Working at the fifth estate
means confronting many ethical issues. "What we do is much like any other kind of journalism," says David Studer, executive producer of the fifth estate
for the past 10 years. "But it's different because the stakes are very high. People involved in our stories face consequences of some kind, whether they're bravely coming forward with information or they're to be held accountable for their actions. The stakes are high for us, as well, because we don't want to get it wrong."
Protecting our subjects
Former host Adrienne Clarkson remembers the terrible dilemma she felt after interviewing political opponents of Afghanistan's military dictatorship in 1978. They were very open, inviting her into their homes and talking freely about their activities. A short time later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, which made Clarkson's story even more current.
But after reviewing the interviews with the members of the opposition, Clarkson and the producers elected not to use any of them. "We knew that the fifth estate might easily be seen even in their country," she says. "We didn't know what would happen to them, but we felt they would be harshly dealt with, in a manner unacceptable to Canadians. Our story had a little hole in it, but we were able to cope with that. We never felt we had to get the story no matter what, who cares about these people?"
Execution chamber in Texas
life and death
Linden MacIntyre vividly remembers two stories that addressed issues of life and death and brought him unusual close proximity to his subjects.
Stan Faulder was a Canadian on death row in Texas. Shortly before his scheduled execution date, he agreed to give MacIntyre an interview, the first time he'd ever spoken to the media. Although Faulder had murdered a man while in his 20s, he had suffered a brain injury and had been under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Now he was a grandfather in his 60s, and in MacIntyre's eyes substantially different from the man who committed the crime for which he was sentenced to die. After the interview, Faulder was given a stay of execution. "I thought that would be the end of it," MacIntyre recalls. "Reason would prevail and eventually his death sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment."
To MacIntyre's horror, Faulder's execution was re-scheduled and he asked MacIntyre to be a witness to it. The sentence was postponed and rescheduled again, and finally, at Faulder's request, MacIntyre spent significant parts of the man's final two days talking to him about life and death, religion and justice. (Watch Excerpt )
"I have never been afraid to tell anyone that I am profoundly philosophically opposed to the death penalty," says MacIntyre. "But afterwards I asked myself about the wisdom of allowing myself to get so close to subjects. Certainly an experience like this is a bit of baggage that one will carry around forever. But now that a couple of years have gone by, I realize that I'm glad that I did it."
Linden MacIntyre and Ty Conn
a desparate man
MacIntyre faced a similar challenge on a story so complex and troubling that he later wrote a book about it.
While working on a story about the effects of child abuse, MacIntyre met a young criminal named Tyrone Conn who had experienced abandonment and deprivation in a series of foster families. (Watch Excerpt )
After the story, Conn kept in touch with MacIntyre and his colleague, producer Theresa Burke. Assuming he would never be professionally involved with Conn again, MacIntyre became a surrogate big brother, doing his best to help the young man whenever he could.
In 1999, while a prisoner at the maximum security Kingston Penitentiary, Conn sparked a media frenzy when he became the first prisoner in 40 years to escape. Two weeks later, when the police surrounded his Toronto hideout, a desperate Conn called his friends at the fifth estate. Theresa Burke tried in vain to calm the young man down over the phone and then listened in horror to the shotgun blast that ended his life.(Watch Excerpt )
"I didn't quite know how to deal with it at first," MacIntyre says. "We knew that his life and death raised a lot of really important questions. Did my friendship with him handicap my ability to do a story about the system? Many old-time journalists would have said I was the worst person to do it. I thought, I know more about his life and death and that system than anyone else, so why shouldn't I tell the story? As with any story, whether it's in a newspaper or on television, it succeeds or fails in the eyes of the audience. And nobody has yet told me that this story failed."
Francine Pelletier visits Marc Lépine's home
the montreal massacre
Sometimes journalists bring a personal relationship to stories. At the time of the 10th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, Francine Pelletier had a special interest in an item examining the tragedy and its effects on the victims' families.
A year after Marc Lépine killed 14 women in a shooting rampage at École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989, Pelletier learned that her name was on a list of potential victims found among his effects. "The Montreal massacre has changed the lives of many people, as it haunts many more, mine included," says Pelletier, who won a Gemini Award in 2000 for best writing on the Lépine piece. "From the time I found my name on Lépine's hit list, I have felt the need to get inside the man's head, find out what could possibly have motivated such hatred."
consequences of the story
Journalists may feel their actions inadvertently trigger tragic events. David Studer recalls the time, just before Christmas in 1992, when the fifth estate had evidence that a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been on the take, accepting bribes from a Montreal gangster. The day before the show was scheduled to air, the RCMP officer shot himself in his office.
Not surprisingly, a shocked Studer and producer Julian Sher wondered whether the fifth's investigation was responsible for driving the man to his death, and had to make a quick decision how to handle it. "It's horrible that it happened," says Studer. "You have to think of his family. But we decided we needed to find out more information." What they learned was that the Mountie had killed himself shortly before he was to go to an appointment with officers conducting an internal investigation into the same charge, which was most likely what drove him to suicide. "Every Christmas for years after that I thought about his kids," says Julian Sher. (Watch Excerpt )
"Our stories affect people's lives," says Studer. "I remember asking myself, if I was the target of this show, how would I be feeling? But at the same time, it was important that a criminal had suborned a member of the RCMP. So we told the story, although we tried to be respectful and we updated what had happened at the end of the program. But it really does bring home that you're dealing with human beings. Even if they've done something wrong, they're still just human beings."