breaking news

On Coverage Of Wade Belak’s Death

September 1st, 2011 | by torontosportsmedia

Gary Bettman’s legacy as the NHL commissioner is certainly going to based upon the viewpoint of the author who writes it. On his watch the league has expanded, franchises have relocated seasons have been shortened and one season has been cancelled entirely. However, it seems to me that whatever is remembered about Bettman, his actions on one issue may have the most profound effect on his legacy and that is how the league responds to this summer of death in the NHL.

I am not pinning this on Bettman in any way. However the opportunity and reason for action hasn’t been this ripe on a single issue in a long time. Too often in life we wait for an a result to fix a problem. Let’s hope that yet another death where an athlete takes their own life is enough to fix what ever is going on.

The bigger issue here is how this was reported by the media. Was the media (in general, not anyone outlet or individual) offside in how it reported the story? This isn’t easy to answer. Here, loosely is a summary of what may have unfolded today as has been explained to me surrounding the breaking news of Wade Belak’s death:

“Belak was apparently supposed to be on TSN Radio at 12:30 (according to Bryan Hayes on Twitter). Obviously, he didn’t show up, the station tried to called him, and failing that, likely his agent too.

At some point, a call was made to 1 King West where Belak was staying. Hotel management, based on the story from the Toronto Star, entered the room/suite and it seems like, based on the story in the Star, that search would have been prior to police being called. The hotel staff, it seems, found Belak dead and again, it seems that a call to the police followed after that.

The police show up at the hotel around 1:40, and after finding the body “call it in”, one would have to assume mentioning the deceased’s name. Immediately thereafter, the media scanners go bonkers. The Toronto Sun was on the scene and on the story in lightning speed. At around 5:30 Sun Media sends out an internal news alert saying that Wade Belak is dead. Within minutes, the story is public and the hotel is crawling with media.

Folks on site tell me that as per the Star story, reporters tried to get upstairs but were blocked by the police. It seems that it was the Toronto Sun had the suicide angle first.

At some time around 6pm the @fan590 twitter account stated that Belak had committed suicide.

Fan host Greg Brady tweeted that the story wasn’t true shortly thereafter “Incorrect. Someone very close to Belak says that appears NOT to be the case. Someone messed up/not happy about it.”

Around the same time Steve Simmons tweeted “The Toronto Sun is reporting Wade Belak’s death as a suicide. According to our news department, he hung himself.”

The Sun ran a story around the same time which stated the same information tweeted by Simmons. That story was later changed.

This is from the the story that is currently on the Toronto Star‘s website:

“Police responded to a call saying a body was hanging in a room at the tony 1 King West hotel and condo building where Belak was staying while rehearsing for CBC’s Battle of the Blades. A body was taken out of the side entrance at 7:40 p.m. and loaded into a waiting minivan”

Not that long ago twitter went wonky with the reported death of Pat Burns. In that case the uproar was about the media getting the story wrong. In this case, the media got it right. Yet still anger ensues. It leaves us with the question as to the role of the media, the tools they use and the ethical rules in which we want them to do their jobs.

Greg Wyshynski aka Puck Daddy was kind enough to answer some questions I posed on Twitter this evening.

First, on the issue of who got the story first: “We received an email from Fan 590 very early on sourcing that info to the Sun and QMI.”

I then asked Greg where he personally would draw the line : “There’s a sensitivity when someone takes their own life. Typically wait for family or police to release that info.”

I asked Greg if the details are fair game after the story is released “Reporting of details is a matter of respect to family, friends. In the end, it’s a news story. Each editor will see diffrnt”

Of course I pushed further, asking what HE would do in this case “I would have reported it when it had been (a) originally sourced by multiple outlets and (b) if it was newsworthy at time.”

And on the issue of releasing all the details surrounding the death? “If I was able to confirm the details myself, then it comes back to whether the COD is vital to what is essential an obit.”

Lastly I asked whether Greg would consider family notification prior to releasing the story “Not unless I was way, way ahead of the story. Otherwise you have to assume effort’s been made to inform them.”

Now, keep in mind two things. I am not throwing stones at any of the outlets that reported the story today. Furthermore, I pushed Greg for his personal thoughts on the matter.

To me anyways, Greg is bang on with two things. First, with respect to the cause of death, is the cause of death vital to an obituary? What a great bright line test. I am curious, those MSMers out there, do you agree with this test? It seems to make sense to me. It’s easy for me to judge, but it’s one thing to report that Belak had taken his life ( which I do think is essential to the obit) but quite another to report that he hung himself (which I don’t think is necessary).

