Tue, 08/22/2017 - 07:22

Posted by Belinda Alzner on February 27, 2012

When a teenager was struck by a train in Oshawa a couple of weeks ago, later dying in hospital, police did not release the victim’s name as per the family’s request. However, the local news outlet learned the identity of the 16-year-old via social media, confirmed it and published it.

The family declined a request to comment on their son’s death, and durhamregion.com was criticized in its comments section and on social media for its decision to identify the victim.

Managing editor Mike Johnston defended the decision, made by senior editors in a column more than a week later:

Many in the community already knew the name so we decided to include it. Our readers who don't use Twitter or Facebook would have questioned who the victim was. We ran a compassionate story giving our readers a snapshot of who [the victim] was and then stepped back and let our readers take over.

Social media columnist Reka Szekely used her space that week to also back the decision (which she says she was not a part of), saying that “creeping” on social media is a “reality of modern news coverage:”


When information such as a victim's name is shared via social media, it's not shared between a closed network of friends or family members. It gets blasted out to the public where it can get re-tweeted and shared at an exponential rate.

The problem is that the public doesn't have equal access to social media news. If you're friends with certain people, you'll get the news before others.

What do you think? When a family says no, how should a news organization approach its coverage? Should they respect their wishes, or strive to provide a public snapshot of a life?

A tip of the hat to Poynter, who originally brought this case to my attention. 


I don't know why this has made so many waves.

Firstly, Durhamregion.com was not the only outlet to use the teen's name. A quick Google search turns up that CityNews,  the Toronto Sun and the Huffington Post Canada also published the teen's name.

Secondly, the only reason we're having this discussion is because Durhamregion.com used the conversation happening on social media as their excuse as to why they published the name. I have no doubt that in the pre-social media era, the same thing would have happened. 

How many times has the media gotten a name of a victim confirmed even when police did not release it? Many. And I'm sure this is not the last time time that it will happen.

The only thing I'd say should be cautioned when doing a story like this is to be sure you are quoting people and Facebook posts that are public. If someone has their privacy settings set so their posts can't be found publicly, you shouldn't quote them. And as always, journalists should try to reach out and have in person (or over the phone) interviews with the victim's friends and family who are publicly mourning.


How is this different from the Vikileaks case? 

Ms. Szekeley says: "The problem is that the public doesn't have equal access to social media news. If you're friends with certain people, you'll get the news before others." Precisely. If you're a journalist, with a bunch of journalist friends, you'll know all kinds of things the plebes never hear about. And we call it a "free press."

In the Vic Toews case, journalists knew about his messy divorce but chose not to open the "private life" can of worms. So, it was Twitter to the rescue.

In the case of the dead teen, the family asked to keep his name private, much as Toews expected when his divorce proceedings unfolded. Yet when it came to a tragic death, journalists decided otherwise, opting for a "compassionate story."

What was served by giving a "snapshot" of a deceased person and what was not served by ignoring politicians who make rather immoral, questionable decisions, be it in private or public life?

The criterion ought to be whether the event will be on the public record.  This includes births, deaths, divorces and court proceedings; the only time an identity should be withheld is under the direction of a court.

The problem I feel, at least in the times I've come across this very same issue, is not that *every* organization wants to go dig up the name. At least in smaller centres, where ticking a lot of people off could actually do some damage, there are some organizations who don't want to publish a name, don't want to cover a funeral, etc.

But the competition will. Then it looks like they beat you. Unfortunately, not enough of the public cares about the ethics of it, so at the end of the day, your audience thinks they won and you lost.

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