When Journalists become the news: Victoria George Pazzano

I went to the visitation for Victoria George-Pazzano yesterday, the young Toronto mother who died after suffering an asthma attack while on vacation in Mexico. The one who's family had so much trouble bringing her back to Toronto because of the swine flu fears.
Victoria's sister Caroline George is one of my students in the post-graduate journalism program at Centennial College in Toronto.
I wasn't aware of the connection right away between my own small world and the woman making headlines on the front page of the newspapers; it took about a week until my colleague Lindy Oughtred figured it out after learning about the flurry of emails from our students who are in Caroline's class. 
But once we discovered Victoria was our student's older sister, two things happened: I felt terrible for Caroline and the ordeal her family was going through. But I also wanted our students to be reporters, and use their connection to Caroline to tell another part of the big news story, from a perspective no one in the mainstream media could have possibly known about.
When I suggested this be done, some of the students looked uncomfortable. They were more concerned with sending flowers, organizing trips to the funeral home, and supporting Caroline.
I think even my colleague felt my suggestion of "Write a story about it" seemed a bit awkward and perhaps, even, in poor taste.
In the end, I don't think anyone has done a story yet about Caroline, despite our campus having a student newspaper, an online newspaper called the Toronto Observer, a radio station Observer Radio news, and many Twitter accounts and blogs.
This reminded me of an incident in the fall that happened at school: a young man was caught by the security guard with a 7 in long hunting knife. He'd been carrying it while casually walking through the halls of our campus, at the Centre for Creative Communications, where the Journalism school is located, at 951 Carlaw Avenue, in Toronto. I found out about it because I saw the knife at the front security desk, and asked what had happened, and found out the incident was still underway. The suspect had just been apprehended and was being escorted off campus.
So I ran back to the Observer Newsroom, and urged someone to get out to the lobby and cover the story. No one moved. They were working on other assignments, they had other things to do.
Finally, Paula Barreiros grabbed her notebook and tape recorder and went out to see what was going on.
Eventually, she got some quotes, and wrote the story for our online Observer edition.
The real story was that the mild-mannered security guard who we all see and love ever day, Ravi, had acted like a hero and saved the day.
It infuriated me that when the Journalism school became the centre of a news story right under its nose, all but one of the students (who I already consider journalists), showed they were really just students first, journalists second.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. 
For some reason, our journalism program has been privileged to have taught several students in the last two years who's personal lives have been played out on the front pages of Canada's newspapers: 
1) Caroline George, sister of Victoria George Pazzano.
2) Andrew Serba, brother of the late Michael Serba, a university student on a visit home who was killed by a drug addict in a laneway. Andrew kept up with his studies last fall all while the trial of the accused was before the courts, and in the newspapers. He's working at Inside Toronto.
3) Lera Thomas, who's brother was killed last fall, although I don't have many details.
She's now working at House and Home.

There is one more to tell you about: the murder happened more than 20 years ago, in Toronto, to a woman who was stabbed to death by a man who escaped from a half way house.
I first became personally connected to this story, and to the victim's family, while I was working for CBC in Halifax in the mid 1980s. The victim was Tema Conter, but she originally came from Halifax. I was assigned to cover the story, but because I was friends with her brother Howard, a physician, and his wife Karen, I decided it was too hard to remain objective. At the time, I remember choosing instead to throw away my mantle of journalistic objectivity, and I helped my friends field telephone calls from the media, and acted as a kind of gatekeeper for them, while the investigation was underway. Ironically, Howard and Karen's daughter Jenna is now studying for her post-graduate Journalism diploma with me, here at Centennial, and is a classmate of Caroline George.

Did I do right with the Conter murder? No one at work back then at the CBC penalized me or suspended me for my actions. At the time, I felt it was the right thing to do. Friendship over journalism.

But journalistic instincts will always kick in first, for me anyway. 

They did even yesterday at the visitation for Victoria George. 

I had a long chat with Victoria's mother, who is an incredibly gracious and spellbinding woman, mother of four, who shared with me her anxieties about her oldest daughter's life long battle with asthma (My oldest son is an asthmatic who has also been hospitalized many times and has come "close" twice so I understood her constant vigilance with Victoria and her sleepless nights and listening to her child breathe).

I asked Mrs. George if any politicians from Ontario had turned up, especially from the Health Ministry, which has some serious explaining to do about why there were no beds available for her dying oldest daughter Victoria.  She said that no one from the Health ministry had sent a card or flowers, but then she pointed to the front of the room at the Ogden Funeral Home. 

"Jack Layton sent those," she said.

And indeed, there was a delicate bouquet of white roses and about to bloom white tulips with a card from Jack Layton on the table.

So now with this blog about the visitation,  I've done it again. I've shared what I saw and heard, of someone's private life. I do it, because not only does it help me make sense of a tragic event, but perhaps it will shed some light for other people about the headlines they read but may not feel connected to.
And I hope it will reveal an example of the conflict which journalists often face as they live their lives: their struggle to balance what for me have always been roaring journalistic instincts, with the quest many people have for personal privacy.