How to be a hero – and get the story

We had an interesting situation on the weekend, when the Ottawa Police issued a missing man report.

This, in itself, is not that unusual – anyone who has spent some time in a newsroom will know that there are missing persons reports issued by the police every day. In most cases, the person is found within a day.

What was unusual about this one, was that our reporter, Zev Singer got the story – and the missing man, William Dupon.

Driving to an assignment, Zev spotted a man looking forlorn on a bench at a bus stop, wearing the same hat as the man pictured by police.  As he writes in his story, he was tentative about approaching the man, who police had described as having ‘some limitations in his mental functioning’:

… I saw a man at the bus stop on the other side of the street wearing a black leather cowboy hat that looked just like the one in the picture of Dupon. I turned the yellow Citizen car around. …

I walked to the bus stop, and, after a moment of comparing, I showed him my Blackberry and asked: “Is this you?”

For those of you who aren’t lucky enough to know Zev, he is a kind-hearted man and that he drove this missing man to the police station so that he could be reunited with his family isn’t that much of a surprise.

Or maybe it was. That a reporter would help the subject of a story to our readers, when the story ran on August 13 it accounted for 7 per cent of all  traffic to our website.   Jim Romenesko included it on his media blog  – with a photo ‘good job!!’  (disclosure: I tipped him off to the story), and Jsource.ca, a Canadian journalism blog, picked up the tale.

The next day, The New York Daily News posted a story on Zev’s heroics.

But here’s the thing – Zev was being both kind and clever on Sunday night.

When I called Zev a hero in an email, he responded not with the humility I expected from a caped crusader, but with the wisdom of a seasoned reporter:

 Instead of the hero talk, let me offer you a point which I just made in an email to the police chief, who emailed me to offer me a job (jokingly).

I told him that in all the positive feedback I’ve gotten, nobody has pointed out that my driving Mr. Dupon to the station was actually more for the paper’s benefit than for Mr. Dupon’s. Don’t get me wrong — having spotted him I would have made sure to get him into police hands whether I could write a story about him or not. Like most people, I like the idea of helping out my fellow human. But if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that I could just as easily have called the police from the bus stop and waited with him until a cruiser arrived — which would have been quite quick, I’m sure. I chose to drive him myself, since I figured he wouldn’t be worse off for it and I could also collect more material for a story that way.

I don’t think that makes me a villain, either. Just tempers the case with a bit of journalism reality.

Regardless of Zev’s motives, William Dupon’s family is grateful for his actions.  Three days after he found her brother, Dupon’s sister emailed Zev to say:

I saw the article that you placed in the Ottawa Citizen about my missing brother, William Dupon.  Again, on behalf of myself, my mother & my whole family, I want to express my thankfulness that you found him & brought him to the police department.  We just can’t thank you enough.

Reporter does good and  gets the story.

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One thought on “How to be a hero – and get the story

  1. Interesting context. What journalists do and how they do it is often fascinating to readers. I think a behind-the-scenes blow by blow can be more interesting than the story itself, so welcome this kind of dsiclosure.

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