On Coverage Of Wade Belak’s Death

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.


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