That isn’t a shot at the Simmons for his tweet or the Star for their story. I do find it curious that both the Fan and the Sun later edited or deleted their original stories or tweets with those accounts.

The second point that I think is really important is that it’s not necessarily the media’s job to try to ascertain whether or not the next of kin have been notified. There is a difference between getting the story right and getting it first. In this case they got the story right. This wasn’t a rush to get it first only to be wrong. I would hope (and maybe this just isn’t realistic) that a reporter could inquire of a source if the family had been notified. However, it seems unreasonable to blame the press for being the ones to be the source the family learns tragic news from.

So, what do you think? What is the media’s roll here? Is it to get the story first? to get it first right? Dare I even suggest that a story get edited to leave out some details like the actual cause of death? Do we want the media to filter the news for us? The easy question is about the role of twitter as a medium for breaking news like this.

Let me know your thoughts, I am curious what you think.

In the end, the saddest part to me is that there are two little kids who won’t grow up with their dad in their lives. That’s tragic.

TSM

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40 Comments

  1. Pingback: Flames mourn loss of Belak – Toronto Sun

  2. Lou P. says:

    My condolences go out to the friends, family, and former teammates of Belak.

    Also, I hope that Belak’s brain is tested for signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a a progressive degenerative disease suffered by people who have sustained multiple concussions.

  3. mario says:

    R.I.P. Wade..this is so tragic to be a family member and to find out this way but as they say the media has a role and obigation to do and get it right.. as I see it confirm who it is report it then make sure you are very certian as to the cause of death… the media are not perfect I am only glade I don’t have to make that decision…

  4. Jamie says:

    Yes, the cause of death is vital to the story. Why are people — especially the media — so terrified to say the word suicide when that’s the cause of death?

    Look at Rick Rypien. Barely anyone in the media had the guts to report it as a suicide. “Shhhhh. It shouldn’t be said”…yes it should. It’s part of history, it’s how the person ended their life.

    People are naturally curious when someone dies. What I notice a lot of time is that people in the media like to know the real story themselves, solve their own curiousity but then get all high and mighty and don’t think anyone else should know the truth.

  5. victoria says:

    as a family we are friends with Graeme Belak having spent time with him while he played in the UK. I have to say that I think it is sad that the story has been reported like this so quickly without really giving the family chance to be informed first of the full details. Our thoughts are with Graeme, his sister in law and all the family. The McKenzie Clan.

  6. Matt says:

    Great article. I think the most important aspect for the media is getting the information right. All of it right. When I first heard I was in shock so I went to many outlets looking for confirmation. I’m sure many others did the same, in which case first may not actually be best.

    I’ll admit I wouldve felt a loss not knowing how he died. However, suicide wouldve sufficed. The lasting image of Belak I want is the smiling tough guy in the dressing room. Not dangling in a hotel room.

    Having said all of this, I can’t agree more with your final words. The tragedy here has nothing to do with Bettman, the NHL or the media. It’s that 2 little girls lost their dad today.

  7. Gerry (burlington) says:

    Tough question this morning TSM. I have a question myself first, if this isn’t a hockey player whom is beloved to the community are we all asking the same questions? ie. if it was a celebrity from the US, a socialite?

    My point is, I think we can all be quite protective of “our own” our hockey players. But if this was the media following a story of a hollywood celebrity, would anyone be asking these questions.

    I think the family has to be notifiied first, after that, if the media is accurate in their story they have every right to report.

    Very very sad day. I my thoughts and prayers were and are with Mrs. Belak and her children.

    I am no doctor, but the NHL, the NHLPA , Team owners/mgmt and Hockey Canada/Hockey USA need to have a long look at themselves and figure out what has caused this summer to be filled with tragedy.

    Lastly we as fans need to ask ourselves what we want hockey to be and what we want from our players. At the end of the day, isn’t hockey trying to do what we want since we are the customer?

  8. Andy says:

    In the world we live in, a fact is a fact. As long as the hanging story is accurate, tough for anyone who doesn’t wanna hear the truth, it’s what happened. Burying suicide and other taboos does not do anything to prevent them from reoccurring. If it spurs a discussion about the ills of the game or society (such as natives in Northern Ontario), and forces us to act, then so be it.

