The complainant, Diane Weber Bederman, disagreed with coverage on the Danforth shooter, Faisal Hussain. She objected to the reporting of his parents’ statement that he had psychosis, depression and had not responded to treatment. She considered this hearsay and required challenging the parents for more information to back up their statement. It was journalistically sound judgment to report what his parents said, making clear it was their words and providing broader context on mental illness and violence. There was no violation of policy.
In July of 2018 Faisal Hussain shot and killed two people on Danforth Avenue in Toronto and injured thirteen others. Sometime shortly thereafter his parents released a statement through a spokesperson which stated he was suffering from depression and psychosis and that "the interventions of professionals were unsuccessful. Medications and therapy were unable to treat him." You thought this violated CBC policy and that this was hearsay, as it was a family spokesman who stated this - someone with no knowledge or expertise:
...please explain to me why the CBC did not question the Hussain family spokesperson's statement about mental illness. As far as I am aware he is not a mental health expert. Other people quoted were friends or acquaintances.
You felt CBC should have interviewed the parents for proof of the diagnosis and his treatment:
Where was the follow up? If the spokesperson representing the family could not answer some very important questions why did you not go to the parents-who gave the information to the spokesperson? Why did you not go to the source and ask them who made the diagnosis of “psychosis and depression”? A GP? A psychiatrist? A naturopath?
Did you ask if Faisal was seen by specialists at CAMH or another facility considering the diagnosis "psychosis and depression” and prognosis "interventions of professionals were unsuccessful," and "Medications and therapy were unable to help him"?
The parents said "interventions of professionals were unsuccessful." Is it not your responsibility to follow-up and ask what interventions and which professionals considering what he did? And share this information with the public to reduce fear of the mentally ill?
You made reference to a police comment regarding Mr. Hussain’s earlier contact with the police included in this article. You said the fact the police spokesperson said those earlier interactions did not constitute a threat to public safety contradicted the family claim that he was severely disturbed:
Yet, the family spokesperson said it was so severe they could not medicate him. This contradicts the police. If he was so ill, how is it that he was not that ill that the police were called to help with him as happens with severe mental illness. Think of Cruz, the Parkland shooter. Do you not think that based on your guidelines that the CBC should have investigated further before repeating the statement of mental illness?
You thought that there should have generally been a much more rigourous challenge of the statements of the claim of mental illness. You felt CBC should have made every effort to speak to the parents, and you questioned many other aspects of the event that you believed contradicted the assertion.
In contrast, you said the reporters sought and received a refutation of the claim that this event was terrorist-related. You wondered why the double standard.
You noted that in a review I did for you in 2014 I stated that it was best practice to consult professionals and not rely on hearsay when it comes to discussing or speculating on the mental health of someone - especially when the mental illness is discussed in the context of violent crime. You referenced Mindset, a guide for journalists covering mental health issues.
Laura Green, the Executive Producer of CBC News Toronto, replied to your concerns. She told you that the news team had consulted the media guide, Mindset, which recommends only reporting “mental conditions when they have been confirmed by an expert, as opposed to hearsay of a neighbour or friend.” She added there was due consideration about reporting the parents’ statement. She said when it is possible the journalists speak to a professional with firsthand knowledge, but doctor-patient confidentiality often constrains that avenue of inquiry. The duty then is to evaluate the strength of the information and where it came from:
In the Danforth shooting, that was Faisal Hussain's parents (through a spokesperson) and the police (through a source). Both I consider to be strong, firsthand accounts on the issue, which should not be placed on the same level of a neighbour or friend.
She noted the statement was written by the parents and delivered by a family spokesperson, who was asked follow-up questions - but was in no position to answer them. She also did not agree that the police statement that earlier interactions did not pose a threat to public safety contradicted the parents’ assertion. Those interactions occurred when Mr. Hussain was a youth but there is no information about the type of interaction which did occur, nor if there had been any others aside from the ones mentioned by the police source. For the sake of transparency, she said, and to avoid coming to conclusions with so few facts, the parents’ statement was published in its entirety.
She said she “appreciated and valued” your concern that the reporting of this story does not stigmatize those with mental illness:
We strive to do the same in our journalism every day. It's why the body of our reporting related to the Danforth shooting also includes the article "Mental illness alone is no predictor of violence, studies and experts agree."
