Intruding on private pain

Emotional TV segment offers hard choice

One family member’s story of a suicide had sparked a significant investigation. Now the victim’s widow was begging for the sequence to be dropped.

By Julian Sher

Julian Sher, formerly investigative reporter for “Newswatch,” is a producer with the CBC network’s “The Fifth Estate.”

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 10 (January 1990), p. 2.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


It’s the kind of call television journalists dread.

The woman’s voice was quiet, but forceful: “Why are you doing this? Why are you making our family suffer?”

Her request: drop a short sequence about her husband’s suicide.

But in television, emotion packs a powerful punch. It may be only a 30-second sound bite, but it’s the climax of your report. Is your story worth the cost?

This case of public good vs. private pain began when I was the investigative reporter at “Newswatch,” the Montreal supper show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. A distraught woman’s letter asked me to look into the suicide of her brother.

An ex-psychiatric patient, he had returned to the emergency ward of a busy hospital, complaining of depression. The doctor gave him some pills.

The man left and killed himself shortly after.

We checked out the story and uncovered a social crisis of frightening proportions.

Two-thirds of the patients jamming Quebec’s hospital emergency rooms were mental patients. Doctors at several hospitals acknowledged sending home potential suicides because there was no more room. “Russian roulette,” one doctor called it.

We had government documents with worrisome statistics, frustrated doctors on camera, but — because of the stigma attached to mental illness — no patients or families willing to talk.

We went back to our letter writer. Though nervous, she was eloquent:

“He was searching for help, but where was it? What happened?” she said on camera. “He slipped through the net. That’s not good enough. This is a tragedy because so many others are seeking out help — and they can’t get it.”

It summed up our theme powerfully.

Then, a week before going to air with what was now a major three-part series on the “Psychiatric Crisis,” I got a call from the man’s widow.

Perhaps unwisely, I had never tried to contact her when we began doing the story. We had most of the details we needed and I didn’t want to intrude unnecessarily on somebody’s grief.

The hospital had tipped her off that we were on the story. She was just as upset as her sister-in-law was over the lack of care her husband had received. Nevertheless, she was furious that her dead husband’s sister had gone public.

“Some of our friends and the grandchildren don’t know it was a suicide,” she said, pleading with me to drop any mention of her family’s tragedy.

I debated the issue with Phyllis Platt, my executive producer at the time, and others in the newsroom.

The issue wasn’t suicide coverage.

As a matter of policy, CBC television does not cover bridge-jumpers and similar suicide attempts.

Platt had no objection to keeping the sequence, if I thought it was vital.

The problem here goes to the heart of what makes TV different from print. An emotional quote doesn’t lose its power if the newspaper omits or changes the name of the person telling the story.

But in TV it’s the face, the eyes, the crackling voice that make the quote work as much as the words. Anonymity doesn’t work (shadow interviews are fine for drug pushers and informers, not ordinary citizens).

“We should respect the widow’s wishes,” said Sheilagh Kinch, one of the journalists arguing that the sequence was not essential to the proof about a health-care crisis.

Others — including me — disagreed.

“Run it; it’s a good clip,” said Tony Ross, a reporter. “The sister wants to get the story out.”

Indeed, the sister had come to us. We didn’t approach her begging for a public airing of the family’s grief.

And her letter had sparked a month-long investigation that revealed important public lessons.

Moreover, without a human face on our stories, they’re lifeless. The sister’s one quote could help shake up viewers.

I settled for a compromise.

I explained to the widow that we were not going to mention her husband’s name or the name of his sister or the hospital. The sequence would only be 38 seconds in a seven-minute report.

Viewers saw the sister looking over books about suicide, as we explained the case. Then, in a full camera shot — no disguise, no shadow — the sister delivered her emotional testimony. We never gave her name or other details, never showed a picture of the suicide case.

Was I right?

The widow didn’t think so. She was still upset.

But the report — climaxed by the sister’s emotional plea — accomplished what I had set out to do. The health minister was forced to respond. And viewers reacted.

I got one letter signed by more than 60 people from the Alliance for the Mentally Ill — mothers, fathers, spouses and children who have coped with psychiatric patients and suicides in their families.

They expressed their appreciation for our educating the public about “the needs and the agonizing conditions of the mentally ill. Bravo!”

That probably doesn’t make the widow feel any better. But it convinced me it was all worthwhile.

My advice? There are no fixed ethical rules for TV journalists. The balance between public good and private pain is a delicate one. You have to find it each time you turn your camera on a tragedy that needs to be exposed.