Privacy versus the Public Interest: It's a tough balancing act

The complainant, Sarah Smith, was angered and deeply wounded by CBC News reporting the murder-suicide of her parents. The RCMP would only say it was a “sudden death.” The tragedy raised some important issues. The reporter responsibly and appropriately reported the story, including comments from the victim’s mother.

COMPLAINT

You have recently experienced a tragic loss. As you said in your letter to me, you are the daughter of Shirley and Donald Parkinson, whose murder and suicide were the subject of a CBCNews.ca article called “Secret Murder: RCMP said Shirley Parkinson homicide a private matter.” Your family had requested that the nature of your parents’ deaths be kept private, and the RCMP originally agreed to your request. CBC reporter Bonnie Allen was the first to report the cause of your parents’ deaths. You felt there was no purpose in her doing so because those who needed to know already did so. The reporting caused you deep pain and grief.

You also strongly objected to the fact that Bonnie Allen had interviewed your grandmother, and had quoted her in the story. You said she “decided to interview my grandmother; an old, vulnerable frail woman who was unaware that Bonnie was recording their phone conversation.” You pointed out your mother has seven siblings who might have spoken to her, but instead she approached your “vulnerable” grandmother.

You said it was a good thing for the reporter to write about domestic violence, but it was “despicable” to use your family’s story without your permission. You questioned the reporter’s motives and thought it inappropriate to approach your grandmother so soon after your parents’ deaths, especially since your family had asked for privacy:

I understand that as a journalist, Bonnie felt she needed to report this story but as a person, I believe that her intentions were not sincere. Publicizing a homicide-suicide 5 weeks after the fact, after the investigation and funeral was over, and a community and family were working towards healing does not do any service to the family, community of Unity, or the public. All this article did was cause more pain and hurt, further delay the family’s and community’s grieving process, and sensationalize a story that never needed to be heard.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Dederick, the managing editor for CBC News in Saskatchewan, replied to your concerns. He offered his condolences. “I fully appreciate how shocking and painful the terrible events of that day must have been to you and the members of your family.”

He explained the decision to pursue the story was made after much discussion and analysis of the issues involved:

The events on the farm in Unity on September 10 raised many important questions, perhaps chief among them: Is homicide a private matter or is it perforce a matter of public interest? Other questions follow, among them: Does privacy cover-up the seriousness of domestic violence? Were mental health issues ignored? Did society take the steps necessary to identify potential problems? Can lessons be learned to help prevent similar incidents? And did the RCMP, at least initially, act appropriately and in the best interests of everyone in the province.

He explained that after the initial coverage of the deaths of your parents they came to the conclusion that it was in the public interest to reveal more information.

He also told you they tested that thesis with other, knowledgeable individuals, including Saskatchewan’s chief coroner, and mental health and domestic violence experts. He mentioned that Ms. Allen checked in with him as she worked on finding out more of the background to this tragedy, and was “well aware of the sensitive nature of the story.”

He told you that Ms. Allen did not perceive your grandmother as old and frail. He said he specifically asked Ms. Allen about her mental state and cognitive capacity when Ms. Allen told him she had made contact with her. He said that Ms. Allen told him that Naden Hewko, your grandmother, was completely aware and lucid. Ms. Allen had two phone conversations with Ms. Hewko. Mr. Dederick explained that at first your grandmother said she did not want the conversation recorded, and Ms. Allen respected that wish. But after they had been talking for a period of time, she asked again and Ms. Hewko agreed to the recording. He wrote:

Ms. Allen did not “ambush” her or deceive her in any way. Quite the contrary, she was sensitive, mindful of her grieving and took great care to ensure that your grandmother was fully aware that she had been recorded and would be quoted in our stories.

He acknowledged your desire to keep your parents’ names out of the public eye. He explained by the time this story was public, their names had become part of the public record when the RCMP released them on September 11. He added that it “would have been neither realistic nor responsible journalism to withhold the names by the time this story was published in October.”

