Emotional Reporting

The complainant, Whit Fraser, thought an interview with a World War II vet during a live Remembrance Day special was exploitive and inappropriate. He thought the reporter was relentless in her questioning until the vet choked up on air and could not answer. He felt this showed ignorance about PTSD. Response to emotion is subjective, but CBC policy cautions against exploiting vulnerable people. I found the questioning was gentle and there was no undue focus on the strong emotion.

COMPLAINT

You considered an interview conducted by CBC reporter Hannah Thibedeau with a 93 year-old World War II veteran during the 2016 Remembrance Day special insensitive and inappropriate. You thought she “pursued a line of questioning that borders on harassment.” You said that she “pushed, prodded and pressed” him to tears, and only then handed the broadcast back to host Peter Mansbridge. You felt the entire approach was ill-informed. The reporters and producers should understand that many of these veterans may still suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and that greater sensitivity should be used in doing interviews. You thought the approach taken indicated there was no understanding that the vets may have PTSD and asking them to talk about their thoughts and feelings was completely unacceptable.

Consider, both the Chaplain and Rabbi for the Armed Forces of Canada spoke about the degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so prevalent among veterans. Statistics were quoted on the rates of suicide among veterans. Did it occur to the broadcasters that these old vets also suffered and may still suffer PTSD although they called it "shell shock"? Perhaps it is why the elderly gentleman couldn't remember the faces of the "27" comrades he lost and an indication of why on Remembrance Day his "mind goes blank". Even after disclosing that much, he was still subjected to the final question"

What do you think of during the two minutes of silence? That's when his tears flowed, and the words "mission accomplished" raced through my mind…

The point is, we learn and we change and I submit that if the Public Broadcaster and other media do not learn about the genuine effects of PTSD, and are not respectful of the scope of this tragedy, then the audience will remain subject to the predictable “how does it feel” question on live TV- which is insulting to both.

You thought the reporter finished the interview because she had achieved her goal in inducing tears. You said your own experience working for the CBC made you think that some “reporters and producers were quite pleased with making “great television” when the veteran began to cry. You added many of your friends and relatives shared your view of the programme.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director for Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, replied to your concern. He told you he “sincerely regretted” that you thought the interview was “callous and insensitive.”

He said in light of your complaint, he watched the Remembrance Day special again. His conclusion was different from yours:

You wrote that you have worked on many such special broadcasts over the years, and it goes without saying that my colleagues and I respect not only your perspective here, but your legacy of quality work, and further, your understanding of the CBC’s mandate...I watched the interview with Mr. Brooker several times. But with all the respect in the world, I have to say that I did not see the calculation you described. To the contrary, in fact.

He explained some of the background that led up to the interview - that Ms. Thibedeau has been involved in these specials for many years, and has developed a rapport with “some of the older veterans.” In this case, she spoke to the veteran before the live broadcast to arrange the interview and to review the questions she would be asking him. He emphasized it certainly was not the intention to provoke tears, but he did become emotional when thinking about his fallen comrades and the experiences he had been through. Mr. Nagler thought those questions were appropriate in the context of a Remembrance Day commemoration:

I regret that you feel Ms. Thibedeau seemed to exploit an old veteran. After watching the video, I must tell you that I disagree; I don’t believe she did. In fact, over the years I think she has repeatedly demonstrated her sensitivity and understanding in her interviews with veterans even in the often unpredictable circumstances of a live television broadcast.

He also told you that the interview was only one aspect of the broadcast, and that other participants “used the occasion to remind Canadians of the importance of PTSD, the high suicide rate and other issues affecting veterans.”

REVIEW

There is not a precise policy that addresses the issue that you raised. The one that is most analogous is “Respect for the Suffering of Victims and Their Family” in that it states:

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.

The intent is that individuals are treated with respect, and that their grief and sorrow are not used simply for effect. When such material is aired, it is rarely obvious where the line is between an appropriate sharing of emotion, and experience ends and exploitation begins. The policy talks about the need to take care that the potential interviewee is not pressured while in a vulnerable state. You found the fact that the interview with the vet was planned ahead of time somehow made it worse. I disagree. I talked at some length with Ms. Thibedeau. She told me she spoke with several other veterans as well as this man, who was there with his wife, and he agreed to the interview. As he is well into his nineties, the purpose of reviewing the questions ahead of time was to mitigate any element of surprise and to gauge his reaction. It was precisely not to blindside him that it was done. The older veterans sit in one area. In order to do the interview, his wife had to wheel him to a spot where Ms. Thibedeau could conduct the interview, which he had been quite enthusiastic about. I go into this detail to point out there was no coercion, and that it shows respect for his agency and ability to decide to participate.

