By Gavin Adamson, Sonya Fatah and Asmaa Malik
Content warning: This story discusses news coverage of death by suicide.
Media coverage of the tragic death of a former Toronto school principal raises serious concerns about responsible reporting on suicide, as well as informed coverage of how conversations about systemic racism continue to unfold in education and other institutions.
We recognize that newsroom leaders daily make difficult decisions on complex stories. However, as journalism educators – and practitioners – whose research focuses on news coverage of mental health and on how newsroom composition affects editorial decisions, we believe it’s important to highlight how coverage of this story falls short of established journalistic standards and principles.
In April, Richard Bilkszto sued the Toronto District School Board, alleging that his reputation was “systematically demolished” as a result of his interactions with the trainer who facilitated two anti-Black racism sessions in 2021, as described in a July 7 National Post column. Bilkszto’s subsequent death by suicide has sparked media interest in the details of the lawsuit. The first news report of his death appeared in a July 21 Toronto Star story headlined: “Former principal who sued TDSB over alleged bullying during anti-racism training dies by suicide.”
Most of these stories have linked the allegations in the lawsuit – and included selected excerpts of the exchanges with the DEI trainer – to his death by suicide. Several headlines have described the preceding circumstances as “bullying,” quoting the workplace safety and insurance board case manager who had handled Bilkszto’s successful claim of lost wages due to mental distress. In the wake of these stories, the Ontario education minister has now ordered a review into the allegations against the school board and the trainer and the TDSB has announced an investigation into the circumstances around Bilkszto’s death. Star columnist Shree Paradkar obtained the recordings of the sessions under contention. In her July 27 analysis, she finds the interactions to have been a far cry from the “bullying and harassment” alleged in the lawsuit.
The coverage of this story, which continues to have a ripple effect in political discourse and institutional action, raises critical questions about editorial decision-making and understanding of anti-racism concepts.
How did reporters and editors weigh their decision to report on Bilkszto’s death by suicide?
Newsrooms in Canada would usually not cover a death of a private individual such as Bilkszto, in adherence to two sets of recommendations about reporting on suicide. The Canadian Psychiatric Association’s policy paper on the subject, updated in 2018, and the other one, Mindset, now in its third edition, is published by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. Both were developed in collaboration with mental health professionals and journalists.
These published media guidelines share evidence, some of it led by researchers in Canada, that strongly suggests news coverage about suicide unfortunately begets more suicide. The so-called “contagion” risk is real, even though its operation culturally and socially is not completely understood by researchers. Journalists do infrequently sidestep these guidelines, such as when celebrities take their own lives. Their deaths are hard to keep private because of the nature of their careers, so it’s imperative that news organizations tread carefully in these cases.
But Bilkszto was not a celebrity or a politician. Yes, he had filed a lawsuit against the TDSB several months ago that would be stayed by the courts. Yet his death was considered newsworthy to editors at the Star, which first bypassed both sets of recommendations, and later those at the National Post. We reached out to the Star’s public editor earlier this week to discuss the decision to publish the July 21 story and he said in a July 31 email response that he will make inquiries.
Media outlets, of course, have the right to cover whatever they want and lawsuits can be newsworthy. However, editors constantly make decisions about what to cover, what not to cover, and where to allocate their resources. Given the potential for community harm, we consider why newsrooms have neglected to exercise the caution that would be consistent with their editorial guidelines.
How did newsroom leaders assess the potential impact of this story on people living with mental illness?
News organizations have a poor track record of reporting on mental illness outside of highly politicized moments, like this one, but often after mass shooting events, where both political actors opposed to gun control and sometimes uncautious, hasty coverage commonly fuel spurious associations between mental illness and violence or criminality. This is a grave disservice to their communities, readership and stakeholders. A significant portion of news coverage about mental illness — 30 to 75 per cent — is in the context of criminality and violence, according to Canada-based and international research.
