Rehtaeh Parsons: A journalist’s story

Selena Ross worked for the Chronicle Herald to piece together Rehtaeh Parsons’ story over a nine-month period.

When Selena Ross walked into work at the Chronicle Herald for an evening shift last April, she had no idea that she would be assigned the story of a teenage girl torn apart by an alleged sexual assault and a failed legal system. It would result in multiple follow-up stories over the course of a year.

Rehtaeh Parsons had died the day before. When Ross got to work, her editor asked her to look into the Facebook post that Parson’s mother had written following Parson’s death.

“I interviewed her that night. She didn’t want to [come to the phone] at first and then she agreed,” says Ross. The interview was the beginning of an intense week.

Ross, who graduated with a masters in journalism from Columbia University in 2009 and began working for the Chronicle Herald in 2011, had just found herself in the midst of the biggest story of her career.

Ross went out the next day to speak with teens from the Cole Harbour school that Parsons had attended. The group of boys that Parsons had accused of rape also attended the school.

“At one point that week it became clear that that school was a high-pressure situation. All the kids that [Rehtaeh] had accused of [rape] went to that school, all of her old friends were there,” says Ross. “A lot of teenagers across the city were under a lot of pressure.”

While other national papers had to fly in reporters for the day to interview everyone involved, Ross tried not to push people too hard by returning the following week and developing relationships with them over time. She worked on the Parsons stories between other daily assignments at the Chronicle Herald.

Ross says being able to see how the story progressed without rushing interviews and respecting how people felt helped her write the stories.

“People who have been through something traumatic don’t always want to talk about it,” says Ross. “But sometimes they feel like there is a reason for them to talk,” .

Parsons’ parents were upset about how the police and Crown Prosecutors handled the situation. They felt the system had let their daughter down.

The challenges Ross encountered

While Parsons’ parents were co-operative, the police were not.

Selena Ross' final story in December 2013, the first of two parts.
Selena Ross’ final story in December 2013, the first of two parts.

“They shut down access to that file. Even if we were to have someone that would check background info for us, that was impossible with this case,” says Ross.

Ross had to find someone who had seen the file before it was locked down.

“I would have loved to have the police’s response to that story, which they wouldn’t give,” says Ross. “I also would have liked to have heard from the boys that were accused and their families but they would never talk.”

Ross says she found it difficult working on such an emotional story, that she had to open herself up to understanding how people felt about the situation.

“One of the most heartbreaking type of stories to work on are parents who have lost their child. Anytime I’ve interviewed a family whose child killed themselves, it’s hard not to cry.”

AJA nomination

Ross’s hard work on the series of stories on Parsons earned her a nomination for an Atlantic Journalism Awards in the Enterprise Reporting: Print category.

This story was the first that Ross had covered that went viral. One of the main challenges she faced was being able to focus on her own work and not predict which direction the story was headed.

“I’m used to covering stories on Nova Scotia for people in Nova Scotia. With this story, there was so much temptation to see what this means to other people, look up who else was covering it and from what angle. I learned how to balance that without changing how I would work on the story.”

Ross published her final story on Parsons in December, nine months after her death.

“There were a few obvious angles: the allegations against the justice system, against the school system and against the IWK Health Centre. We answered all the questions  that came up last spring,” says Ross.

Although Ross is happy with the stories she wrote, she says she had to think carefully about how she wanted to cover this story, taking into account the alleged sexual violence and death of a young teenage girl.

“It was a  learning process for media everywhere.”