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Russell Wangersky: Don’t fan the flames

Russell Wangersky asks: if you choose to inflame a situation with incendiary rhetoric, what’s your blameworthiness in it all? —
Russell Wangersky asks: if you choose to inflame a situation with incendiary rhetoric, what’s your blameworthiness in it all? — 123RF Stock Photo

Almost every journalist has a Mike or two on the periphery of their life.

Some have a half a dozen or more. (Mike is a pseudonym, by the way.)

What’s a Mike? A Mike (or a Michelle, for that matter) gets in touch to tell you about a great wrong done to them: the first call often starts off reasonably enough, but there begins to be subtle tell-tales that the story isn’t what it seems. Great conspiracies are detailed, right down to constant surveillance by an ever-changing rotation of apparent strangers.

Sometimes, signs of the conspiracy are divined from colours seen on things like grocery store fliers, or from the number of telephone utility vehicles working in a neighbourhood.

They can be convinced that they see messages deliberately hidden in newspaper stories and directed solely at them.

They call or email, sometimes relentlessly.

Occasionally, a frustrated Mike will make an oblique — or even direct — threat against you. Sometimes, they call back to apologize. Sometimes, they don’t, leaving you wondering.

It becomes obvious that they are suffering from ill mental health of one kind or another.

And the calls keep coming.

All the while, even though you have plenty of other things to do, even though staying on the latest call has nothing to do with your job — because a story will never surface from the imagined wrongs they are describing — you have a feeling that you have to move slowly, that you have to choose your words with care.

Don’t engage in their delusions, for sure, don’t amplify them, but keep in mind, regardless of anything else, that the person calling you is legitimately tormented by what he or she believes is happening, even if it isn’t real. That they are real, live people, and that they are in pain.

It’s simple enough to say you didn’t order anyone to pick up a gun and start shooting, or to point out that there have always been people who commit horrible crimes.

Above all, try not to make things worse.

Sometimes, things take such an unsettling turn that you start to take precautions; I’ve stored obliquely threatening emails, shared and discussed them with my boss. We’ve even talked about whether things are reaching a point where we need to involve the police. And, at least once, I’ve had to do exactly that.

It’s a step you don’t want to take, because it has serious implications for the person involved. If they are contacting you from their work computer, for example, you can imagine the problems when the police show up at their place of work.

You could, of course, be far more callous. You could just start hanging up, or, if you’re cruel enough, you might even toy with your caller, fuelling their paranoia — you know, the equivalent of poking an open wound with a stick

Of course, you don’t do that — because, if something ever did go wrong, if Mike snapped and lashed out, you would know forever, even if no one else did, that you had a role to play in that.

Now, imagine you’re a prime minister or a president: just imagine how many Mikes and Michelles there are out there who may find in your words licence to act.

Don’t you owe your nation a duty of care not to use inflated rhetoric that might tip them over the edge? And if you do choose to inflame, what’s your blameworthiness in it all? It’s simple enough to say you didn’t order anyone to pick up a gun and start shooting, or to point out that there have always been people who commit horrible crimes.

It’s also a lie.

The answer is simple: if you knowingly add gas to the fire, you share the blame for the burns that result. And if you can sleep well despite doing that, well, you’re not a very good person, are you?

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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