Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rick Rypien, depression, The Toronto Star and Mike Woods

Rick Rypien's death at 27 is a tragic story, and one that's resonated with a lot of people. Hundreds headed to Rogers Arena for an impromptu memorial Wednesday, while his teammates in Winnipeg mournedtreatment programs and the role of fighting came to the surface. Information on what exactly happened to Rypien is still scanty, but for many of us, his death brought back memories of athletes who battled depression and wound up taking their own lives, such as Kenny McKinley and Dave Duerson.

We don't know yet if depression led to Rypien's death, but it's played a major role in the deaths of others. Before Rypien's death, Sports Illustrated's Pablo S. Torre wrote an excellent piece in this week's magazine on the suicides of Duerson, former San Jose Shark Tom Cavanaugh, former New York Yankee Hideki Irabu, American Olympic skier Speedy Peterson, former Duke basketball captain Thomas Emma and Austrian Olympic judoka Claudia Heill, and how they raise larger issues of how we look at depression in sports. Bruce Arthur had a great column on the same subject, but expanded it to life in general, and that's a conversation we absolutely need to have as a society. Depression is still heavily stigmatized, but it's hit more people than you think. I've had my own struggles with depression in the past, and it's not an easy monster to lick at all. It's a problem we have to take seriously, and it's something where we have to figure out a way to support the people affected.

Unfortunately, the serious, positive conversations around depression and its effects that have sprung up out of Rypien's tragic death have been somewhat derailed by an almost farcical element. That would be the Toronto Star's first story on the matter, and the subsequent reaction it provoked. The story originally included Vancouver Canucks' general manager Mike Gillis referring to Rypien as "crazy" in a quote he gave The Vancouver Sun, something he didn't say. That's obviously problematic, and it's been called out by people over the web, from Bruce Dowbiggin in The Globe and Mail to Trevor Presiloski at The Internet Trashcan. However, the sound and the fury here is signifying very little, and it's missing a lot of the point in the process.

This is the part where I fill a paragraph with disclosure, as I'm quite biased here. The offending Star story is written by Mike Woods, who I've worked with before. "Worked with" is putting it mildly, in fact, as Mike was my boss for a full year at The Queen's Journal (where we ran the sports section together) and is one of the best people I've ever had the pleasure to work with. He's also contributed a few pieces to this very site. Also, I should point out that I have absolutely zero inside information on this mess; I've never worked for the Star, I've never even visited their newsroom and I haven't received any information on what's happened apart from the pieces linked above. I don't know anything about how this particular piece was put together, edited or published. You can decide for yourself if that's enough to disqualify me from commenting on it.

If you're still here, thanks for the trust. I'm not trying to minimize the issue or blindly defend a friend; I'm happy to call media members out when the occasion demands it, and there's certainly a major screwup here. However, I think there are a few things that aren't perhaps being fully considered. Here are five of them.

1. Shit happens: It's more than just a bumper sticker and a common phrase, it's a way of life in the media world. Anyone who writes or blogs regularly is going to make mistakes, and sometimes major ones. Whether those ones see the light of day and draw intense criticism depends on your publication's editorial process, your stature and the topic you're writing on, though, and this one had the misfortune to both make it through and to be on something controversial. Criticism of it is fair, but there's a point to the old line about "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." I wouldn't personally go quite that far, as that would instantly eliminate all media criticism, but it's worth keeping in mind when bashing something like this. We all make mistakes, but only some of those mistakes draw intense scrutiny. That's part and parcel of the media business.

2. Sourcing isn't as easy as it seems: On one level, it's perfectly fair to bash pulling a quote from a Wikipedia article (if that's in fact what happened; I don't know). On another one, it's more complicated than that. Go read Rick Rypien's Wikipedia page, and you'll find a couple of referenced Vancouver Sun articles. Try to click on them, though, and you'll get the lovely "Page Not Found" display. Believe me, as someone whose day job frequently involves digging up old information, I've run into these types of things before. You can sometimes get around them to find the actual old newspaper articles with sufficiently detailed web searching, but that isn't an easy process and it takes time, which is always in critically short supply these days. That's particularly true on a breaking news story like the Rypien one.