Oft-quoted journalism textbooks refer to proportionality as part of the judgment of fairness and impartiality in coverage. Yet, here the numbers are so historically and consistently poor that mental health practitioners have recommended that their patients should avoid the news because it drives ignorance and stigma. Researchers describe that effects such as these interrupt help-seeking impulses for those living with mental illness. If editorial decision-makers want to show respect and care for those living with mental illness, they must put it into practice by avoiding simplistic explanations for a complex set of circumstances and behaviours. In the case of this particular story, an exchange during a DEI training session was portrayed as a causal factor for suicide.
Why have news organizations reported on the details of his lawsuit in connection with his death?
The Star’s journalistic standards guide specifically cautions against “(reaching) simplistic conclusions about why a person took their own life” and requires reporters to speak to editors before the publication of a story related to suicide. The professional guidelines also urge against making simple causal connections between suicide and single events – because, a range of global research shows, the causes are notoriously complex and multivariate. To be fair, the Toronto Star’s July 21 story describes this science in one paragraph, before reverting to its elaborate detailing of the circumstances of the lawsuit. This explanatory caution loses its impact and becomes tokenistic when the balance of the reporting re-establishes the link between this event and his death while briefly implying a cause-and-effect between the suicide and DEI training is unlikely. Moreover, this causal speculation has fuelled subsequent coverage, especially in our politically charged information ecosystem, and emboldened individuals and organizations opposed to equity and anti-racism work. Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce has said that an investigation will ensure that “this never happens again,” also reinforcing the causal link.
It is especially troubling that a majority of the stories, including those published in the Star, the Globe and the National Post, include the full name of the DEI facilitator named in the lawsuit and several others also include their photo. This leaves the facilitator and their company dangerously vulnerable to threats of hate and violence, including doxxing.
It’s not clear why newsroom leaders went against several well-established recommendations in reporting this story. While suicide crisis-line information was appended to some stories to address the potential of contagion, other alternatives would have been to not cover the story at all, or report more deeply on the tensions that arise in organizations that seek to introduce any programming intended to address equity issues in the workplace.
What kind of considerations were made about the potential impact of this story in a political and media environment that is increasingly hostile toward equity advocacy efforts in public-facing institutions?
In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of right-leaning movements against the teaching of critical race theory and affirmative action in the U.S., as well as in support of the so-called Freedom Convoy here in Canada. There have been recent campaigns to fuel denial of the realities of forced labour and education camps Indigenous children were sentenced to in Canada for more than a century. A rise in transphobia is reflected in our media, society and governance.
From our perspectives as researchers who analyze media coverage and editorial decision-making, it’s evident that the publication and proliferation of this story cements support for politically motivated discourse against foundational equity work and provides fodder for those who are opposed to challenging the status quo when it comes to racism and injustice.
CalState communication Prof. Katherine M. Bell writes in her insightful essay on misinformation and the movement against critical race theory, “the institutional norms, culture and routines (of newsrooms) don’t provide a framework against manufactured conflict.” The “both sides paradigm,” Bell says, keeps news organizations from writing from an anti-racist perspective and if they dare to venture to do so, journalists are quickly portrayed by the right-wing mainstream as being swayed by a left-leaning agenda.
Journalists who routinely cover equity-related issues, many of whom are from underrepresented communities themselves, are very familiar with the impact of these stories. News organizations are also well aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action addressing media coverage. The TRC report demands a conscious shift in reporting culture and practice on issues that impact Indigenous communities. Journalism as a public-service institution is now increasingly more aware of a violent history that is largely missing on the public record. So, what does it mean for journalism to “make a difference” when harmful coverage leads to the investigation of DEI training rather than the pursuit of a more meaningful understanding of the principles of equity and inclusion?
We’ve posed these important journalistic questions to attempt to shed light on how newsroom decisions and practices have cascading impacts on vulnerable individuals and communities. We would like to give journalists pause, and reason to reflect about the decision to cover this story, because there are now dozens of articles (including ours) about a suicide that arguably shouldn’t have been published. By disregarding the guiding principles of mental health reporting and by drawing politically charged conclusions, reporting on this story undermines the work so many journalists are doing to right the historical wrongs of our profession.
Gavin Adamson, Sonya Fatah (J-Source’s former editor-in-chief) and Asmaa Malik are faculty members of the School of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University.