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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Public interest, private grief: The media’s role in the Robert Dziekanski case

When I was sent by the Vancouver Sun to cover the November 17, 2007 memorial service for Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died last month after being Tasered by RCMP, I steeled myself for the worst. 

It would be my first funeral as a reporter, and I had heard there is nothing like covering a funeral to make you question your role as a journalist, to wonder where to draw the lines between public interest and a family’s privacy, and to chose between advancing a story and capitalizing on sorrow.

These thoughts were at the back of my mind when I arrived at the Kamloops Funeral Home Saturday. More than an hour before the event, there were already a few dozen people gathered, most of them media. Television crews from all the major networks had staked out their spaces in the parking lot and set up cameras in the chapel.

Dziekanski’s death has dominated headlines as both a tragic narrative and an unexplained case of systems gone wrong. A poor and troubled Polish man determined to start a new life in Canada, Dziekanski took his first airplane ride to join his beloved mother in the country of his dreams.

When he arrived at Vancouver International Airport on October 13, 2007, he spent nearly 10 hours in the terminal and in a secured area without ever finding his mother, Zofia Cisowski. Cisowski waited in the nearby public area for almost six hours until airport officials said her son couldn’t be found.

Dziekanski, who spoke not a word of English, grew increasingly frantic and frustrated and finally began throwing small furniture and electronics. Airport security failed to calm him down. In the early hours of October 14, four RCMP officers entered the airport. Within seconds of encountering Dziekanski, and without first trying to physically restrain him, they Tasered him twice and tackled him to the ground.

He was dead within minutes.

The perplexing story had just begun to fade from the public eye when Victoria resident Paul Pritchard’s graphic video footage was released last week. Within minutes, the video was posted on Youtube. Although it doesn’t explain everything, the recording brought the incident to viewers across the world.

When his mother arrived at the Kamloops memorial, puffy-eyed and flanked by friends and family, the international outrage over Dziekanski’s death found a focal point.

Cisowski’s private pain had become unbelievably public. In fact, with speakers including Poland’s consul general in Vancouver and Ricki Bagnell, an anti-Taser activist since her own son died after being Tasered, it seemed likely the ceremony would be taken over by the politics surrounding Dziekanski’s death, and lose sight of the life it was supposed to memorialize. 

But as the event got underway, complete with Catholic liturgy and a slideshow of Dziekanski’s life, it became clear that the attention of the media and the world was not reviled, but welcomed.

In his speech, Maciej Krych, the consul general, specifically singled out the media to express his appreciation “for their persistent collaboration and efforts for reconstructing the facts which led to this tragic [incident].”  As I sat scribbling in the overflow seating area, his words reminded me of why I was there. 

After the ceremony, Cisowski’s lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, drove the message home. When a reporter asked him whether any answers were emerging around the mysterious hours leading up to Dziekanski’s death, Kosteckyj replied: “I think we all know that the media’s been leading the story in terms of turning up a lot of the information.”

Kosteckyj is right.

Dziekanski’s death is a clear example of the power of media. And I use media in the broadest sense of the term, because the strongest impetus for action and answers was Pritchard’s raw video footage, which appeared to contradict the RCMP’s version of the incident and brought international attention to the case. It also reopened the old ethical debate about broadcasting graphic footage of deaths.

Since the release of Pritchard’s video, the Dziekanski case has not strayed far from the front page. Reporters have dogged the Canada Border Services Agency for answers around what happened to Dziekanski inside the CBSA-controlled secure area. When answers didn’t come, that itself became a top story on Global TV’s November 16 newscast.

It’s worth pondering whether the recently-announced provincial public inquiry into the incident and the policies around Taser use would have happened if not for the media pressure applied to the case. However, it’s unlikely this pressure would have reached such a tipping point if not for Pritchard’s video footage – a testament to the growing impact of citizen journalism.

On a personal level, despite the rationale of public interest behind our media coverage of the Dziekanski memorial, I was still worried that we were hurting the one most vulnerable: his mother. In a brief meeting in her tiny Kamloops apartment before the memorial, Cisowski had told me reporters had been calling her at all hours. She had become hesitant to talk because she was afraid of what she might say and how her words would be used. She said she couldn’t turn on the television because she couldn’t bear to relive those last horrible moments of her son’s life.

There’s no doubt the media coverage of this case has taken a toll on her, and reporters, myself included, need to reflect on the impact they have. But even in the depths of her anguish, it seemed Cisowski acknowledged the role we were playing. 

After the memorial, she summoned the strength the face the scrum. “I just like to thank you all that came today to Robert’s ceremony,” she said. Quickly, her voice faltered, and her words trailed off.

There was none of the usual barrage of follow-up questions. The reporters gathered had only one response. 

“Thank you, Zofia.”

CATHERINE ROLFSEN was born and raised in Vancouver.  She completed a B.A. at UBC before heading east to earn a Master’s degree in Religion and Modernity from Queen’s University. Her love of writing (and the west coast) lured her back to the UBC School of Journalism. In her graduate work, Rolfsen combined her journalistic and academic interests by researching and reporting on issues of culture, ethnicity and religion in Canada. She completed a reporting internship at the Vancouver Sun, and has also freelanced stories for the Tyee, the Thunderbird and The Ubyssey. This year, she was invited to be a guest host on CBC Radio’s “Spark”, and she’s co-producing a documentary for the television newsmagazine, Dan Rather Reports.

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