I may be opening myself up to more hatred, by speaking with you. I don’t want to have to defend my character, because I don’t think that’s fair. And it takes away from the message: How do we solve the problem?”