Privacy vs. The Public Good - Covering Personal Tragedy

The complainant, Paula Vallee, had a relative die in a car crash. While she herself was not contacted, she alleged the reporter was insensitive and insistent with other family members. She also said some reports had errors and her messages were ignored. CBC News staff in Edmonton acted appropriately in their interactions with the family and respectfully in their responses to her. Dealing with the tension between the need to verify basic facts and respecting the grief of families is one of the harder jobs journalists do.

COMPLAINT

You objected to several articles published on the CBC News Edmonton site. The stories were about a fatal collision on a road near Myrnam, northeast of Edmonton. There were two women killed, one of whom was your niece. I extend my condolences for your loss. Two boys were injured, and the family dog was killed. You had multiple complaints about the coverage. You said there were inaccuracies in the story, and when you informed the reporter no action was taken. You cited a story published on October 21st, 2016 as particularly egregious but noted that the story was no longer on the website. You were concerned its removal was part of a cover-up. There is one story left on the website, and you said there is still an error in it. You wondered why there was no acknowledgment of the errors posted until January of this year. You said the report wrongly states the family was returning to Fort McMurray after leaving sometime after the fire last May. In fact, you stated the family had left before the outbreak of the wildfire that swept the area.

As well as the inaccuracies, you accused the reporter, Marion Warnica, of harassing family members, exhibiting callous behaviour and publishing family names against the wishes of the family itself. You thought it wrong that she used comments taken from Facebook from people who were not close to the family and did so without any process of verification. You told her, in a series of emails, that the family did not want the names of their loved ones released, and that while some of the story was correct, there were errors - although you did not point out what those errors were. You felt it was sufficient that you had asked her “to correct her errors and that I would not do her job for her.”

She could have researched and verified from her original sources before simply asking me to supply the information for her. Information in fact that was never intended to be released to the public in a news article. This again violates the Right to Privacy ethic which was indeed relayed to her through the RCMP whom she spoke with.

You wanted CBC to admit its errors, retract the story and to publish an article indicating that there had been an accident, but omitting anything that would identify who was involved.

You acknowledged that Alana Wenger’s husband, Chris Wenger, spoke with Ms. Warnica, but you said he was distraught and did so under duress.

You thought that the CBC news staff you dealt with did not take your concerns seriously, were callous in their replies and “produced no result for me.” You felt your feelings were simply dismissed in your correspondence with the reporter and producer, as well as the senior manager of journalism programming. You had reached out to Rick McConnell, the Digital Producer in Edmonton:

While the Alberta crash that day may not have been national top news it was the most horrific thing to happen to myself, family and close friends. The lack of not respectfully reporting the news at that time and trying to make excuses when clear mistakes were made, instead of apologies and admission of errors to the public has only made my complaint all the more real.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Gary Cunliffe, the Senior Manager of Journalism, Programming, replied to your concerns. He began by offering his condolences for your loss:

I am sure it was a difficult time for you and your family and I sincerely regret that you feel CBC in any way made it more difficult. To the extent that was the case, I offer my apologies.

He apologized for the delay in responding because the staff he had to consult was not available due to holidays and work assignments. He told you he wanted to investigate thoroughly before getting back to you.

He explained to you that only one story remained on the website because of the way rewrites and changes are archived. The story of October 21st was no longer available because it was replaced with an updated and revised edition. He explained the October 21st story contained some errors in describing the relationship between the two women killed and one man. He informed you the errors were corrected in subsequent editions, and the corrections box noting the changes was added. He said the corrections box should have been added much sooner.

He acknowledged that you had written Ms. Warnica telling her there were substantial errors in the story. He pointed out you did not say what they were:

I note that Ms. Warnica promptly replied to your messages that day asking you to identify your relationship to the family and to be specific about the errors you saw promising to correct them. Regrettably, you did neither, subsequently explaining, “I would not give her any information on myself or the corrections because I consider her unethical”.

Nevertheless, I hope you understand that it is unreasonable to expect Ms. Warnica to make changes to the story without knowing who you are and what information in the story is inaccurate.

He did not agree that Ms. Warnica’s emails were abusive or dismissive. He thought her correspondence with you was respectful and acknowledged the pain and difficulty the family was experiencing. He told you having talked to Ms. Warnica and having supervised the story, he believed that she “and the others associated with the story acted throughout in a restrained, sensitive and considerate manner.”

I fully realize that it was a difficult time for your family. It is also difficult for journalists to cover such stories. But as difficult as it can be - and it is often very difficult - journalists have an obligation to report on stories involving death, injury and misfortune. In those circumstances, especially, we expect they will conduct themselves in a respectful and sensitive manner, mindful that they are speaking with people who have suffered a grievous loss and may be distressed and in shock. Ms. Warnica understood that and conducted herself appropriately.

REVIEW

One of the core values of CBC News is accuracy. There was one version of this story that contained some errors in the way family relationships were described. While it did not materially affect the understanding of what had happened and who was in the vehicle, it was an error nonetheless. Mr. Cunliffe explained to you that a second reporter had rewritten the story and made the mistakes. Ms. Warnica’s versions were actually all correct. Because of a quirk of the publishing system, various versions of the story were overwritten, and the version time stamped October 20th, 2016 and updated January 20th, 2017 is the only one now on the website.

In fact, one reference to the relationship of Amy and Alana Wenger (sisters-in-law, not sisters) in the story was corrected quickly, but a second reference took longer. By the 24th of October, the correct version was on the news site. The correction box was not in place on the story until January. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy and procedure on acknowledging and correcting errors:

We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.

In the world of digital on demand, material may be accessible long after its original publication or broadcast. A dated story is not necessarily wrong. It is a reflection of the facts known at the time of publication. It can be an important part of the historical record.

But there may be times, in the light of new information, that archived material is substantially wrong. In those cases we review the material and take appropriate action that could include revising the original material, including a correction box or writing a fresh story.

Any changes to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.

Decision to alter a story or its status should be done in consultation with the producer or editor.

In that an error was initially made, there was a violation of policy. The delay in acknowledging the error by adding the corrections box contravenes the call for transparency. The current publishing system seems to have made this more opaque, not transparent. It was an oversight and in violation of policy to neglect noting the correction. News management might want to reassess the process for identifying and correcting errors to ensure they are done in a timely fashion and the process is completed. Ms. Warnica told me that, in fact, CBC News Edmonton has instituted a policy whereby if there are significant changes made to a story, the original reporter will be consulted.

You say the time reference to the family’s move from Fort McMurray is wrong, and still has not been corrected. You disputed the time of their initial departure from Fort McMurray. The team has made the editorial decision to leave it as stated, because they have two credible sources that confirm the information. Acknowledging that you have suffered a terrible and traumatic loss, I have to point out that Ms. Warnica was abiding by accepted and appropriate journalistic practice when she asked you who you were and what was wrong in the story. She had sources, which she re-checked, giving her information. Some of it was confirmed by other family members. Your choice to initially withhold your relationship to the family and to decline to provide details of the error made it difficult for the news staff to act in response to your emails. However, they took it seriously enough to review the stories and go back to their sources.

You also raised issues of privacy. CBC policy lays out some guidelines:

We exercise our right of access to information and our freedom of expression within the context of individual rights. One of these is the right to privacy.

In situations involving personal suffering and pain, we balance the public’s right to know against individual human dignity.

We disclose information of a private nature only when the subject matter is of public interest.

Without limiting the meaning of public interest, we work in the public interest when we reveal information that helps our audience make decisions about matters of public debate and when we expose illegal activity, anti-social behavior, corruption, abuse of trust, negligence and incompetence, or a situation that poses a risk to the health and safety of others.

The reference to balancing the respect for privacy and the right to know, and to inform the public in its interests, is a fundamental tension in all reporting. The crash was considered newsworthy because of the loss of life. There was a certain poignancy to hear of the deaths of residents returning to the community because of events in Fort McMurray. You said no names should be published, but there is another argument that naming provides humanity and identity, not just another statistic. There is also a more practical consideration - others would have friends and family on the road in the area. It arguably can cause unnecessary anxiety if the victims remain nameless. So when both Ms. Warnica and Mr. Cunliffe tried to explain it is their job to get information and ensure it is correct is a difficult thing, they were in no way comparing it to the difficulty of your loss and pain.

There is further guidance in the policy entitled Respect for the suffering of victims and their family. It states that there is a balance between the need to inform the public and the needs of the principals involved. It also says that care must be taken not to exert undue pressure on relatives. I have read the email exchanges Ms. Warnica had with you; I read a straightforward and respectful explanation. There was nothing badgering or pressuring in the language. As for her contact with other family members, she sent one message via Facebook, which I have also seen. Several people did respond to say they did not wish to be interviewed, but provided help with the spelling of names and photos. There is not one sentence that tried to convince them to conduct an interview when they declined. She also texted and spoke to one or two other people. Ms. Warnica said she may have inadvertently called one woman twice because there were two different phone numbers, but as no name was given, she wasn’t sure. Chris Wenger, Alana’s husband, thanked her for the story. In the brief exchanges, no other family member asked that the story or names be removed. I can imagine the fact that they were in the public eye at all was painful and disconcerting, let alone coping with the tragedy. You can think that reporters have no right to infringe on such personal grief, but violent death does take on a public aspect. Your assertions of Ms. Warnica’s lack of integrity are harsh and unfounded. She did her job properly and with an appropriate degree of respect. In this regard, there were no violations of CBC policy.

Once again, I am sorry for your loss and your grief.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman