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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Global Toolbox

Remembering a friend, Michelle Lang

By Bruce Swaffield

A fellow journalist is dead.

She was our neighbor to the north and a colleague in the profession, reporting from Afghanistan for the Calgary Herald in Alberta, Canada.

Michelle Lang, 34, died in December 2009 when an IED destroyed the armored vehicle she was riding in. Four soldiers also were killed in the bombing just outside Kandahar City.

Several weeks ago, on Oct. 23, an official plaque honoring Michelle and 14 Canadian soldiers was unveiled at the Saskatchewan War Memorial in Regina. Michelle was a former reporter for the local Regina Leader-Post, and the soldiers were residents of the province.

Michelle is the first civilian ever to be listed on the military memorial and the first Canadian journalist to be killed in Afghanistan. She was almost halfway through a six-week assignment when the incident occurred.

An online guest book has 1,159 entries expressing condolences, regrets and tributes for Michelle. They fill 232 pages and were recorded in the two weeks immediately following her death. One after another, the notes convey the personal loss felt across the nation.

But it is the individuals Michelle saw and worked with every day who knew her best. Robin Summerfield, a former Herald reporter and friend, explained that Michelle was both an exceptional journalist and an extraordinary friend. Summerfield wrote to me:

“Michelle was the Calgary Herald's health reporter. Her beat was always demanding, and in reality it was a two-reporter beat, which it had been in the past. She worked it with the energy of two people, though. She rarely wrote assigned stories. She came to the table every day with her own enterprise stories. She was prolific.

“Every week without fail, she wrote A1 stories at least four days a week plus inside stories and a meaty weekend read. Michelle was a determined and fierce reporter who never just settled for pat answers and canned messages from bureaucrats. She had a finely tuned BS detector, too.

“She handled her sources with a firm hand, yet managed to delicately straddle that line of asking hard questions with tact. This earned her a lot of respect (and some fear, too) from health officials.

“In the 18 months before her death in December 2009, Michelle worked on a project about a young woman with multiple sclerosis who had to live in an old-age home because health cutbacks meant there was no care for her and no place for her to live. Over many, many months, Michelle visited this woman in the evenings, on weekends, mostly on her own time to get the story. She spoke passionately about this woman and took on her cause, in order to get the story out. She kept in touch with the woman after the story ran, too.

“It was that series, plus her day-to-day dedication to her beat, that earned her a National Newspaper Award in 2009, less than a year before her death. Even after winning the award, Michelle was nonchalant about her success and didn't let it go to her head. She was destined for big things. We all knew it.

“In the newsroom, she was a real spark. She was a leader and I, like others, loved to bounce ideas off her and would often send her my copy so she could offer great suggestions that inevitably made the story better. She loved to laugh.

“She was recently engaged to a lovely guy who absolutely adored her, and she him. They would have been married on July 3, 2010.

“We used to go for breakfast on the weekends a lot and just talk and talk for hours over coffee and eggs benny. She was my wingman, and I was hers for many years. She introduced me to my future husband, a longtime friend she worked with at the daily paper in Regina.

“We had a baby boy in early August and named him Will Lang O'Brien, in her honor.”

This story, like so many others in our business, does not have a happy ending. But through our sadness, may we not forget what this remarkable woman did for us and for people everywhere.

If you would like to learn more about Michelle, please visit a special memorial at the Vancouver Sun. The site contains her blogs and stories along with details of the fellowship established in her name. In addition, the Calgary Herald has numerous articles and features about her life and work.

Bruce Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University. Contact him at brucswa@regent.edu.

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