When national media descends on a small town story

When big, national media flooded into tiny Woodstock, Ont. to cover the mysterious abduction of eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford, the tenor of the story changed. There was a very real desire, writes Bruce Urquhart, a reporter for the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, not to be scooped on their own turf by out-of-town reporters that, unfortunately, pushed them toward pack journalism.

The disappearance of eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford in April became the major media story in Ontario. On May 20, two
suspects were arrested and charged with her murder, but her body
has not been found. She would have celebrated her ninth birthday on
July 15.

As the national media began to trickle into Woodstock to cover the mysterious abduction of eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford, the tenor of the story changed.

For the first few days, we — at that point, the local media and a handful of nearby newspapers and radio stations — had focused on the little girl’s disappearance and the ongoing search efforts. But as the satellite trucks began to roll into town, that focus shifted, slowly turning from the crime itself to Tori Stafford’s family.

With local investigators reluctant to provide much information to the press, giving reporters little more than a daily update on the number of public tips, there was a vacuum that journalists rushed to fill. I struggled with this at first, thinking the real story was being eclipsed by innuendo and ephemera.

But the national media — hungry for any new angle or information — didn’t have the same qualms. Starved by the few crumbs of information offered by police, reporters targeted Tara McDonald, Tori’s mother. After McDonald’s original reticence gave way to a willingness — then an eagerness — to talk to reporters, the story often became about her, and that was our mistake.

We gathered on her lawn every afternoon, fascinated by her sometimes-erratic behaviour and bizarre stories. Then, as a group, we would rush to the police station for a daily update. And we would talk, our suspicions and theories simply adding to the groupthink. Soon, the increasingly homogeneous articles and broadcasts were more about mysterious benefactors and family arguments than Tori’s disappearance.

It was pack journalism.

McDonald’s conduct during these press conferences — and the ingrained cynicism of the industry — led many reporters to suspect she was somehow involved in the abduction. There were a handful of news stories and columns that were accusatory in tone, that very nearly crossed the line from journalism to blame. Another journalist, keen on any advantage, violated an off-the-record agreement and betrayed the trust of a grieving father by printing damaging — and superseded — allegations.

Ethically, things got a little murky for some.

There was a different kind of pressure being a local reporter on what became a national news story. There was a very real desire not to be scooped on our own turf by these pushy out-of-town reporters that, unfortunately, pushed us towards the pack journalism.

But the advantage I thought I had — the advantage of being a local reporter — quickly proved as false as McDonald’s mysterious benefactor. Any real leaks from the investigation could be traced to out-of-town OPP officers; local officers remained uniformly tight-lipped. And, while I initially tried to play on local loyalties, Tori’s family rightfully didn’t feel any obligations to the Woodstock media. With their daughter missing, McDonald and Stafford wanted as large an audience as possible, and that meant The Toronto Star, CTV and The Globe and Mail, not just the Woodstock Sentinel-Review.

It was a hard lesson. I can remember being discouraged while reading a Canadian Press article that was nearly identical to an off-the-record conversation I had with one of Tori’s aunts. 

The arrests and the first court appearances of the two accused seemed to mark a natural end for the national media. And with the exodus of satellite trucks, microphones and big city reporters, the tenor of the story changed again. The pack mentality left with the pack.

Without the unwelcome — and unfamiliar — pressure to get the same story, we’ve been able to do more considered and relevant articles on the crime and its ongoing investigation. We seem to have done a better job without the glare of the national spotlight — without the persistent fear of missing some scrap of information — and that, I think, is what we should have been doing from the outset. Opportunities were missed.

It’s another hard lesson, but one I hope to never forget.

Bruce Urquhart, a reporter for the Woodstock Sentinel Review and did the majority of coverage for his paper and Sun Media.