Mother. Journalist. What it’s like when the tables are turned

Two years ago, journalism professor Janice Neil was suddenly thrust into the middle of a harrowing incident, the near-death of her son. It was a big story, but nobody got the narrative right: the long grind of court process meant reporters weren’t always there to catch the facts. Neil, J-Source editor-in-chief, asks: Can court reporting provide anything other than a distorted view of the truth?

Two years ago, I was suddenly thrust into the middle of a harrowing incident, the near-death of my son.

As a journalist with more than 20 years as a reporter and producer, I had covered grisly incidents and grief-stricken families, but they were other people’s stories. It was fascinating to suddenly be part of the audience, seeing and hearing how this unbelievable event was being captured and portrayed, to see how the story was pursued and shaped by the journalistic process.

I gained a new admiration for persistence in the chase but now also appreciate how subjects may feel used and bruised when the story falls off the front page.

The incident

My son, Jacob, was one of five boys standing on a Toronto subway platform in February 2009, when a man pushed them just as the train was rolling into the station. Jacob and one friend, Asaf, fell onto the tracks. Asaf spotted a 1.5-metre alcove under the platform and pulled Jacob into it with him. As Jacob told me an hour later as he lay on the hospital gurney, “Mom, Asaf saved my life.”

At the hospital that night, as Jacob was in surgery for crushed toes (Asaf was released without injury), I wasn’t surprised to catch glimpses of reporters hanging around. The incident had many newsworthy elements: a heroic rescue, the randomness that points out the risk of public transportation travel, plus the fact it was the beginning of a normally news-starved holiday weekend.

As family, I had access to the privileged information so often denied to us as journalists, but I depended on reporters who had access to the outside world of information. Through their reports with police sources and witnesses, I learned more about the incident and the accused (for instance, that he was known to police and that he had run out of his anti-psychotics and anti-depressants) than we were told by investigators.

Although not all of those early reports were correct, I admired the reporters’ dogged persistence: even though police told us they didn’t release any information about the victim or the other boys, one newspaper (the Toronto Sun) published Jacob’s name within hours of the incident and a TV crew showed up on Asaf’s driveway, politely seeking a clip of ‘the hero’.

It was difficult to negotiate my dual positions as mother and journalist — even initially when I was still in a state of shock, I empathized with reporters’ thirst for first-hand accounts from the boys because my professional gut told me this was an incredible story. But I waved away media requests — even those from friends — after the boys chose to give just one interview to the Globe and Mail’s Christie Blatchford (at the time, Jacob’s dad, Edward Greenspon, was The Globe’s editor). They asked me why the rest of the reporters couldn’t just repeat her story rather than begging for their own fresh quotes. They quickly tired of seeing themselves in print and, since then, have turned down all interview requests.
As teenagers, they don’t want to stand out from their peers.

I know even the hottest stories cool quickly, especially when the dramatic spark becomes the dim blur of process. While reporters packed the courthouse when Adenir De Oliveira was charged with three counts of attempted murder and assault, interest faded when his not guilty plea meant weeks of psychiatric assessment and routine court appearances. When he was finally declared fit to stand trial two months later, not a single story was published.

I experienced the same ADD-like coverage during the trial last fall. During the first few days, reporters flocked to court but then coverage became spotty as court reporters popped into other trials, including a dominatrix conspiracy and an infanticide case. It’s impossible, I know, for reporters to watch most cases from beginning to end, but now I saw how reporting can become what one lawyer has called “a distorted view of what actually happened in the trial.” Earl Levy, a former president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, described in a 1990 article how “a witness may give evidence through questioning by the Crown prosecutor that can sound very damaging. The cross examination, however, could blunt the inflammatory evidence that came out earlier, but the newspaper reader may never read that.”

This may explain why, during the trial, some reporters and columnists portrayed De Oliveira sympathetically, as a man suffering from severe depression with
psychotic episodes who fell through the cracks of our medical system.

“He was caught in a quandary terrible and typical,” Blatchford summarized the evidence from the psychiatrist for the defence. “His depression was worsening, Dr. Gojer said, but it was ignored or ‘treated half-heartedly’ by the medical professionals he saw…. Mr. De Oliveira was practically screaming in his clumsy way for help.”

Two days earlier, Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote that the court had learned “how damnably difficult it can be for a bewildered person, coping — or failing to cope — with frightening symptoms to obtain the help so clearly required before it all goes off the rails.”