There are several policies that pertain here - privacy, taking due care not to marginalize or stereotype vulnerable individuals, and respect for pain and suffering. All three of them involve some of the same considerations. In reporting on the mental health issues or any other personal details about an individual, there is an obligation to weigh the public interest and the right to privacy. There had been a major incident in the city of Toronto. There was understandably a hunger to know who the perpetrator was and what might have triggered him. A statement from his parents, his closest relatives, is newsworthy by any definition. As Ms. Green pointed out this was not the speculation of some neighbour or acquaintance; it was the words of people close to the story and central to sorting out what happened. It would have been irresponsible journalism to ignore it. You reminded me of a review of a complaint you lodged in 2014 about a panel discussion of journalism critics regarding the coverage of two attackers of Canadian soldiers. They referred to him as “nuts and crazy” and speculated about his mental state. In that instance, I found it did reinforce stereotypes and did not live up to CBC standards. You asked me why this was any different. As I have already stated, the context and the framing of the parents’ statements were, on the whole, in the public interest. As Ms. Green also told you it was because they were concerned about stereotyping or leaving the erroneous impression that those with mental illnesses are likely to be perpetrators of violence. The story was linked to another one that emphasized the opposite - that having a mental illness was no predictor of violent behaviour and those who have one are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators.
I cite the policy on respect for grief and suffering because it would be of questionable judgement to grill the parents in detail about their assertions so close to the tragedy, assuming they were accessible at all. The policy says this:
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.
I think it is reasonable to say the parents would fall into this category. Reporting is iterative. A July 23 story reported the parents’ statement in full. Another story, the one you cite which contained information about earlier police encounters some 10 years earlier, featured that new information - as well as both the Toronto Police Chief and a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety - stating that at that time there was no indication of terrorist connections. You wondered why these statements weren’t further tested. Your expectation that reporters continue to dig deeper is a valid one. There is also an obligation to provide the information that is known at a particular point in time. When the sources are police and parents, it is reasonable to report what they have said so that citizens reading the article can draw their own conclusions. If that leads to more questions, as was your case, that is not a bad outcome.
Since these stories were published, more have been written as information has surfaced - either through the public statements of those with accountability or from released police documents. Metro Morning interviewed the police chief at the end of July to ask what police were learning about the motive of the killer - which partially addresses your concern about whether this could have been avoided. In September the police search warrants were released, which gave more insight and brought into question some of the parents’ earlier statements. CBC News went to court to have those documents unsealed so they could provide people with important information about what the police knew or had learned. Here is an excerpt from a story entitled Toronto Danforth shooter stood over woman and shot her 4 times, unsealed warrants show:
The documents paint a picture of a troubled loner fascinated with violence and explosions, although they do not offer a clear motive for the killings. The newly released court records do, however, provide a glimpse into the shooter's past and his run-ins with police.
Hussain had no criminal record, but was arrested for shoplifting two days before the shooting and then let go unconditionally.
When police found Hussain's body, they discovered cocaine in his possession. His cell phone was ringing with a call from "Home" appearing on the screen.
It goes on to show the parents gave contradictory information about his mental state. All of this is an illustration of what is meant by iterative reporting to get at the truth. Ms. Green tells me that staff members spent months trying to convince the parents to talk, and used other sources to get more information. They intend to continue to cover this event. The world of daily journalism is not perfect. The judgement call is always what should be held back and what should be reported, given the incomplete nature of the information. There is an obligation to tell what is known and how it is known. Again, that provides the reader with important information to come to conclusions based on the facts available. That appears to have been what happened in the coverage of this story. While it might have been ideal to know a great deal more before reporting the parents’ statements, it was a valid journalistic judgment to do so - given the nature of the story. While both CBC policy and Mindset caution against stereotyping, it was also a valid journalistic decision to publish in the public interest, while providing context about the tenuous link between those with mental illnesses and acts of violence. It would be wonderful if there was a perfect world where everything lined up all at once. The reason there is a Journalistic Practice Code is because it almost never does - but it provides principles and guidelines to do the least harm and provide the public with the best information known at the time. I consider that was the case in this instance.