By Ashley Robinson
In November 2015, a series about youth concussions was published in the National Post. Written by Vicki Hall and John Kryk, the series was sparked by the death of Rowen Stringer, a 17-year-old rugby player who died in 2013 after suffering repeated concussions. The series highlighted the lack of concussion protocols in Canadian youth sports.
Hall has worked in journalism for the past 20 years. She started covering sports in 2001 at the Edmonton Journal. In 2008, she took a sports reporting job with the Calgary Herald. Last August, she moved to her current position as national amateur sports reporter for Postmedia. This made her the perfect candidate to cover the issue of concussions. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: Where did the idea for the series first come from?
Vicki Hall: It came from Bev Wake, who’s the senior executive producer for sports for Postmedia. Bev and I have worked together at a lot of Olympics, and it was her idea completely. I think it was based on Rowen Stringer. She was the Ottawa teenager who was killed playing rugby. She suffered a concussion and second-impact syndrome and died at 17. That was a really big story in Ottawa, but I don’t think it was really told very well across the country. I think a lot of people didn’t know about it. So we wanted to look more into that and into what laws if any existed in Canada. So that’s kind of where it started.
J-Source: How did you first go about approaching this project?
VH: The first thing was to try to find out what rules there were in Canada. All of the United States have legislation in place concerning the governing of youth concussions.
Canada had nothing in terms of legislation. Ontario has a policy in place that’s through the education [ministry] but they were the only province with that.
J-Source: How much research did it take?
VH: There was another reporter named John Kryk in Toronto. He works for the Toronto Sun, he did part of it as well. We also had a Postmedia columnist, Scott Stinson, involved as well. But I would say for myself it was probably 60 interviews at least and just a lot of reading about papers and concussions, because there was a lot to understand about it.
Just because the United States has legislation doesn’t mean that that’s the gold standard. So I had to learn all about what they do in the United States. What it’s all about really is it’s a concussion protocol, which is a game plan for when kids suffer suspected concussions. We have all these rules in place for the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, and we’ve written about that over and over and over again but nobody was really writing about what it means for our kids. So that’s where we wanted to go and we also talked to many, many parents, many kids who have had concussions, and worked our weight on all angles of the story.
J-Source: How was it covering the medical side of concussions? Was it challenging to try to make it easy to understand for people?
VH: Yes, because well I think there’s so much that we don’t know about concussions. I don’t know how many neurosurgeons I spoke too, seven or eight, so I think it’s a challenge, but that’s our job as journalists.
I spoke to a doctor in Quebec named Dr. Pierre Fremont and he really broke it down for me and explained that the chances of kids suffering repeat concussions—because it’s not the first concussion that causes the main damage most of the time it’s the second or the third. He explained why if we have a game plan in place to detect those concussions how we can save kids from suffering repeated concussions.
My advice to journalism students or young journalists would be to ask questions even if they sound dumb. Don’t ever worry about sounding dumb or unintelligent. You need to understand completely so you can pass that on to the reader. I actually think medical experts really appreciate it when you ask really simple questions.
J-Source: How was it working with the Stringer family?
VH: They were wonderful. I used to cover crime at the Edmonton Journal and at the Leader-Post and I think the key is to give people the opportunity to speak if they want to. But not feel that we need to pressure them into speaking if that’s not what they want to do. The Stringer family is dedicated to making changes in Rowen’s honour and they don’t want their daughter to have died in vain. When I approached them I told them what the story was, what we were doing and they spent so much time with us and they were so open with us. They shared pictures from Rowen’s youth with us.
I had to go back and ask them questions multiple times to make sure that things were clear. My advice is to meet people where they are and give them opportunity because I think sometimes we can just assume that people don’t want to talk but they do because everybody is different and every story is different and quite often people do feel that they want to speak out. They were wonderful people.
J-Source: What reaction have people had to this series?
VH: I’ve never received so many comments in my life. We received many emails, phone calls, letters from people who have children and their families who are suffering from concussions. We received thanks from people in the medical profession for highlighting this issue. The federal government issued a press release the week that our series ran saying that they were working on this matter and that it was a huge priority to them. Some sports organizations have established concussion protocol since we wrote the articles. I think that concussions were a big issue before we wrote the story so it’s not all about us, some of these things were in the works before we wrote them. But I do think that it has lead to change and I’m proud of that.
Ashley Robinson is a soon-to-be journalism graduate at the University of Regina and has completed two 13-week internships at the Brandon Sun and Western Producer.