  9. Al from Burlington says:

    I think the media’s role in cases like this is too report the facts of what happened, when they have all the facts. The responsibility for family notifications first, lies with in this case, the police. Good luck with that when there is a local “celebrity” involved.
    When I first heard the news, it was “Foul play is not suspected” and then it was suicide. Why not just report the news of the persons passing and report the actula cause when it has been officially confirmed.
    If in fact he did take his own life, this is indeed very sad news on many levels. Suicide deaths hurt many more people for much longer periods of time. My thoughts are with his family.

  10. mike (in boston) says:

    TSM really shines when big stories break. Thanks for the tireless work compiling the various reports and timelines, and for your own analysis.

    Lots of great points were made in the thread yesterday, but one thing that irked me this morning involves the deleting of tweets and changing of on-line stories.

    the media seems to hold it itself to a different standard online than it does in print. It’s not okay to white wash a story post-facto. If you make a mistake or an editor changes his mind about running some detail, own it.

    On the method of death: a responsible publication could say that it was self-inflcited but that the exact method is not being described at this time.

    Lastly, TSM, could you get a clarification from Brady on whether he was denying Belak’s death or the fact that it was suicide. His tweet is ambiguous.

  11. Raptors Devotee says:

    #1 Get the story right. If you do that, I have no problem in releasing it unfiltered. If you don’t you will feel my wrath and lose my respect, making it extremely difficult to get back.

    #2 Twitter is just the medium allowing the story to get out there quickly in real time. Again, get the story right. If you have any doubts it is right, DO NOT Tweet it.

    #3 Even using Twitter, a news organization, be it the Star/Sun, will have an editor decide to let it roll. The buck stops with the editor and their editorial policy on releasing information before in this case, likely knowing the next of kin had likely not been notified.

    #4 In today’s world we have lost almost all of our personal privacy. I find that the younger people who have been used to it don’t know any better, as that is the world they have lived in, and for all of us, there is no turning back, so we might as well accept the new realities.

    #5 TSM, I agree with you 100%, the saddest part is the wife and two kids left behind to pick up the pieces and carry on. I would have preferred that they hear about it first before the media reports it, but in 2011 that level of decorum seems to be lost forever.

  12. cam says:

    First, my thoughts go out to the Belak family. I saw the effects first hand as a friend struggled to deal with the suicide of her husband and its effects on both her kids and her. I seriously hope the family was notified before the media onslaught.

    It is enough to report the cause of death as a suicide, in my mind there is no need for the details on how it was done. As to breaking the story, I can only hope in respect for the family it was held until they are notified. It appears given the confusion in the media and conflicting tweets that the rush to break this story took precedence.

    Having said that, get it right or get it first has always been the dilemma. Ideally you want both, but watch any breaking story with eyewitness reports which change as information emerges. It is inherent within journalism that sometimes you will need to act like a vulture to get the story. There is no easy answer but I believe it depends on the situation.

    In this situation, there is a larger story that will not suffer based on a bit of delay. Once past this initial story, I hope that the media treats the evolving story with intelligence and sensitivity. Perhaps I am naive but I do believe there is an extremely important role that the media can play in surfacing the issues, digging for the facts and acting as a catalyst for change.

  13. Drumanchor says:

    Unfortunately, when one makes their living in the “public eye”, their death at a young age is news. Naturally, people are going to be curious as to what happened.

    Professionally trained athletes generally just don’t drop dead at 35. Hence the concern.

    The fact that Mr. Belak chose to end his own life – and, thus, his own unspeakable pain – makes this a news story. Hopefully, his young wife and children were informed before Sun Media decided to be first to run with the cause of death.

    Which brings us to the other part of this story. The media has every right to report this story as they are in a very competitive business. The Sun seems to be willing to break these types of stories because, to be honest, they need the attention. I imagine they just cross their fingers in hoping their sources are correct.

    As for Mr. Belak’s decision, his pain has ended but his children’s pain has just begun.

    Suicide is a tough call and, to me, a cowardly one. Those kids have lost their dad – forever.

  14. Rob in Aurora says:

    What sticks out for me here is the story is being treated as being sensational first, then as a tragedy – with no forethought as to the deceased person’s privacy or dignity – Or for his family’s well being for that matter, which as suvivors is most important.

    Apparently there are ‘jumpers’ on the subway all the time, but the media has agreed with authorities not to cover them so as not to give anyone else any ‘wrong’ ideas. I think there has to be a similar consideration here. If this was a guy on a business trip who took his life in the Condo/hotel, how much coverage would it get?

