How much information should journalists tell the public about the gritty existence of once-public people who now face a long disability or death? How carefully do you examine the motivations of a family member who gives you access to their disabled loved one to promote a cause? How closely should the journalist examine where any contributions might go if the public decides to help?

By Al Tompkins, for Ponyter

The Canadian TV network CTV has an in-depth news magazine program called “W5,”which has been on the air since 1966, two years longer than “60 Minutes.” It deals with serious, sometimes sobering topics. But when the show told the story of Annette Funicello’s two-and-a-half decade battle with a particularly nasty type of multiple sclerosis, the network found itself balancing heartbreaking story of a beach blanket beauty with serious questions about an experimental treatment that Funicello’s husband believes needs public support.  And to tell the story, “W5″ would have to show some images that would make even its veteran health reporter recoil.
 
Annette Funicello, who died Monday, is one of a long line of celebrities and celebrity families who refuse to die quietly. Even in their most vulnerable state, they have realized that they something to contribute if they are willing to go public.
 
Funicello’s husband, Glen Holt, heads a fund bearing her name. Roger Ebert appeared on “Oprah,” missing his jaw, to demonstrate the remarkable computer program that allowed his wife to hear what he typed on his computer, in his own voice. Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation raised a half-billion dollars  for cancer research. Since 1998, Michael J. Fox has pressed for research to find a cure for Parkinson’s. Christopher Reeve became the voice of spinal injury research as the public watched him struggle to learn to walk again. A number of politicians in recent years have come forward to talk about their cancer or other conditions. There is even a website called “Celebrities With Your Disease” that lists diseases and links celebrities (via Wikipedia, so be careful) who have the conditions.
 
But these kinds of stories confront journalists with some tough decisions. How much information should journalists tell the public about the gritty existence of once-public people who now face a long disability or death? How carefully do you examine the motivations of a family member who gives you access to their disabled loved one to promote a cause? How closely should the journalist examine where any contributions might go if the public decides to help?
 
This article was reprinted in J-Source with the permission of Al Tompkins. To continue reading, please continue to Ponyter
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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.