I accidentally broke the news of James Foley’s death to his brother

It started as a flurry of messages on Twitter, as it always does these days.

It was on Tuesday, last week, fairly late in the day. I was compulsively checking Twitter.

A Turkish activist I follow was appealing to people: don’t post the link to the beheading on Twitter.

Someone from a prominent Syrian opposition group replied, and took the link down. But not before pointing out that nobody has given a shit about all the other beheadings of Syrians they’ve documented.

That’s Twitter. Debating a story even as it breaks.

I told my boss about the breaking news, who suggested I try to find a guest by deadline. That only left about 15 minutes to find someone who could tell us about James Foley.

Returning to Twitter to find a guest, I saw the pictures. A desert background. A man in an orange jumpsuit. Another one dressed in black standing over him. Foley’s name printed on the screen.

How could you not think of Daniel Pearl?

That story connected with me so deeply.

A journalist, an earnest man, a Jew, someone fascinated with the problems in the Middle East, someone who wanted the other side of the story so much he would put his own life in danger to get it. Someone with far more courage than I could ever muster.

Someone who stumbled upon this ultimate evil. Where reason and understanding didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if he was religious, left wing or right wing. All that mattered was that he was a Jew and an American. And then they killed him in the most horrible way imaginable. It’s not even imaginable.

Like Pearl, Foley was kidnapped, but he’d been held for much longer. Long enough, perhaps, for his family to hold out hope he might be returned safely.

My colleague found a number for me to call on a support page. It looked like the clearinghouse for everything related to James Foley. The place that tried to keep his cause on the front page.

“Hello,” said the voice at the other end.

“I’m calling from CBC Radio in Canada,” I began.

Then, I stumbled over my words. How do you delicately ask someone about this?

“I’m calling about the.. uuhh.. news about Foley, James Foley.”

I was already lining up my next question about who might I talk to. Often, there’s one designated family spokesperson in these cases. Or maybe there was a friend this person could connect me to.

But then the voice at the other end sounded kind of confused, and irritated.

Now a little concerned, I said, “the news that was circulating on Twitter”

“What news?’

And then my heart began to beat faster.

He doesn’t know.

“Who am I speaking to?”

“I’m James Foley’s brother.”

I never imagined. I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t speak.

“Listen, I’m at work and I’m kind of busy,” Foley’s brother said. “Where did you say you were calling from?”

“CBC Radio….You know what, let me call you back.”

“Okay, bye”

I hung up.

His voice reverberated in my head. “What news?”

I saw him running to Twitter to check. Seeing that video. All those years of waiting and hoping and work. And advocacy. Ended in one moment. By some shmuck on the telephone.

I never called him back.

And then I cried.

***

This happened in the space of about 10 minutes on Tuesday last week. When you work in any kind of breaking news environment, you’re bound to run into this sort of thing every once in a while. It’s part of the job.

And I’m aware, that if it hadn’t been me, it would have been the journo who called five minutes later.

And, as my colleague reminded me last week, we’re not that far from the days when some journalists were actually instructed to break the news to family members and friends. All to provoke a good reaction that could be recorded, and packaged, and sold.

I’ve never had to do that at CBC.

But, still, it’s a funny business. You need to get people’s reactions now, when their emotions are most raw, in part because tomorrow it’s yesterday’s news.

I think as long as you treat someone with respect, and give him or her a chance to decline the interview, you’ve done your job ethically.

Because the job is important. If the person is notable, as James Foley was, then the public needs to hear about him. And they need to hear about more than just his death. They need to hear what he lived for.

The family are setting up a fund to support young journalists. If you’d like to donate, please visit this page: http://www.freejamesfoley.org/

James Foley, Syria, 2012. Photo: Manu Brabo.

James Foley, Syria, 2012.
Photo: Manu Brabo.

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