    Belak is a former Leaf, who (apparently) committed suicide – I can see Simmons and a few others around town shaking with excitement at what a great story this was going to make (I realize they will feel bad and its a tragedy I heard Simmons on air and was sad, but also could not wait to say it was a suicide).

    I also know they all love a good, meaty story like this one too, which affects common sense on coverage and respect for someone’s posthumous digity)…Is “posthumous dignity” the correct term? It sounded pretty good when I wrote it…

  15. H.W. says:

    Gimme a break. He’s a person in the spotlight. He apparently committed suicide. It’s a story, details are fair game. Enough of this “one of our own” crap. I highly doubt by the way, the same moral outrage over media coverage would apply to a black athlete in this country.

    But moving on, let’s make an even more disturbing suggestion. Suppose it was accidental, along the lines of a David Carradine/Michael Hutchence thing. It’s merely a suggestion and I understand it’s unpleasant, but what if? Is it a story then? You bet. Is it tragic for the family? Absolutely. But it’s a major story. And stop saying MSM had to do this because of the business climate they’re in. They’ve been competing over stories for centuries.

    Even new media – re: Deadspin – wouldn’t hesitate for a second to break a big story.

  16. Rob in Aurora says:

    I like Drumanchor’s comment better than mine…there is no way to edit…Reminds me of the Toronto Sun!

  17. Chris F. says:

    Drumanchor said it all though I do have to look at the Sun’s actions with the thought of “jeez that’s nearly tabloid journalism tactics”. I do think it’s fair to get the story out first BUT accurately however I don’t think actually saying how the suicide happened is in good taste.

    Anyways my condolences to the Belak family and boy does Gary Bettman and the NHL have a tough situation on their hands. It’s always tragic when one person ends their life in this manner but 3 in the past few months is getting into “creepy pattern” territory here.

  18. Sean says:

    I didnt want to post on this, but seems like I may add something to the convo.

    I live at 1 King W and witnessed first hand everything yesterday.

    Not going to get into names or point fingers, but ill say this…

    -The lengths that certain media members went to to get this story, to get into the suite that Mr. Belak was staying, and how they handled themselves at the scene, made me ashamed at the lengths that some will go to be ‘the first’.

    -Media Members where planning on ways to aviod police and get into the suite and take photos.

    -The rumour in the lobby was that the Sun’s source was a hotel worker who was told of what happened, not someone who witnessed it first hand.

    If that is indeed true, whats that say about journalistic standards?

  19. JC says:

    That’s what a journalist’s job description is. Getting stories. If answers frighten you, don’t ask scary questions.

  20. Gerry (Burlington) says:

    Interesting that TSN has an article by Bob Mackenzie regarding Belak and no mention of suicide as it pertains to his death.

    TSN and the League are joined at the hip.

  21. Al from Burlington says:

    @Sean – You are talking about the Toronto Sun. This surprises you?

  22. PBI says:

    Great point about the McKenzie piece, Gerry.

    We know TSN is shamelessly in bed with the NHL as we saw with how they reacted to the Brunt/Winnipeg story but to completely overlook how Belak died just so they don’t have to address the elephant in the room is a new low.

  23. RJ says:

    A former Leaf player dies prematurely and finally the centre of the hockey universe starts to draw the obvious conclusions regarding fighting in the game. The other previous deaths may have just been the opening act, I guess…

  24. lh says:

    @RJ i suspected some cynics would think that the story is bigger with Belak than others because he was a former Leaf. but i think the facts are clear: 1 death in the off-season is sad; 2 deaths is a coincidence; 3 deaths in four months is a sign that there is a serious problem.

  25. SVG says:

    Things I’ve noticed in the coverage of these matters lately:

    –When Rick Rypien died, only one news outlet that night reported that it was a suicide. Most other networks steered clear of that word. (I actually liked the way Don Taylor did it on Sportsnet: he said ‘Draw your own conclusions,’ then focused on telling us about the man, not the death.)
    –With Belak yesterday, it seemed to me that outlets were clammering over each other to get the cause of death and the suicide angle. Maybe it’s because he was an ex-Leaf who happened to still live in Toronto. To me, it says a lot about how far certain media types in this city (and I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush) will go to break a story. I’m not saying that it’s not news – obviously it is. However, the outward appearance of the way it was handled rankled me a little, especially with the instant nature of twitter. And, not to pick on one person, but Steve Simmons’ tweets were a little pass-the-buck to me. It was basically “Wade Belak hung himself’, then ‘hey, that’s what the Sun’s news department was saying, not me.’ (I’m paraphrasing of course – that’s the impression I got from reading those tweets back to back.) Dude, let the Sun’s news department tweet that, not you. By the way, I hope neither of Wade’s kids use twitter. Can you imagine them reading that.
    —One of the most deplorable things about all that was written and said yesterday: Wade’s MOTHER found out via the media, not from her own family. At least give the family time to tell loved ones. Disgusting!

