The Portrayal of Grief and Suffering

When the Ottawa Morning Show ran an interview with Terry Woodard, the widow of the driver of the Ottawa bus that collided with a train, there was quite a lot of reaction. The interview was raw and painful to listen to. Was it the wrong decision to air it? The complainant, Chris Young, thought it was sensationalistic and should not have been done, even if Ms. Woodard agreed to it. And when he realized the program received quite a few objections, he asked me to review the decision to air the interview. I agreed it was hard to listen to, but agreed with the decision to air it.

COMPLAINT

You first wrote directly to the Executive Producer of Current Affairs in Ottawa to express your objection to an interview with Terry Woodard, the widow of Dave Woodard who was driving the bus that collided with a train in suburban Ottawa. The interview aired on Ottawa Morning on Sept 19. You felt the interview was in bad taste, and just because “Terry was willing to be interviewed, does not mean you have to interview her.” You dismissed as a rationalization that she needed to talk to express her grief:

“Anyone with common sense and empathy would realize that there is a difference between talking to the nation and talking to a counselor one on one. Your producer could have been of much more benefit to her by suggesting a grief counselor. But in this age of instant messaging and twitter, we seem to react then think, rather than thinking then reacting.”

When the Executive Producer responded to you, explaining why the programmers went ahead with the interview, you disagreed with the reasons, again referring to them as rationalizations for airing it:

“Every situation can obviously have many different opinions. Mine (and some others?) is very opposite to yours. I would have expected such an interview from sensationalist seeking media, but not the CBC.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of Current Affairs in Ottawa, Ruth Zowdu, responded to your concerns.

She did so by sharing an explanation of the programmers’ thinking in airing the interview. The explanation was also published along with the web account of the interview with Ms. Woodard. The response was written by the station’s Managing Director, Jane Anido, in response to the people who questioned the decision to air the interview.

Ms. Woodard is a person who is impacted by this tragedy and as such is someone we would go to for her perspective. She is also uniquely positioned to be able to give insight on how her husband, the driver of the bus, was on the morning of the accident. This information is important to our understanding of what happened.

In any situation where someone has suffered a loss, our aim is to treat the people involved with great sensitivity. In this case, we did not press Ms. Woodard to speak with us. We approached her sensitively and she, without pressure, agreed to speak on the record. In fact she wanted to.

During the conversation that followed, our host gave Ms. Woodard the opportunity to share the love she felt for her husband. We also, as I mentioned, tried to deepen our understanding of the story — both the emotional impact and the facts.

We feel it was important to remember the painful, human part of this story. We heard from many eye witnesses on Wednesday who described what they experienced on the bus. We felt it was important, when given the opportunity, to learn more about Dave Woodard and the kind of man he was. His wife was the best person to share that side of the story.

We understand from the audience perspective that it was fresh and raw and hard to hear in the wake of the crash but feel we were cautious and sensitive in our connection with Ms. Woodard and remain confident in our decision that the interview was important in further illuminating the emotional and factual aspects of the story.

We are grateful that she was willing to speak with us and to share her thoughts about the man she loved and lost. Although the conversation was a highly emotional one, we feel that it provided a key perspective on this quickly evolving story.”

You felt these were all just rationalizations and because there were others, like you, who thought running the interview was a bad decision, it would be a good idea for the ombudsman to review the issue.

REVIEW

When tragedies strike, journalists have an obligation to get the facts, often confusing at the outset, and to make sense of what has happened. They also have a role to play in humanizing the disaster – to learn about and to tell the stories of the people who died, as well as the impact on their families and friends who live on. There is also the very human need and desire to want an immediate answer to why and how it happened. That answer can take months, as it may very well in the case of this OC Transpo bus and train collision. But that doesn’t stop the speculation, or the need to ask some questions.

In the case of this incident, it was widely reported on the day of the accident that passengers were screaming for the driver to stop. It is a chilling detail, and logically leads to the question about why he may not have. Who he was and what his history as a driver was became an important part of the story. A headline on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen the day after the crash was: “‘He just didn’t stop’; six dead, dozen critical after collision.” It is understandable then that the bus driver’s widow, Terry Woodard, might want people to know more about her husband and to tell what she knew about his driving record and his health.

As Ms. Anido explained, the purpose of the interview was to “deepen our understanding of the story – both the emotional impact and the facts.” You consider that a rationalization – and perhaps you can characterize it as such, but it seems to me a legitimate goal and motivation. Ms. Woodard had already been interviewed by other news organizations. When the morning show director phoned her, she agreed to be interviewed again.

We all grieve differently. It is hard to fault the CBC morning show staff for going ahead and doing the interview, since Ms. Woodard agreed to it. Whatever her state of mind, she wanted to talk about her husband. And while journalists can and should be mindful that people in a state of trauma may not be thinking entirely clearly, they also need to respect them as individuals with their own reasons or needs to speak.

You mention that “Some of your people are rationalising the interview by saying she needed to talk, to express her grief,” and that is bogus thinking. But it is not the message I get from Ms. Anido’s published explanation. She is honest about the journalistic thinking that went into the decision.

Ethical journalism talks about weighing the harm against the good. In this case, Terry Woodard agreed to be interviewed, and the value of gaining more knowledge or insight into the man at the wheel of that bus was a valid reason to go ahead. The Poynter Institute, a journalism and ethics think tank, published guidelines for dealing with the families of victims at the time of the 9/11 attacks. One recommendation asks journalists to test what to include or leave out of stories by asking these questions: Is the information essential and relevant to the story? Why does the public need to know details of a person’s life? In the case of this interview, the focus was very much on the driver and what happened in those last few critical seconds.

This was a painful interview to listen to. In some ways, radio demands the most of us – it is so intimate and close, and her halting speech through her tears is about as raw as it gets. Ms. Woodard clearly made a couple of points: that her husband was a caring and loving man who loved his work as a bus driver, and that he was in good health and, in her opinion, “something had to go wrong, he was an amazing driver.” But it is said with such emotion, and the grief is so palpable, it is a challenge to listen to it. It is an embodiment of the reality of tragedy, and it personalizes it, and in so doing makes it accessible to audience members struggling to understand it.

The experience demanded a great deal of the audience. The staff of the morning show was aware of the pitfalls. They consulted a senior member of staff about the ethics of doing the interview, and then the things to be considered if they were to run it. While most interviews on the morning show are done live, in real time, this one was pre-recorded. They did this out of respect for Ms. Woodard – in case she just could not coherently express herself in her grief. They also did it out of respect for the audience – in case it was so overwrought it would be too difficult to air.

The tone of the interview was gentle and respectful. While you disagree with the decision to interview her in the first place, the interview was handled in a tasteful manner. Ms. Zowdu has mentioned, in reviewing their decision, that it may have been a good idea to have more explicitly warned the audience that this interview was difficult to hear. I agree with her.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices provides guidance when dealing with grief and suffering. In fact there is a policy entitled “Respect for the suffering of victims and their families.”:

“In approaching victims or witnesses of tragic events, we carefully weigh both the public interest of full reporting and the need to show compassion and restraint. In such situations we are considerate and we use judgment.

We take care not to exert undue pressure on a distressed person for an interview.

When images or audio clips could upset part of the audience, we choose them carefully. We limit their use to what is necessary for an understanding of the subject and we provide an audience advisory before use on any of our platforms.”

These policies are in place to guide CBC employees in making ethical decisions, based on their best judgment and the facts known at the time. Because there is an element of subjectivity and because each situation will differ in some ways, it comes down to a judgment call. In this case, I think the decision to air the interview was appropriate and there was no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman