The Ontario Press Council ruled that including the complainant’s and his wife’s name in an article on the court proceedings of an individual convicted of drug related crimes exposed them to unwanted publicity and possible negative consequences in their careers.
Illustration courtesy of Eric Mark Do
Ontario Press Council Decision
Matter Regarding: Tunks vs Windsor Star– Article entitled: Man convicted of running marijuana ‘factory’, by Sarah Sacheli, published January 30, 2014 (2014-06)
The Council upheld a complaint from Steven Tunks against the Windsor Star regarding the naming of both him and his wife in an article reporting on the court proceedings of an individual convicted of drug related crimes. The article included the names of Mr. Tunks and his wife Jen St. Jean at the very end of the article, notwithstanding that neither of them had any material relationship to the actions of the accused which was the main focus of the article. Their involvement appeared to be related to the inability of the reporter and her photographer to capture a photo of the wife and mother-in-law of the accused exiting the Court house.
While not adding materially to the story, including the complainant’s and his wife’s name to the article, exposed them to unwanted publicity and possible negative consequences in their careers. Council finds there was no public interest purpose served by naming these individuals.
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Complainant Steven Tunks submitted a written complaint to the Council on January 30th alleging that he and his wife were verbally assaulted at the front door of the Court House by the reporter who wrote the article entitled Windsor Man convicted of running marijuana ‘factory’ and the photographer accompanying her. He further alleged that the reason was that he and his wife frustrated the photographer’s attempts to photograph the wife and mother-in-law of the accused; the accused apparently did not exit through the front but went out a back door. Following the event, Mr. Tunks began to receive phone calls informing him that he had been named in an article, identified as a friend of the accused, and having issued threats to the reporter. Mr. Tunks denies he issued threats but acknowledged his wife had implored the photographer not to take photos so that the young children of the accused would be spared the embarrassment of seeing their mother and grandmother’s photos published. He noted that he personally did not know the accused or his family, but his wife was a friend of the accused’s wife and had been there to give her moral support. Mr. Tunks further alleged that after he and his wife were named in the story they suffered several consequences that were injurious to their careers as bailiffs. His wife was denied re-registration as a bailiff and he was reprimanded by his employer.
The reporter and photographer’s perspectives and recollection differ from those of Mr. Tunks. As set out at the end of the article the reporter notes that the complainant and his wife “threatened a reporter and photographer to leave the family alone”. The Windsor Star provided a more fulsome response to Mr. Tunks complaint during a panel hearing where representatives noted that because the criminal activity being reported was an important one for the community and since Mr. Tunks and his wife had taken a direct interest in the trial they had become part of the story. The Windsor Star further expanded on this position by noting that it is customary for reporters and photographers to wait outside the Court House to take photographs as this is not allowed inside the Court room – therefore it considers the environs immediately outside the courthouse to be part of the reporter’s and photographer’s ‘workplace’ – by their actions, the complainant and his wife had encroached on their workplace and prevented them from doing their legitimate work which was to obtain a photograph.
The Hearing and Issue Considered:
Before the hearing the parties were advised that the hearing would focus on the narrow question of whether the newspaper’s decision to name Mr. Tunks, and his wife in the story and identify their professions was appropriate and could be justified as serving the public interest.
A hearing was conducted by teleconference on May 8, 2014. Attending were Mr. John Coleman, Editorial Page Editor, Arts and Lifestyles Editor, and Managing Editor Ms. Ellen VanWageningen representing the Windsor Star and Mr. Steven Tunks, the complainant representing himself and his wife. The Ontario Press Council panel hearing the complaint was comprised of Ms. Joanne De Laurentiis, Ms. Frances Lankin and Mr. Paul McCuaig. Also attending on behalf of the OPC was Executive Director, Mr. Don McCurdy and Interim Executive Director, Ms. Pat Perkel.
In the hearing both parties were given the opportunity to restate and elaborate on their positions.
The complainant’s main concern was that he and his wife were made part of a story in which they had no material role, but solely in retaliation for their part in frustrating the taking of a photograph. He further noted this had harmed their position in the community and in their workplace and that this negative impact would linger because searches of his name on the Internet now identified him with the accused. His expressed the desire that the Windsor Star remedy this internet search-link problem in particular by decoupling his and his wife’s name from the story.
Mr.Coleman and Ms. VanWegeningen defended the actions of the reporter by noting that Mr. Tunks and his wife had inserted themselves in the story by attending the trial, and then interfering with the taking of the photograph and it was therefore appropriate for their names to be included as a way to explain to the reader why a photograph of the accused had NOT been included in the article- a photograph of two other individuals who were part of the trial had been included but not of the accused. It emerged that in fact had a photo been taken it would not have been of the accused but of the wife and mother-in-law of the accused as the accused had exited through a back door and not the front where the incident took place.
The panel considered the arguments set out by the Windsor representatives as rationalizations for an action that stretched the definition of what was in in the public interest. The article, up to the point where the complainants were named was well written and clearly set out the matter of public interest – which described the reason the accused was on trial and his fate. The naming of the complainant and his wife was not relevant in order to provide the reader with all of the material elements of the story.
The Council upholds this complaint. The Council recommends to the Windsor Star, that in order for it to play its legitimate and very important role of fair and impartial observer and chronicler of events that are in the public interest, it must also ensure it respects individual’s right to privacy. And when it determines that individuals should be named in a story, the relevance should be clear and unassailable – particularly in this new electronic and digital environment where news continues to ‘live’. In this case Council is of the view that naming the complainant and his wife was not in the public interest nor appropriate.
This decision was provided by the Ontario Press Council for republishing.
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