Sun, 12/21/2014 - 12:55

Posted by Janice Neil on April 18, 2012

In my first year of journalism school, I'm sure I was instructed that you don't go into this profession if you want to make friends; that good reporting depends on being ruthless, neutral and aloof.  Of course, that creed is pretentious claptrap: the relationship between a journalist and sources is between humans and has to be humane. That the belief in humanity is what should be the starting point for all journalists, has been dramatically illuminated this week when reading the sorrowful tributes  from colleagues, competitors and athletes being written with grief about the death of Randy Starkman, a Toronto Star sports reporter, journalist and human being extraordinaire.

I've been consuming these tributes on Twitter and on memorial pages for the last two days; some of the ones that have been most touching are from the community that we often feel we should have an uneasy, ambivalent relationship with: the subjects of our stories.

Randy covered Canada's amateur athletes for almost 30 years and their stories make me weep—these hardworking, little-celebrated athletes describing what we often don't hear: what it's like to the subject of a reporter's story. It makes journalism proud, to hear athletes such as Clara Hughes and Adam van Koeverden describe their relationship with Randy. Fencer Shreerraine Schalm writes that being interviewed by Randy conflicted with the coaching offered by media trainers because he "had a clear moral compass" (and therefore could keep embarrassing personal slips off-the-record, instead sticking to the angle of his story). It makes journalism proud, to hear them describe their relationship with Randy. These athletes’ tributes remember a reporter who truthfully brought their stories to life long before they won medals or were crushed trying; they describe how they trusted Randy because they could see his fairness, his credibility, his humanity.

Cathal Kelly in today's Star argues that Randy's 'boosterism' of "every athlete he ever met" butts up against the axiom that there is to be "No cheering in the press box". But Randy was cheering on the human spirit—this being a far more sophisticated and positivist approach than our profession expounds.

The journalists who 'competed' against Randy—such as Dave Stubbs and Scott Russell—evoke a journalist whose sonorous knowledge and experience on the beat made him unreachable; his dedication to amateur athletics ensured that  "no one did it better," Dave Perkins writes. Randy is remembered in a headline as "a pro among the amateurs". As his sorrowful colleagues describe how Randy's style and approach to covering 'the beat', they create a riposte to anyone asking "what's a journalist for?": passion for storytelling, dedication to fair-mindedness and accuracy in tone and details, genuine interest in the well-being of his subjects, accumulating an encyclopedic knowledge, and a zeal for writing.

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We know that some veterans of the beat allowed their stories to become too niche, too consumed with the minutiae that few outside the rarified world care about. But after almost three decades on the beat, Randy continued to produce sports stories that splashed the front page. Some were scoops about doping, governance scandals or glory on the podium, but many others because were simply compelling stories about athletes' dreams and ambitions, or dashed hopes or devastating injuries - in other words, real life stories to which we could all relate.  As fencer Schalm recalls, when she asked Randy where he would get the angles for his stories, he told her, “I want to write the story that everyone from my daughter to her grandmother would be interested to sit down and read.”  

Randy's intense curiosity about other people—the foundation for his success—was coupled with an immense embarrassment when the attention turned to him, whether he was winning professional awards, or being appreciated by the boys and girls he quietly served breakfast to, organized an over-the-top Christmas party for or played floor hockey with. Today's beautiful death notice describes how Randy would be fanning away all this adulation, by now, begging to turn the attention on someone else.  That would undoubtedly be his extraordinary, talented wife and fellow-journalist, Mary Hynes (my friend since that terrifying first year in journalism school) and his full-of-life daughter, Ella.

While Randy found fulfillment in his journalism, there was no doubt that the career he cherished and invested in was as a family man.  "To spend time in their company was a revelation," Matthew Fisher wrote of the Starkman-Hynes family unit:  "The conversation was witty, informed, uplifting and affectionate. This is how a marriage should work!"

Many memories are being recalled about Randy's generosity - he surprised colleagues, sources and friends with quirky and thoughtful gifts that demonstrated he knew them as people. He shared contacts and years of accumulated research with reporters who didn't earn a gift of an information dump, and that includes me. In August 1988, CBC sent me from London to Zurich to cover Canadian running sensation Ben Johnson, who was taking on his major competition, the American Carl Lewis. I took a stack of clippings to read, but, as a news reporter, I had little idea of how to cover a story that would take place in less than 10-seconds.  But Randy guided me through the logistics without resenting this reporter who just parachuted into the story and, frankly, he saved my professional butt as I "reported" that 9.7 second race.

With 100 days until the London Olympics begin, I see athletes and journalists asking who has the passion, the genuine interest and commitment to lift these stories from simple results and hastily-gathered bios. I think the challenge for all of us journalists is to ask ourselves every day, where would Randy find the humanity in this story and how can I follow?

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.