While casting our medical system as broken, especially for the mentally ill, fits the narrative that ‘crazy people commit many crimes’ a different perspective emerged later. His family doctor treated him for depression for eight years and arranged for referrals, but De Oliveira refused to follow up — the doctor even saw him when he showed up without an appointment. It sounded like the doctor had done everything he could to make sure De Oliveira did not fall through mental health system’s cracks. The prosecution’s psychiatrist concluded that De Oliveira was suffering but not psychotic. Only a few lines in the Star’s Greater Toronto Area section were devoted to this alternative perspective.

I’m not suggesting reporters deliberately avoided covering the other side, but selective reporting, especially in a criminal trial in which evidence is presented in a linear fashion, suggests confirmation bias — a desire to support a pre-established opinion.

As a journalist, I know a lack of discipline with even the slightest details in a story erodes our credibility with even the most forgiving audience. As someone at the centre of this story who knew the facts cold, I’d argue the coverage of this story was better than those in American studies who told Steven Maier they detect errors in 41 to 60 percent of stories.
Still, I now appreciate how even so-called ‘minor’ errors can cause major emotional heartache. For me, it began on the first day of the trial last September. I arrived at court late from work to hear dramatic testimony from the TTC driver, who described rounding the corner into the subway station, seeing two boys fall onto the tracks and then hearing noises underneath, thinking he had run them over. This first-hand evidence was disturbing for me and, as an emotional pause, I surreptitiously logged on to my iPhone to read news stories about the earlier testimony I had missed.

I gasped at two factual errors: that the incident had occurred on Jacob’s 15th birthday and that three of his toes had been amputated. Both ‘facts’ were attributed directly to the crown attorney. I approached her when court adjourned and described the errors — the incident happened the day after his birthday and Jacob had lost only two toes. She replied that she’d taken the information straight from the medical report.

The same ‘errors’ were repeated in all the stories from that first day in court.
As a journalist, I wanted to empathize with the reporters who were dutifully recording what the prosecutor said and not bug them to correct the mistakes. As a reporter in the past, I received calls from sources who felt I’d erred. I hope I was always polite to them, but, I’m ashamed to admit, I dismissed some as whiners complaining about ‘inconsequential errors’. Now, as a mother, I wanted to rehabilitate the public record for my son’s sake. The difference between two and three toes might seem slight, but it was significant to me. It was the difference between losing a majority of the toes on his foot and losing only a couple of them. Somehow, that was important.

I went on a mission to restore Jacob’s third toe. I stayed up half the night, sending courteous notes to five reporters and columnists. According to Steven Maier, I’m a rare beast: His investigation found few sources — about 11 percent — bother to contact newspapers about corrections, presumably assuming it would be futile, believing news organization either ignore or cover up serious errors.

The public may be skeptical about corrections, but my experience was the opposite. Within an hour, the Globe’s Christie Blatchford responded. She was aghast, especially since she’d looked at stories she had written the year before to check some facts. Even though her original stories were correct, she’d gone with the prosecutor’s testimony. The response from others was equally impressive. Over the next day, other journalists (including the Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English) promised to print corrections and the Globe corrected its online versions.  (Later, the Crown corrected the information on the record, in open court.)

My experience seems to match what a study in Ireland found, that “sources are implicitly concentrating on the truth dimensions of the reports in which they are cited while journalists appear more focused on the accuracy of the various elements of those reports.” Errors of fact and meaning were conspicuous in stories but only a close, well-informed reader, such as me in this case, would likely notice. In some reports about my son’s case, the accused was 47 years old, in others, he was 49. His name appeared as both DeOliveira and the correct De Oliveira. DiManno accurately described him sitting blankly in court day after day with “the same greasy and stringy hair, the same un-groomed [sic] beard.” But the court sketch that accompanied her column was of a completely different man — younger, clean-shaven and alert. I know our fallibility knows no limits; that  as hard as we try, sometimes we get the facts wrong, or they become wrong in the editing process.  In what can best be described as delicious irony, the version of this story that  was published in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, contained an error of fact in the lede, that crept in while being fact-checked and thoroughly edited.  

Last October, the judge ruled De Oliveira was not criminally responsible because of his mental state at the time. What happens to him next, whether he’s still a risk to society, has not yet been determined; the hearing for that process is scheduled for the end of March but has been postponed three times so far.

As journalists, we’re constantly straddling impartiality with empathy.  Suddenly being thrust into the centre of a story, seeing how thought fragments are parsed into clips and quotes is informative and humbling and something every journalist should experience. 

Portions of this story appeared as “Both sides now,” in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Winter 2011.