The perception of journalism as too often heartless and exploitive confronts almost every reporter eventually and leaves them struggling: when does lending comfort and aid become unethical engagement and interference in a story? J-Source looks at the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of the Amanda Todd coverage, based on an account given by Todd’s mother.

By Ross Howard

Ultimately, nobody looks good when a reporter covering a heartbreaking story crosses the line and become a victim’s friend, grief counsellor and public relations adviser.

That is what Vancouver Sun reporter Gillian Shaw and photographer Mark Yuen did, according to the mother of Vancouver teenager Amanda Todd, who committed suicide last year after being bullied.    

The Vancouver Sun team provided exceptional support in the Todd family home for two weeks after Amanda’s death—answering phone calls, cooking, shielding the family from other media and winning exclusive access to report the family’s perspective—according to Carol Todd’s October 30,  2013, blog on the Huffington Post Canada’s IMPACT page.

“They didn’t stay as journalist and photographer. They have become life-long friends who shared the journey of loss with me” Todd wrote. “Gillian and (photographer) Mark (Yuen) assimilated into life. They answered the door. Took flowers in. Gave out tissues. Answered phone calls that were probably other media outlets.

“The media contacted and came in droves” and the family decided to let only the Vancouver Sun do the story, Todd wrote. “Gillian helped us learn how to shield and protect ourselves from the masses.” 

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Todd’s HuffPost piece concluded with “thank-you Gillian for trusting me and allowing me to read what you had written before you sent your pieces to your editor.”

Todd’s piece was clearly intended as praise for the Sun team’s sensitivity to the family and to the online bullying issue, but it immediately sparked a debate within the journalism community over whether the Sun had replaced empathy with sympathy and started doing public relations for the family.  

Some comments on HuffPost suggested readers appreciated the journalists’ humanity in their handling of the family. But on other sites, others questioned if Shaw’s behaviour could “cause the readers to question the completeness or accuracy of her reporting…. I think there's a problem,” commented journalist and Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman on a Vancouver journalism discussion site called Press Club.

The questioning also veered into whether by shielding the family from other media the Sun team could be perceived as self-interested or predatory. 

“Please post the notes from Ethics class about this issue,” commented one of my former students at Langara College, where I teach journalism.

The perception of journalism as too often heartless and exploitive confronts almost every reporter eventually and leaves them struggling: when does lending comfort and aid become unethical engagement and interference in a story? Inexperienced reporters particularly agonize over feeling helpless when reporting tragedies, unaware that reliably, dispassionately informing the public is a crucial contribution. Aside from immediate life-saving efforts, the professional guideline seems to be that small gestures and interventions that do not change the story are acceptable. Doing PR for a story subject is not.


But maybe it didn’t happen, in this case.

The morning after Todd posted her revealing description of her relationship with the Sun reporters, it disappeared from HuffPost site and was replaced with a noticeably different version. 

"The author has made amendments to the original text," HuffPost stated without revealing what was changed or why.

The amended version attracted more questioning because it omitted details of the closeness between the journalists and the grieving family, excised reference to their media-handling role and said nothing of Shaw allowing Todd to screen her reporting. Instead it ended with a thank you that “the story got written with the right facts.”

The Vancouver Sun won’t discuss the facts. Asked to comment on Todd’s original post about the Sun, managing editor Valerie Casselton said “we stand by our reporters.” She directed all other questions to  Todd.

Todd now says she isn’t clear on what happened. Her controversial amended blog entirely disappeared a few days later from HuffPost “after the blogger expressed reservations about her ability to accurately recall the events described therein,” according to a note posted in its place. "The original post was edited at the blogger's request without full transparency, which is in breach of HuffPost guidelines. An editor on duty mistakenly approved the edit. We regret the error,” HuffPost blogs editor Marni Soupcoff said later in a post on Press Club.    

There is no way of knowing what really happened, with all sides screening their answers carefully.

Blogs sometimes raise important ethical questions about journalists and media outlets. More transparency here seems an obvious antiseptic to the festering concerns about how the Sun handled the Todd stories and handled fellow media.

Ironically, Todd set out to praise her friends at the Vancouver Sun rather than raise the spectre of an alleged inconvenient truth about how journalists handled the story.  

Todd wrote her initially revealing blog the same night it was announced that the Vancouver Sun had won a Jack Webster Award for the best print news story of the year for its coverage of Amanda Todd.

The Webster judges who selected the Sun team’s work never saw Todd’s troubling descriptions of a close, reliant and collaborative relationship with the Sun.

Ross Howard teaches Journalism at Langara College in Vancouver.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.