After internships in Regina and Calgary, University of Regina School of Journalism alumnus Tamara Cherry BA'06 skipped her convocation to start her reporting career in Toronto. A four-month internship evolved into a career the spanned nearly 15 years, reporting on crime in Canada’s largest city. In recent years, she has turned her focus to changing the system by which trauma survivors interact with and are impacted by the media, to the benefit of all stakeholders. In her words, she speaks about the impact of the media on trauma survivors, and the impact of trauma on members of the media.
Journalism made me many things. It made me proud and sad and exhilarated and frantic. It made me a hustler and a confidante and a messenger of awful stories. It made me see so much pain and so much beauty and so many ways the two intersect.
And it made me a procrastinator. I find it incredibly difficult to get anything done without an imminent deadline.
And so, here I am, beginning to write this essay that I planned on writing two weeks ago, but that isn’t due for another two weeks, and my mind begins to drift. Should I get a new hair dryer? How many HomePod Minis should I order? And then it pops into my head, as unpleasant things sometimes do, an email I sent almost a year ago, and I wonder if I’ve missed a reply.
I abandon my Word document and Google searches and YouTube videos of women blow-drying their hair, and type Canadian Screen Awards into the search bar at the top of my inbox. And I begin to scroll.
With each flick of my fingers, my heartbeat quickens.
The racing-heart thing happens often when I am reminded of something from my former(ish) life. Not as often as, say, a couple years ago, but often enough that I’ll likely be on the therapy-and-Zoloft circuit for some time.
And I begin to feel sad and I my brows begin to furrow. And my fingers are suddenly heavy and slow.
I’m looking for an email from someone who told me she’d look into my request and get back to me soon. I wanted to know for sure: Why had I been nominated? But I find nothing but memories, and must sit with them now.
I was on my third maternity leave when a colleague at CTV News Toronto forwarded an email that had been sent to the newsroom by the new boss.
Wow. You bet you are!!!!!!!!!! That’s a big deal, he’d added to the top of the email. Below his message I found the list of our newsroom’s nominations for the Canadian Screen Awards.
Best Local Newscast. Best News Anchor. Best Live News Special. Best Local Reporter.
Me. I was dumbfounded. Nobody told me that my work had been submitted. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t even known that Canadian Screen Awards went to journalists — that’s how little I paid attention to the awards circuit.
I had taken no great pride in previous awards that mentioned my name. It always felt uncomfortable being congratulated for reporting on someone else’s misery. (Did I forget to mention? I was a crime reporter, for nearly 15 years).
But this one felt different. Best Local Reporter. It felt as though they were judging me not on one story or interview, but on my body of work. Like they were saying, Hey you. You’re doing good. And that one step of removal from all the awful made me feel, well, proud.
A month or two later, I was sitting around a fancy table in a fancy room full of fancy people, making small talk with one of my supervisors when he asked if I knew which story I’d been nominated for. No, I told him. And my heart skipped a beat.
“The triple homicide,” he said. And I knew exactly which he meant. And I was awash with sadness and shame.
The triple homicide.
My bosses had been so pleased with the story I told, with the witness I had interviewed. That sad, sad interview with that sad, sad woman who had initially said she didn’t want to talk.
And as I type these words, my mind goes to my spin class the morning after I reported those awful events, lights low and everyone around me huffing and puffing, and me sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling so angry and so sad and so alone, in a room of so many.
This wasn’t the job I had signed up for all those years ago, after moving to Vancouver for a summer of soul-searching. I was on a long-distance call with my wise, wise father, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life after a year of pre-pharmacy.
“Well, you like to talk to people, and you like to write,” he said. “You should go into journalism!”
Perfect! I thought. I can write for a snowboarding magazine!
I didn’t know then that I would fall in love with news, that I would have a woman cry into my voice recorder just three days into my first internship, at the Regina Leader-Post, and that our conversation would spark my love for telling stories that made people feel something, that made people care.
I couldn’t have predicted how fascinated I would be by the police chatter bouncing across the newsroom of my second internship, at the Calgary Herald.
I didn’t realize how I would thrive on the rush of deadlines, working a four-to-midnight shift during my third internship, at the Toronto Star, the night editor standing over my shoulder mere minutes before the final deadline, as I pounded out the final lines on the city’s latest murder.
Turned out, I was really good at crime reporting.
Not just at getting to know police officers — and I got to know many — but at listening to and sharing the stories of the sad, the exploited, the destroyed, the devastated.
Four contracts at the Toronto Star, then a full-time gig at the Toronto Sun. Then a conversation with a TV colleague on the side of a rural road, a recently discovered body decomposing nearby.
Come work for us, from him. No, you’ll never catch me in front of a camera, from me. And then, You’re already doing it, from him, with a gesture to my little camera and little tripod and the demand for this newspaper reporter to create video content for the web. Come do it right.
And so, I did.
I was thrust into the limelight, literally, outside a downtown Toronto hospital where, just hours earlier, a Toronto Police officer had been pronounced dead. I had watched the flood of officers go into the emergency room, held a mic out as the big and sad police chief delivered the news that would cause a city to grieve, and watched the video shot by colleagues, showing the officer on a stretcher, first at the scene and then at the hospital, paramedics pounding on his chest.
It was all awful.
Calling through the phone book for family members of homicide victims, just hours (or less) after their loved ones had been killed. Sneaking up to the Intensive Care Unit of various hospitals, looking, again, for loved ones of those who had died and those who were clinging to life. Knocking on the door of the house with cars lined up down the street, an hour after having been told ‘no,’ because one of my competitors arrived and was giving it a go.
All of this happens, every day. And I know it sounds disgusting. And frequently it is. But it’s the way bad-news stories are regularly told. Because, quite simply, it’s the way it’s always been done.
And so, a few years ago, I left my crime-reporting post to launch my company, Pickup Communications — a public relations firm that supports trauma survivors and the stakeholders who surround them (think first responders, journalists, survivor support workers).
I launched a research project in the spring of 2020 examining the impact of the media on trauma survivors, and the impact of trauma on members of the media. That project produced a research paper, and a book, and a bunch of talks that I’ve made to a bunch of people. If you don’t have time to read the paper or the forthcoming book, I’ll save you the time: The media causes a lot of harm, not because they want to, but because the system was built that way. And it’s time to tear it down.
In a conversation earlier this year with Elynne Greene, the head of Victim Services for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, I was telling Elynne about the guilt I hold, knowing I caused harm in so many ways over so many years, even though I was trying to do good.
And Elynne said this: “It’s not guilt, it’s growth.”
Those words have helped me immensely, and I have found so much peace in the big Saskatchewan sky since moving home two years ago.
But still there are times, when the house is quiet and I’m not under deadline, that my mind drifts to those things that I can’t let go. And I send another email. Because I’ve just got to know.