When you're quoting from other sources, yes, you always want to go to the original source when possible, but that isn't always an available option. (This goes beyond newspapers and Wikipedia, by the way: as a history major, I've had extensive experience dealing with sources that only survive in quotations from other sources. Yes, they're more questionable, but that doesn't mean they aren't usable; if we suddenly decided against that, we'd lose a lot of important Roman works.) To get back to Wikipedia, yes, the site has its problems, but it's also frequently very accurate about a wide range of subjects. Most of the quotations in it are fine. It's unfortunate that this one wasn't.

3. The supposed Gillis quote is not too far out to be true: I've seen this argument plenty of times, and it simply isn't the case. Athletes, coaches and executives often say dumb things without realizing it, and it's not inconceivable that could have happened in this situation (especially considering all the positive comments in the rest of Gillis' quote). Gillis obviously didn't say this, and it's understandable that he's mad about it, but I've had experiences where coaches have said very dumb things, had me print them and then tried to deny them and ruin my career in response. You're not going to convince me that a quote of this kind should be written off at first glance.

4. Breaking news isn't easy: In an era where sites are often judged by how quickly they can have a specific piece of news up, speed sometimes gets prioritized over quality and accuracy. Writing things quickly is never easy, and it gets even more difficult if you're dealing with physical printing press deadlines as well (believe me, I've got plenty of experience with these from my newspaper years). That doesn't mean we should abandon striving for accuracy; far from it. It just means that things are inevitably going to go wrong, particularly in cases where stories have to be finished quickly. That's not an excuse; my personal belief is that we should all strive to get it right the first time and try and achieve both accuracy and expediency. I'm just pointing out that there are complicating factors.

5. This whole situation is missing the point: Look, if Gillis called Rypien "crazy", that's obviously a problem. Thanks to The Star's apology, we now know for sure he didn't use that term in that particular article. To me, that's good enough. I've blasted plenty of media types who have screwed up in the past, but it's worth keeping in mind there are lots of worse situations out there. To me, this looks like a reporter making a factual error in good faith. I'd put that well below such things as deliberate plagiarism, lazy accusations of cheating without any proof, rampant sexism and attacking entire mediums for no good reason. That doesn't mean it's insignificant or shouldn't be criticized, but it should be kept in perspective. As Harrison Mooney wrote in an excellent post over at Pass It To Bulis, mistakes happen, and they're made by everyone. In my mind, we'd be much better off to leave the controversy over The Star's mistake alone and go back to the serious discussions on Rypien's death and what can be done to address depression.


  1. Do newspapers typically have access to Canadian Newsstand or another archival program? If so, there's no real excuse to use Wikipedia because other, more useful tools are available.

    Yes, shit happens, but this seems to be a pretty serious mistake given the context, which I don't think was given enough attention. It just seems incredibly unlikely that a boss who publicly called one of their employees 'crazy' would get off scot-free.

    Doing something like this when I was a student for an assignment would have gotten me an F for the assignment and the possibility of expulsion, depending on the severity of copying I did from Wikipedia.

    It just seems really improbable that it wasn't a quick copy/paste job from Wikipedia. If that's the case, this mess could have been avoided pretty easily. That's what bothers me so much about it.

    Gillis is apparently exploring legal options over this (how or what specifically, I'm not sure), so I view it as being a rather serious issue, to boot.

  2. Trevor Presiloski4:01 AM

    One other thing,

    Wikipedia also slaps on a Recent Death template ( ) that specifically says that some information may not be reliable. It was on the Rypien article, posted at 1:29PM on the day of his passing. A big warning flag that was apparently missed.

    I also see it along the same lines as the false Pat Burns death report, where prompted a ton of outrage.

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