Expositor publisher decries teen’s fake online death story

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LITTLE CURRENT – At the end of July, a disturbing post made its way around some social media circles on Manitoulin. The post appeared to be a news article written by Manitoulin Publishing Company’s own Tom Sasvari and spoke of a young man of Little Current losing his life in a tragic boating accident. The post was, however, not true and left many reeling in horror at what was later determined to be a prank, a hoax.

The post closely resembled The Manitoulin Expositor and Manitoulin West Recorder’s online platform Manitoulin.ca and has the headline ‘Boating crash claims a local youth’s life in Little Current’ and ran under the byline of reporter Tom Sasvari. Below the headline is a picture of the teen and his family. The ‘article’ follows below and outlines the boating tragedy that claimed the young man’s life.

“To the untrained eye, it would be easy to believe that this article was posted by one of our own,” said Alicia McCutcheon, publisher of the Expositor and Recorder. “We are so sorry to have been dragged into such a nasty prank, especially in light of the tragic circumstances surrounding two local families who have lost loved ones in water-related accidents in recent weeks. It was poor timing and poor judgment.”

Mr. Sasvari told The Expositor that in over 30 years of reporting on Manitoulin, this was the first time his name had been besmirched in such a way. The reporter said he felt horrible for the family members who saw the post without knowing the backstory—a group of friends decided to create a false news story claiming the loss of one of their lives. “I couldn’t imagine what the family must have thought,” he said.

“It’s irresponsible and with so many bad things that are going on in life as it is, what’s the point?” Mr. Sasvari queried. “I just couldn’t believe it, and to use my name? What did I do?”

Mr. Sasvari, known for his good nature, said he tried to think of the prank from the teens’ point of view, “but there is nothing funny, any way you look at it.”

“It was pretty disheartening to see my name up there, it really was,” Mr. Sasvari added.

The Expositor’s libel lawyers, O’Donnell, Robertson and Partners of Toronto, were notified of the prank in case of legal action. Doug Richardson, speaking on behalf of the firm, explained that from this newspaper’s standpoint there were numerous legal actions that could take place, the most serious of which is a criminal charge for public mischief. Under the Criminal Code, section 140 (1) states: Everyone who commits public mischief who, with intent to mislead, causes a peace officer to enter on or continue an investigation by (d) reporting or in any other way making it known or causing it to be made known that he or some other person has died when he or that other person has not died.

Everyone who commits public mischief is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction, as per the Criminal Code.

The prank also brings up two civil court issues, Mr. Richardson noted, defamation of both this newspaper and of Mr. Sasvari. A third civil issue that could easily be brought forward is also a matter of trademark infringement.

Ontario Provincial Police Constable Renee Lalonde agreed with Mr. Richardson’s findings, noting, “This is taken very seriously by the OPP and charges can be laid for any of the above. Pretending to be dead or someone else dying can cause a lot of stress on family, friends and community members. This is not a ‘joke’ that is considered to be funny. It is harmful and is not acceptable in any way.”

“Lying to make someone look bad or again as a joke can get you charged criminally,” Constable Lalonde added. “Find less harmful and hurtful ways to play a prank on someone.”

“While Manitoulin Publishing Company is not currently pursuing legal action, we felt it was prudent to share just how serious the consequences of such a prank are and we sincerely hope that the parties involved will have learned a lesson in all of this,” Ms. McCutcheon said.