He concluded by observing:

I sincerely regret that you are disappointed in our stories. I do not expect that I have changed your mind, but I have tried at least to explain the reasons we decided to report the story as we did. If we made your parents’ death more difficult to bear in the course of doing that, I offer my sincere apologies. That was certainly not our intention.

REVIEW

The decision to tell the truth about your parents’ deaths was an ethical dilemma. As Mr. Dederick told you, he and his team were aware of the human cost and suffering, and that guided their conduct and decision-making process. The essence of an ethical dilemma is there are two competing values. In this case, there was respect for the privacy of your family, and there was the journalistic purpose of revealing the truth of what happened because there was a public interest or social good.

The way the RCMP chose to handle the reporting of your parents’ deaths was unusual. Very sadly for you, your family was caught up in something on the public record. There is a balance between your right to privacy and the public right to know about events that have an impact on society. You are right that the RCMP were only obliged to report the deaths to Statistics Canada and to let the public know they were not in danger. But it was an unusual response. And it left important questions unanswered. Journalists try to answer those questions. Reporters have a duty and obligation to provide oversight to the criminal justice system. Even with minimal information, your parents’ names and their deaths were a matter of public record. Your grandmother, Ms. Hewko, mentioned to Ms. Allen that “there should have been more of a statement.” Their story also raises questions about domestic abuse and mental illness.

In trying to find out the facts, CBC News staff encountered public officials who believed that silence was a disservice to the public good. The tragic events in your family are echoed elsewhere, and they felt their obligation was to shed light on those circumstances so that future tragedies might be prevented. Your grandmother, Ms. Hewko, appears to agree. In the printed story she is quoted as saying, “We need more education on mental health.” In the parts of the interview that were recorded she states, “This was an issue of mental illness not addressed.”

The story puts your tragedy in the context of a pattern of homicide-suicides. There is nothing prurient or sensational about the details or the tone of the article. Ms. Hewko’s comments are used to reinforce the message that there is a need for social agencies and law enforcement to understand and prevent events such as these. Ms. Hewko also talks about the stigma attached to mental illness as a barrier to people seeking help. There are few details about the murder-suicide. Part of the calculation of the CBC team in telling this story was to try to break through that stigma and use this tragic event to highlight the need for treatment and education about the warning signs of people at risk. There is no denying that this would have caused you sorrow and hurt, but the decision to proceed is defensible.

The article deals with several major issues raised by the death of your parents: The RCMP decision to withhold cause of death or the results of the autopsy, as well as the issue of domestic violence, mental illness and identification of the risk factors for murder–suicide. Ms. Hewko’s contribution to the story is powerful, but it actually constitutes a small part of it. The tone is low key, and there is little dwelling on any details of the murder and suicide, other than reporting it happened.

CBC News has policy concerning the “respect for 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.

Mr. Dederick told you that Ms. Allen had two long conversations with Ms. Hewko. She left her contact information in case any other family members wanted to come forward. She only recorded the conversation once your grandmother agreed to do so. Ms. Hewko remembers matters a little differently. She said she was surprised that Ms. Allen had recorded part of the conversation. But she did agree that it could be used. She said it was a difficult time, but she fully understood what was being asked, and was clear on her decision to speak to her. She did not characterize the conversation as rude or coercive.

Ms. Hewko made a choice different to yours, to come forward and address some issues involved in your parents’ deaths. Your wish for personal privacy was fully respected. The story is written in a straightforward manner and it portrays Ms. Hewko’s position accurately. She confirmed that to me. It may sound callous, and your desire for privacy is completely understandable, but at the end of the day, the telling of the story is a decision that does not belong to you alone. As the Regina Leader-Post wrote in an editorial:

For the same reason that Canadian jurisprudence treats homicide as a crime against the state and makes prosecution of offenders the responsibility of justice officials instead of leaving it to the discretion of victims’ families, the RCMP has no business citing “privacy” as grounds to withhold information of public interest.

With the involvement of police, with the consideration of the issues it raises, it is a legitimate journalistic endeavour. It was handled appropriately. I too, like Mr. Dederick, am sorry that has caused you distress.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman