Fatality reporting - consider the family left behind.

The complainant, Kyle Hughes, questioned the coverage of the death of a young man in an ATV accident. He thought the emphasis in the report on an RCMP officer’s statement that the deceased wasn’t wearing a helmet was distressing to the family, and to say that was the cause of his death was just wrong. The family’s views of the accident were reported shortly thereafter. There was no violation of policy, but a powerful reminder of the sensibilities of victims’ families.

COMPLAINT

In early October, CBC News in New Brunswick published two stories about the death of Matthew Simonson in an ATV accident, although the first story did not identify him. The article quoted an RCMP officer involved in the investigation of the incident, who stated that Mr. Simonson was not wearing a helmet and that he might still be alive if he had been wearing one. You strongly objected to the “superfluous references” to the fact that he was not wearing a helmet. You said you were put off by the “preaching” about helmet safety during a family tragedy. You mentioned in an email to one of the producers that the man’s three children will have to see this article as part of their father’s legacy. You thought there was information missing and that the quotes from the RCMP officer provided erroneous conclusions. In an email to a communications staff member at CBC, which you also sent to me, you stated:

I took issue with the inaccurate conclusions given by the RCMP and Sgt. Cote. Particularly the comments that he may not be dead if he had helmet on. My wife is a first cousin of Matt and I was privy to details from shortly after the accident onwards.

Unless Sgt. Cote is a trained coroner or a pathologist, this is inappropriate. This issue I understand is being dealt with by family with the Commissioner. However, CBC is expected to be more judicious in what information they choose to include in a published article, and leave the conjecture on the editing room floor.

You said you had contacted the reporter directly pointing out the incomplete information - alluding to other factors the family was aware of - and made some suggestions about who to contact, including your wife, who is a first cousin, in order to get the family’s views and to “fact check” the article. You said she did not reach out to any of these sources to fill in missing information.

You wondered too if Mr. Simonson “had been represented differently in death by CBC compared to other New Brunswickers” who died in “nearly the same circumstances” because he was an Indigenous man. None of the stories on other ATV deaths had “medical determinations” in them.

You also said CBC got the day of the accident and death wrong - you said it was on Sunday, and CBC News reported it was at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Darrow MacIntyre, the Executive Producer at CBC New Brunswick, replied to your concerns. He did not agree that the story contained conjecture and inaccurate information. He said there was one error that was corrected - and that was Mr. Simonson’s hometown, originally referred to as Eel River Crossing rather than Eel River Bar.

He acknowledged that the family “takes issue” with the RCMP officer’s statement regarding cause of death. He explained from a journalistic perspective it was reasonable to quote one of the officers involved in the accident investigation. In this case there was no reason to think that this public official was an unreliable source. He added that the RCMP still hold the view that the cause of death was a head injury, and they based that finding on the work of the coroner’s office - although CBC has not seen the coroner’s report.

He told you that a story giving the perspective and concerns of Mr. Simonson’s father was published on October 12; three days after the first story went online.

The Simonson family’s assertion that Matthew did not suffer a head injury was reported in a follow-up story. As you’re probably aware that article was published on the same day you sent your email, October 12th. It reported in detail Joseph Simonson’s belief that his son did not die of a head injury and that the actual cause of his death was a poor engineering and signage at a dangerous T-intersection.

REVIEW

It is always a challenging situation when grief and loss become public. When a death occurs through accident or violence, it enters the public domain. For that reason CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has specific policy about respecting the suffering of victims and their families. One of the things the policy states is that reporters should not exert undue influence on family members. The policy also calls for restraint in using audio or video that might upset the family, weighing that against the public interest. The initial story published was based on a RCMP news release. It reported two facts: that the ATV went off the road at a turn and collided into trees, and that the rider was not wearing a helmet. Those details are accurate. As Mr. MacIntyre pointed out, there does not seem to be a dispute about that aspect of it. You strongly objected to publishing what you characterize as uninformed medical information. It is not quite as categorical as you state, but an observation from a police officer who has some knowledge of accidents and the value of wearing a helmet. While it is painful for the family, it is in the public interest that safety measures be addressed. It would be the equivalent of pointing out that a fire caused a fatality and there were no smoke detectors. Crime scene investigators are not coroners, to be sure, but they do have context and experience. I can appreciate the family would feel that there is somehow some blame of the victim here, however there is no value judgment attached to the statement:

"Due to the fact he wasn't wearing a helmet, the collision combined with branches and trees coming into [contact] with the operator's head, caused the male to die," he said.

Had the man worn a helmet, he might have survived, ​Cô​té said.

"I'm assuming if he would have ran off-road, the helmet would have protected his head from direct contact with branches and trees," he said. "It is possible it could have saved his life. It would have [given] him a chance at least."

I note that Matthew Simonson is not named in the original piece, although in a small community I expect most people would know who it was. While there was no violation of policy in the publication of this report, your reminder of the impact of this kind of police release articles on those who are grieving is worth noting. Mr. MacIntyre mentioned to me - and to your wife in separate correspondence - that he too heard that message and has discussed it with his web team. You singled out a reporter whose name was mentioned in the file, but in fact she was not the author. She brought the material to the attention of the writing desk. She also reached out to Mr. Simonson’s aunt and had a brief conversation with his father shortly after the accident. Joseph Simonson was not available for an interview until the day the second story was published, three days after the first. The reporter rightly did not push the matter in order to be respectful of the grieving relatives. You wondered about the relevance of the second story - it is completely so. Reporting is iterative - frequently what is known at the time is published and future reporting provides more detail and background, as well as other perspectives. In this story Mr. Simonson’s father disputes that a head injury led to his son’s death and emphasizes the dangerous conditions and lack of signage at the T-junction where the accident occurred. Joseph Simonson’s views of the cause of the accident and the cause of death are given prominent and full treatment. CBC Journalistic Policy states that balance is achieved over a reasonable period of time by providing different perspectives and information.

You also disputed the accuracy of the first story, saying the accident happened on Sunday, not Monday. The RCMP report of the accident states that their officers “responded to the crash in a wooded area about 12 km south of Balmoral at approximately 3:30 a.m. on October 8, 2018.” That puts the accident in the early hours of Monday morning.

You wondered if there was a difference in coverage considering Mr. Simonson was an Indigenous person. There is no evidence for such an allegation. CBC News in New Brunswick has covered multiple accidents of this nature. The choices and emphasis would be based on many of the factors I have mentioned - what was known at the time, who was available for comment and the context of the event.

Journalists are frequently faced with the hard choice of when to publish, and whether to publish, matters considered in the public interest that might cause some harm or hurt to some individuals. There are values and principles, but not a precise way to judge or measure. Stories are published online once basic facts are known and reporters continue to work at getting more information, which might take longer. The pressure to publish what you know, when you know, is one factor in the decision making. As stated earlier, Mr. MacIntyre and his team have taken some learning from your concerns about how stories are written. The choice to publish the early story was not a violation of policy. However, you have helped them consider its impact which will shape their judgment going forward.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman