Reporting on mental health and crime.

This past summer a young man killed and wounded people on a Toronto street. In subsequent coverage, CBC reported that he had had earlier encounters with police involving mental health issues. The complainant, Arthur Gallant, wondered about the relevance of events which occurred 10 years earlier and felt it was wrong to report the details because it could create a false link between those events and the shootings. The issue of reporting on mental illness in the context of violent crime is fraught. In this case it was properly handled.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about some of the reporting regarding Faisal Hussain, the man who shot and killed 2 people and injured 13 others in a random attack on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue. As a mental health advocate you are concerned that mention of his mental health only serves to stigmatize those with mental illnesses. In particular, you questioned why the article reported that according to a police source Mr. Hussain had had contact with the police 10 years before when he was under 18 and it “involved mental health problems.” You said something that long ago was irrelevant. Had the incident with police been very recent, there might have been justification for reporting the information. You were concerned readers would draw the wrong conclusion:

I fear that the public is somehow going to jump to the conclusion that the police should have done more or that the tragedy could have somehow been avoided since police did have contact with the shooter at one point.

You questioned the ethics of making it public because the information obtained from the police source is actually protected and would not be available on any public record:

I am the first person to admit that the media has an obligation to report stories of public interest that might make people uncomfortable. However, I have spent the last couple of days trying to figure out the relevance in reporting the shooter came into contact with police because of his mental health almost a decade ago. I am especially concerned such contact happened when the shooter was a minor. What does that have to do with Sunday's tragedy? How do the 2 things tie together? How can it possibly explain what happened? Yes the shooter had mental health issues but saying he had contact with police because of his mental health a decade ago seems like you're desperate to report on anything.

You pointed out that research shows that a person with a mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator. There is a danger of stigmatizing those with mental illnesses by creating a false impression of a link. You added the implication of this reporting was that the earlier contact with police is in some way tied to the shooting, but that past encounters with police are not a predictor of future violence.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Laura Green, Executive Producer at CBC Toronto News, replied to your concerns. She told you that the decision to publish information about a person’s mental health is one that is never taken lightly. She said it is part of CBC’s mission to serve the public interest, and she felt this reporting met that standard:

When a tragedy like this occurs, the public has a large and legitimate appetite to understand why someone would do this. It's why our journalistic standards and practices are quite clear about how and when we can reveal information that helps our audience make decisions about matters of public debate.

She said, as in this case, when the reporting affects a person’s right to privacy, there is a balancing between the “public’s right to know against individual human dignity.” The conclusion was that knowing about his past might help understand his motivation. She acknowledged there is a danger of stigmatizing those with mental illness, but thought this report was presented “in a fair manner that brought a deeper sense of understanding about his tragedy:”

When weighing the decision about whether to publish that Mr. Hussain had interactions with the police as a minor, we took into consideration the fact his family had already confirmed he struggled with mental health issues his entire life and that those challenges were severe. Reporting about his police interactions not only helped support the family's claim, it enlightened the audience about just how longstanding and serious Mr. Hussain's struggles were.

REVIEW

There are several aspects of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices to be considered in this matter. CBC policy on privacy states:

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.

There is also CBC policy that emphasizes a duty not to stereotype and to be mindful of the vulnerability of marginalized groups. Beyond the CBC document, there are best practices outlined in guides such as Mindset, Reporting on Mental Health. (Full disclosure - I was involved in the creation of this guide and I am the Vice-President of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, which was the organization responsible for the creation of the document).

Mindset cautions the reinforcing of stereotypes, especially in headlines, and emphasizes the need to provide context - notably that a person with a mental illness is much more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence.

The questions you posed in your correspondence about the reasons for reporting the information about Faisal Hussain are critical ones. Editors and reporters should ask them in making a decision about reporting this kind of information. Ms. Green indicated they did carefully consider what they were reporting, and came to a different conclusion.

I agree that this was a legitimate editorial choice. You questioned the decision to report information that would not otherwise be available on the public record. That is what journalists do all the time - they dig past the public record to find information that is relevant or sheds light on the understanding of a given situation. You are right that it is not always necessary or right to report what is discovered. The weighing of the public interest and potential harm to reporting certain facts is always a judgment call. The information was part of a broader piece that considered various aspects of the evolving case. There was a broader context for the information, and perhaps more critically it validated the early statement from the family that Mr. Hussain had struggled for years. It is in the public interest to understand as much as possible about who Mr. Hussain was.

I also note that immediately below the information about his earlier encounters with police is a link to two earlier articles emphasizing that mental illness is not a predictor or violence:

Hussain's family and friends have said he was suffering from depression and psychosis, but police would not confirm any details of his medical history, citing privacy legislation. A police source did confirm, however, that Hussain had prior contact with authorities and that it involved mental health problems.

Because of the context of this article and the way the information was presented, I do not agree there is an inference that this somehow could have been avoided because of the earlier police contact. In fact, later in the article it states:

Hussain did not have a criminal record and his prior contact with police did not involve a risk to public safety, according to Toronto Police Service spokesperson Meaghan Gray.

As you acknowledged, there is a hunger after each one of these events to understand why and how it happened. There is rarely a satisfactory answer, because the route to that terrible moment is complex and complicated. The most the reporting can hope to accomplish, over time, is that information can be provided with appropriate context so that people might gain some insight, if not answers. You shared with me that you had been interviewed by a variety of CBC programmes in your role as a mental health advocate, and this reporting felt like a betrayal.

There is another way to look at it - it is progress that producers and reporters understood they had to provide the important context when, as in this case, the family had stated that Mr. Hussain had experienced depression and psychosis. Your views were presented on various platforms, and there are other articles associated with this event that seek to inform the public about the fact that mental illness is not a predictor of violence, and that it is wrong to make a link in many cases. Reporting is iterative, and it is a range of stories, articles and treatments that provide the full picture. For these reasons, I do not find a violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman