CITY-DT re CityNews report (house explosion update)

ENGLISH-LANGUAGE PANEL
CBSC Decision 16/17-1173
2018 CBSC 1
January 23, 2018
A. Noël (Chair), D. Braun, R, Hutson, K. Leavins, A. LeBlanc, T. Rajan

THE FACTS

On December 30, 2016 at 5:59 pm during CityNews, CITY-DT provided an update on a story about a June 2016 house explosion in Mississauga.  The report included footage from that day’s press conference at which fire and police investigators revealed their findings about the cause of the explosion.  The cause was ruled to be a double suicide, carried out by disconnecting natural gas pipes going into the house, allowing gas to flow into the home until it ignited.  The report noted that 37 neighbouring homes had been damaged by the blast, with families still displaced six months later.

The report also provided names and photographs of the married couple who lived in the home that exploded and explained that hand-written letters from the couple’s home had been strewn across the neighbourhood in the blast.  The reporter stated “Many of those letters suggested the couple may have been struggling financially and emotionally, with hand-written notes pleading to God for help paying bills.”  There were close-up photographs of the letters on which viewers could read lines describing the couple’s health and financial troubles, and pleas for help.  (A complete transcript and description of the report is available in Appendix A.)

In a letter dated January 23, 2017, a viewer complained that CITY-DT had violated the couple’s privacy by displaying the letters during the broadcast.  He explained that he had originally complained to other authorities when reports of the event first aired in June 2016, but had not received any satisfactory responses.  He was concerned that CITY was not entitled to be in possession of the letters, let alone to profit from them by including them in the news report.

CITY-DT replied to the complainant on February 28, taking the position that there was an “overriding public interest” in showing the letters because they “provided some insight into the people who lived in the house who were key suspects in the cause of the explosion.  This information served the public’s legitimate and justifiable need to know who they are and what may have caused their house to explode.”  CITY also held that the report was “solely a journalistic undertaking, not a commercial activity” by which it might have profited.  The complainant filed his Ruling Request on March 7 questioning whether broadcasters “can infringe on a person’s privacy with no limit” and read mail from a crime scene if they deem there to be an overriding public interest.  (The full text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B.)

THE DECISION

The English-Language Panel examined the complaint under Article 5.0 (Respect) of the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada’s (RTDNA) Code of Journalistic Ethics which reads as follows:

Our conduct will be respectful, always taking into account editorial relevance and the public interest.

[…]

5.5       We will not infringe on a person’s privacy unless we believe there is overriding public interest.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed a recording of the challenged broadcast.  The Panel concludes that CITY-DT did not violate the aforementioned code provision.

The Mississauga house explosion in June 2016 was a tragic event.  People died.  In addition, many homes were damaged or destroyed, and people were rendered homeless.  A neighbourhood was left wondering why.  News coverage of the incident was clearly newsworthy.

The December 30 broadcast provided significant information that helped to explain why the explosion happened.  The Fire Marshal had announced that the investigation into the explosion had concluded that it had been the result of a double suicide.

As a direct result of the explosion, many letters written by the victims were strewn across the neighbourhood.  The letters indicated that the couple were experiencing health and financial troubles and pleaded for help.  Some of the letters were shown during the December 30 broadcast.

Article 5 requires an overriding public interest in the publication of private information.  The Panel finds that there was clearly such an overriding interest.  At the time of the broadcast, 33 families were still displaced because of the explosion, and many more had been affected by it.  People were entitled to know why the explosion had happened.  The letters provided valuable insight into the mental state of the people who caused the destruction.

Given the overriding public interest, the Panel need not consider whether there is a privacy interest in the personal papers.

In light of the foregoing, the Panel concludes that there is no breach of Article 5 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant.  The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, CITY-DT provided a reply to the complainant, citing what it believed were the relevant code provisions and explaining why it felt that it had not violated them.  The broadcaster fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.


Appendix A

On December 30, 2016 at 5:59 pm during CityNews, CITY-DT provided an update on a story about a June 2016 house explosion in Mississauga.

The banner at the bottom of the screen reads “Breaking News” and “Explosion ruled a double suicide”

[aerial view of destroyed home]

Shauna Hunt:           An entire neighbourhood destroyed by a deadly explosion.  After a six-month mystery as to what caused the blast here on Hickory Drive, we now have answers.

[street level scene of people walking near blast site]

Hunt (at Peel Police Station):       Welcome back to CityNews.  We now know what caused a deadly house explosion on that June afternoon in Mississauga.  Fire and police investigators, uh, revealed their findings here at Peel Police Headquarters just about an hour and a half ago.  And they believe that the blast was set off as part of a double suicide.

clip of press conference by Kevin Pahor, Office of the Fire Marshal of Ont:        We, uh, looked at, uh, four scenarios, double suicide being one of them.  And, uh, we investigated the three others and, uh, through the process of elimination we are able to rule out those other three scenarios and are left with the double suicide. [footage of investigators combing through debris]  We’ve had witness indicate that, uh, they were able to smell the gas, um, approximately an hour and a half prior to the explosion.  And, uh, any individual that was inside the residence, the two individuals would’ve easily been able to smell the gas and had they wanted to exit, would have had that opportunity.

Officer at press conference:        Now the cause of the explosion was the intentional disconnect of the natural gas piping in two locations from the hot water tank.  This allowed natural gas to free-flow into the basement of the residence until it entered this explosive range and was thus ignited, causing the explosion.

Hunt:  Dozens of families remain homeless six months later.  Tonight we take a look back at the damage caused and the couple killed in this explosion.

[footage of people around blast site & fire & smoke rising from debris]

Hunt:  When [####] Hickory Drive exploded six months ago, debris came raining down on the neighbourhood.  A roof landed on a roadway a couple of hundred metres away.  Thirty-seven homes were damaged.  Thirty-three severely.  In fact, those families are still displaced.  Windows in nearby condo buildings were blown out and garage doors were bent out of shape.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie at press conference:  We’ve been working with the residents.  There are still 33 families that are displaced, whose homes have now been demolished and there will be news posted on the Peel Police bulletin board.  So there will be information and we are setting another community meeting so that all the residents can come together and, once again, we can answer all their questions more fully.

[aerial view of damage]

Hunt:  [R. N.] and [D. P.] were the married couple who lived at the blast site.  Both were killed.  When the explosion happened, hand-written letters that resembled pages from a diary were strewn across the neighbourhood.

[close-up of photo of hands holding a paper on which is written:

[???] the house is a mess.

I stopped vacumming [sic] when the power went off in the upstairs bathroom.

I stopped ironing a few months ago when I could not stand up for long periods of time.

I stopped dusting when I had to deal with my vertigo (the last year it began and now I have it often).  I just stopped caring as much because I had no energy to clean the [word covered by person’s fingers] yard of weeds and trim the [word covered by person’s fingers] trees and keep it nice.  Every time I went outside I became ill for days and my chest becomes so tight, can’t [word covered by person’s fingers] in the backyard.  I tried to make a [?] garden, but my health failed me.  I could not pull the weeds out of the brick area [rest of letter covered by CITY “Breaking News” banner at bottom]

Hunt:  Many of those letters suggested the couple may have been struggling financially and emotionally.

[another close-up photo of another letter:

Dear God,

As of next week everything will fall apart for us.  We owe mortgage company

house taxes

water bill

gas bill

hydro bill

TV bill next 7 day [illegible]

Our outside looks like crap, unkept lawn, overgrown plants, bricks on wall cracking, weed growing through concert [sic, concrete].  The upstairs bathroom electricity is off, the back bathroom shower has [remaining words covered].

Hunt:  With hand-written notes pleading to God for help paying bills.

[another close-up photo of another letter:

Dear God,

You know that my health and my husband’s health are in poor condition.

We ask that you help us, we have trusted you with all our lives and possessions because everything belongs to you; including us.

[word covered by person’s fingers] put all our faith and trust in [word covered by person’s fingers]

Only you can save us from man and his [word covered by person’s fingers].

Man is made by God and God makes [word covered by person’s fingers] obey Him.

We your servents [sic] have obeyed [words covered by news banner] helping the poor [words covered by news banner] we are in [words covered by news banner].

[photos of man & woman, presumably the homeowners]

Hunt:  Neighbours describe the couple as reclusive and said the property was often unkept.  CityNews’s learned that [Mr. N.] was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982 and spent many years in prison [photo of younger Mr. N.].

[exterior of houses and structure covered with tarps]

Hunt:  A walk through the neighbourhood six months later, we found some homes are under construction.  Others are still boarded up.  [scenes of houses with mangled garage doors, workers on a roof]

Crombie at press conference:     There are a lot of issues that remain.  Many of them are with, with their insurance companies and the utility companies as well, but we want to thank all those organizations that came together to make this a little easier for those residents that were displaced, who have just been six months out of their homes.

Appendix B

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