One reporter’s trial

A cautionary tale from CBC Radio reporter Dave Seglins on the consequences of a sleepless week covering the sentencing of Russell Williams.

Dave Seglins in CBC newsroom
Not an hour after I’d wrapped up filing my last radio report last week chronicling the gruesome sentencing of Russell Williams, the message came through. A producer at CBC News Network wondered whether I’d be willing to come in on the weekend to be part of a live TV panel discussion on ‘what it was like covering such a horrific case.’
I turned them down, saying I wasn’t ready to answer that question on live TV.

First, in deference to the murder and assault victims and the many grieving relatives in court, the story surely wasn’t yet about the journalist’s experience.

Second, I wasn’t sure how I was feeling. Thank god. Turns out, I’d have been a blubbering mess.

On the Friday, once home after things wrapped up, I took the day off to decompress. To my own surprise, and terror, I melted down, incapacitated by several bouts of anxiety, panic and uncontrollable dread that I’ve never felt before — and hope never to again.

I wanted to write this article, because J-Source is a publication for journalists and editors. I hope something can be learned. Though my experience and reaction to the graphic ‘sado-sexual’ evil of Russell Williams are uniquely my own, I know I’m not alone among the journalists who were in court. 

This is a cautionary tale.

What did we cover?

The Rundown

Day One: Williams the break-in artist, taking thousands of photos of himself, his penis, modeling in unsuspecting little girls’ beds (photos the public never saw).
Day Two: The assaults, murders, floggings, strangling and duct-taping deaths. These videotaped horrors were never shown in court but instead left to our own imaginings as details were read into the court record.
Day Three: The stunning videotaped police interrogation, and Williams’ confession… followed by emotionally devastating victim impact statements.
Day Four: Williams speaks, and the judge condemns. The families applaud.

We journalists pride ourselves on steely nerves, detachment, pushing ourselves to the brink, being able to look into the deep, dark abyss of human potential and report back.

What the public — and I fear many in our respective newsrooms — didn’t fully appreciate was that we reporters were enduring this horror show with only a few hours sleep each night. The competition for good seats in the Belleville courthouse was so intense that the keen among us were lining up just before 5 a.m. each and every day to secure our spots.  So we began each day exhausted, our defences down.  We sat through four gruelling days of unrelenting evil. I didn’t finish work each night until 10 or 11 p.m. Then, I’d slam down some food, a few drinks, and hopefully, my over-wrought mind would shut down by just after midnight. 

The alarm would then tear me out of slumber at 4:15 a.m.

There was no real rest. No decompression. The depravity in the story kept escalating.

I ignored this small fact, given that middle-of-the-night wake-ups are frequent in the radio business. And throughout this court hearing I was on my game — high functioning, pushing my body and mind to deliver radio reports morning, noon and night, filing on-line reports throughout. I chased new details each evening to ensure fresh stories for each morning, and filed from my laptop from the front of the line outside the courthouse starting at 4:45 a.m. each day.

The Deadline Imperative

But I failed to keep tabs on myself. I pushed myself, not realizing I was becoming more and more sleep deprived. The story kept getting more emotionally wrenching. The news goat’s appetite was insatiable. I pushed away all the horrors, and instead focused on the next deadline.

Now home, it’s all rushing back. Interestingly, it’s not just the images of depraved sex assaults or murders that are hanging me up. Yes, those are terrible and haunting. But, really, it’s the volume of detail, the work demands, and the overwhelming stress that developed inside me during those days that has me spinning.

Worst is — I’m finding it hard to talk with anyone about this. My lover doesn’t want to know any of the details. Close friends and colleagues have expressed concern and advice, but I’m loath to heap the ugliness on them. The only ones who can really appreciate the torture of those long days are the others who were there in the court.

During the week, my editors did check in to see how I was doing. They’d ask sympathetically “How are you?’ I thought I was fine, and told them so.

CBC has since been very good about offering counselling through our Employment Assistance Plan. Though at first hesitant, I found myself calling the 1-800 number for emergency trauma counselling twice this weekend. I was so distraught and unable to function, I was scared out of my mind.

“Normal” Trauma

Diagnosis: sleep deprivation and a perfectly normal post-trauma stress reaction. My body and mind, so wrought, so clenched, that only after my first night’s good sleep did I come unravelled. Indeed, after two more sleeps, I unravelled more, until today I’m feeling much better, much more like my old self. Priority now is more sleep, more down time.

It was my choice to cover this story. I thought long and hard about it before agreeing. I had covered murder trials and disturbing sexual abuse cases before, and had an inkling of the details in this case. But in retrospect, I had no idea how off-the-charts-horrible it was going to get. I had no idea how it would all be compounded by the gruelling demands of early mornings leading to working 20 hours a day with nary a break.

Was it worth it, I’m now asking myself?

I’m proud of the good work our CBC team did in the face of all this evil. I never wanted to give up my role in the coverage, nor do I feel I needed to bail out entirely. But in retrospect, I’d hit my limit. Perhaps I refused to acknowledge it last week because all the other reporters seemed to be enduring. What’s more, I was embarrassed to think I would fail in my part given that CBC had sent more than a dozen people to Belleville serving local/national, French/English, TV/Radio/

My take away? Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep in living through difficult stories. Don’t succumb to newsroom bravado and instead seek help to talk things through after bearing witness to traumatic events. And, once we figured out just how horrid things were getting — and that staffing would have to be in place each day just before 5 a.m.  — I should have called for back up.

Dave Seglins is an award-winning CBC radio journalist with more than a decade of experience in daily news, documentaries, investigative reporting and hosting. He has travelled the country for CBC, at various times based in Toronto, Walkerton, London, Sudbury and Whitehorse, Yukon.