Trial by Fire

Boy “hero” story tests media

A badly burned teenager is portrayed as a hero in news coverage. The real story turns out to be different. Is it better to make truth a casualty or set the record straight – even if it causes the burn victim more pain?

By Bill Kendrick

Bill Kendrick of CBLT-TV in Toronto is senior producer of “CBC at Six.”

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

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (August 1989), p. 5.

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 was a story of remarkable heroism and intense suffering, a tragedy that touched the hearts and pocketbooks of thousands. Joey Philion, 15, had suffered burns to 90 percent of his body running back into his home to save his younger brother in March 1988. He spent a year undergoing painful skin grafts and was separated from his family for much of that time.

The story of his heroism was reported in both Canada and the United States, and money poured in for a trust fund. His hometown, Orillia, Ontario, raised the money to build a new home for Joey and his family; local tradesmen donated their labor.

Then our newsroom, CBLT-TV in Toronto, discovered that one critical part of the story was wrong. Joey had not been burned while saving his brother Danny’s life; he was not a hero.

The true story came to light when Kelly Crowe, one of our reporters, was covering the construction of the new house. A neighbor mentioned that Joey had not run back into the house as we, and others, had been reporting.

What really happened, she said, was that Danny had come running to her house to tell her that Joey was trapped in the house. When they got back to Joey’s house, he was outside, his clothing on fire.

Crowe confirmed the story by talking to other neighbors and the fire marshal who had investigated the fire.

If this was true, how had the media, including our own newsroom, got the story wrong? We talked to the editor of the daily Orillia Packet & Times. He had never run the “Joey saved his brother” story. As he put it, “It wasn’t until you big-city reporters got onto the story months later that the hero story started.”

He was right. We found the first reference to Joey the “hero” in The Toronto Star, perhaps two months after the fire. It was soon picked up by other media in Toronto, including our station, and no one questioned the truth of it.

Although she never quoted Joey’s mother in the article saying Joey had run back to save his brother, the Star reporter told us that’s where she got it. One of our reporters who had covered the story said the mother had never denied the “hero” angle.

Joey was still in the hospital and reporters were not allowed to talk to him.

The media had created a hero, and we had to decide what to do about him.

The sides in our newsroom were drawn.

There were those who thought it was better for truth to become a casualty than to inflict further pain on a boy. Why punish Joey for our mistake?

So what if Joey hadn’t saved his brother’s life? He had still undergone an incredible ordeal and didn’t deserve to be made to look as if he might have been part of a lie. What public good would be served if we set the record straight? Who would be hurt if we didn’t?

Those on the other side of the issue were equally adamant:The public had a right to know the truth because it was being asked to donate to Joey’s trust fund. The proceeds from an upcoming rock concert would go to the fund, and the musicians involved said they we’re doing it because they were so moved by Joey’s heroism.

If we did not report what we knew, we would be invoking our own form of censorship.

Then we learned that Joey was to be given an award for bravery. We could not report that award without also reporting what we knew.

At this point we talked to his mother. We had waited because we wanted to be sure of our facts and sure we wanted to broadcast the story. Joey’s mother confirmed our information, but claimed that she had not started the story. She said she had tried to set the record straight.

As far as she was concerned, her son was a hero just for surviving the fire and the months of surgery.

That night we broadcast the true story of Joey in conjunction with the report on his award for bravery. Interestingly, the bravery citation did not mention the life-saving, only the young boy’s heroism in overcoming the severity of his burns. The award was presented by an Orillia cadet troop, of which Joey was a member.

We received a few phone calls from viewers criticizing our story.

Why did we spend so much time debating whether to broadcast this story? It now seems relatively straightforward; we had no choice but to tell the truth. But that’s too simplistic a view.

The belief that the public’s right to know outweighs the consequences of our reporting is one that should always be open for debate. We made the right decision. The process we went through to reach that decision was a healthy one, and would be for any newsroom.

 

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