  26. Neal says:

    I just don’t think the media should be reporting on cause of death without the police holding court first. The police come onto the scene and usually report their findings. For the media to report on the cause first without checking with police is irresponsible journalism and as you’ve cited they had to pull back some of their claims. The media has to remember that family members are part of the listening, watching and reading audiences and due diligence has to be exercised. Report the Who and What but leave off the How’s and Why’s until the police report.

  27. Henk says:

    Right on PBI. I used to work at TSN. I once wrote a “Sportscentre” script for a very well-known yet unnamed talent on then-Bombers QB Khari Jones deciding against trying out at an NFL training camp. The jist of the script was Jones opts not to “hold a clipboard in the NFL.” The talent told me there was no way he could read it because he knew management would flip out. As you know, the CFL is also in bed with TSN. What’s funny here is the network is sort of non-directly admitting that CFL QB’s are inferior though.

  28. Bobby G says:

    So first a commenter takes the Holier Than Thou attitude with The Sun then turns around and calls Belak a coward. Nice touch. So essentially he/she knows absolutely nothing about any aspect of this story. Nobody at any media organization in this city was was using hotel staff as a source. That’s absurdist Hollywood lore. The only thing I know about the Sun’s reporter on this story is that he is a veteran police reporter. That tells us much of what we need to know about this story — that, and the fact it was the news departments reporting on this story not sportswriters who rarely go beyond holding up a mic at a scrum. Give the amateur sleuthing a rest.

  29. Gerry (burlington) says:

    So TSN has chosen not to call the death Suicide, nor speculate on cause of death. Yet go to ESPN and they report it with a headline saying he hung himself.

    Doesnt ESPN still own 20% of TSN. I recognize ESPN won’t obey TSN’s wishes, but something about this seems a bit off. Have to believe the Hockey dept’s work together somewhat don’t they or rather wouldn’t they?

  30. Eggbert says:

    “the tears of a clown, when there’s no one around”

  31. chuck says:

    Is “Puck Daddy” really going to be the person you want to quote as an expert on media ethics? How about some real reporters?

  32. Dawn says:

    Unforigvable that his family finds out through media reports that he has died. Is there no respect left in this world? Surely the media could have waited an hour so the family could have been notified……shameful.

  33. Katie says:

    Isn’t there a difference between someone who seeks attention (I’m thinking reality tv media ho) and a professional hockey player? Suicide can torment loved ones in horrible ways – the idea that their husband/father/son/friend/etc ‘chose’ to leave them can haunt them forever. It’s enough to lose your husband to suicide without having to find out the gory details through someone’s twitter account. It’s not our business. He died too young and suddenly, was there really any doubt in anyone’s mind what happened? Sensationalizing Belak’s tragic death was awful and unnecessary.

  34. chuck says:

    @dawn, come on. what if belak’s family was out of the country? then you wait until they’re been located? you ask the police to please let you know when they’ve been notified? and all the press are going to agree to that stipulation? it’s hardly shameful. at worst it’s unfortunate.

  35. Pingback: The problem with full “indisclosure” | The Hockey Writers

  36. Dawn says:

    no parent should have to find out their child has died on the news.

  37. Pingback: Wade Belak's death must be drawn into light of day | Pardon The Eruption

  38. Pingback: The Belak file and the problems with full "indisclosure" | Haliburton News.ca

  39. SmellsFishy says:

    Great article. Couple things missing though. What about when it was briefly reported that the cause of death had been changed to accidental. This was on Sept 4, recent searches don’t pull up any of those news reports. We all know there’s more to the story, everyone is being polite not to speculate too much, out loud or in print anyways. It’s a tragic death regardless of suicide or accidental. But there is definitely more to this story and unlikely it will ever come out in my opinion. Even his family confesses it was accidental. Tragedy nonetheless tho, RIP Wade

  40. Pingback: The Belak file and the problems with full "indisclosure" | Pardon The Eruption

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