The interview was brief, and the tone to my ears was gentle. The fact that the memories are so profound and still so emotional after 70 years suggests it is an appropriate topic for discussion. It seems unfair to ascribe to either Ms. Thibedeau or the producers of the programme that their goal was to invoke as strong a reaction as possible for the sake of “good television.” I take at her word that her goal was to elicit the reminiscences of an older veteran and to hear how he felt bearing witness for his comrades, including the sadness it evokes. How one views and hears is subjective, but I get the sense the reporter was helping an older person who had expressed a desire to tell his story to do so. The interview was brief:

HT

We’re just starting the interview so I hope it goes well, Harold.

Now, first off, you served in World War II. Tell me a little bit about your time there.

HB

Well, what do you mean my time?

HT

About your time there.

HB

Well, my mother suffered more than I did, put it that way.

HT

How was that?

HB

Every time you left home, we cried. Every time they left home, they don’t know whether they’re coming back again or not.

HT

Now, we were talking a bit earlier and it was kind of scary for you guys there.

HB

Yeah.

HT

In what way?

HB

Well, you get shot at, it’s scary, I don’t care who you are. If you get shot at, you’re scared.

HT

Now what different locations did you serve?

HB

Locations?

Normandy, Antwerp, Dunkirk, all

Those places, North Sea, on the islands up in the North Sea.

HT

And you were artillery?

HB

Artillery, yes.

HT

Explain a bit about your job.

HB

Well, our job was to protect the infantry from tanks coming down. I think we ended up about 18 tanks we got.

HT

18 tanks.

HB

Yeah, and we lost 27 men.

HT

You lost 27 men.

HB

Yes

HT

When you come here, you say it’s important to remember your friends who didn’t make it back.

HB

I can’t remember them. There were a lot of them. Anybody say you can remember them, you knew who they were, that’s all, and they’re good men, all good men.

HT

When there’s the moment of silence, what are the thoughts going through your mind?

HB

I go blank. I do. I go blank honestly.

HT

I want to thank you for joining us today and thank you for your service.

And I know you wanted to say hi to Peter as well.

Thank you so much for your time.

Okay. Peter, I’m going to throw it back to you.

Throughout, Ms. Thibedeau is working at helping him tell his story. Her tone is low key. She speaks at an even pace. “What are you thinking” may not be the most elegant question in journalism, but it was not asked in a coercive manner. The tears appeared a surprise to both of them. Ms. Thibedeau gave him a moment to compose himself, but when it was clear he was still distressed, she handed the broadcast back to Mr. Mansbridge, who referenced the emotions stirred by the day. Ms. Thibedeau also told me that she apologized to the vet, who told her she had nothing to apologize for. It might have been uncomfortable for some to watch, but that does not necessarily make it wrong or inappropriate. Much of reporting might lead to some discomfort. Ms. Thibedeau told me that she received quite a lot of response - some of it like yours, angry that the segment had been aired, others saying they had been deeply touched. The goal of an interview like this should never be to evoke a strong reaction for the camera; I do not believe that was the aim here. And as Mr. Nagler told you in his response, the veteran’s son wrote to thank the reporter and to tell her that the interview “had made his father’s day.” I have refrained from using the soldier’s name because while he was comfortable being publicly identified, I think his identity is not relevant to this review. And because it will be online and searchable, I have chosen to omit his name.

I appreciate your concern that there needs to be an understanding and acknowledgement of the number of soldiers who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including eyewitness and first-hand memories of participants who are well informed of how the material is to be used. This is standard and acceptable journalistic practice. Reporters should certainly use their judgment when dealing with potentially traumatized individuals to ensure an interviewee understands the implications of the interview. At the end of the day though, each individual should be accorded the right of their own agency. That is what happened in this case, and there was no violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman