Analysis

Jeremy Quaile's death by suicide raises questions for the law, journalism and how we interact on social media

Jeremy Quaile's death by suicide raises questions about the impacts modern media — and the mob mentality that often accompanies it — have on an accused who's already struggling with mental health issues.

Jeremy Quaile's death by suicide raises questions for the law, journalism and how we interact on social media

Jeremy Quaile died by suicide at the age of 45. At left, a temporary marker identifies his grave site in a Calgary cemetery. At right, he's seen as a younger man, on a camping trip. (Left: Robson Fletcher/CBC; right: Jim Gountounas)

This story was originally published on April 16. 

If you look at the risk factors for suicide, Jeremy Quaile ticked many of the boxes.

He was a middle-aged man. His alcohol use had increased. He was withdrawing, increasingly, from family and friends.

These things have been linked with an elevated risk of suicide in decades' worth of research. But, in the months leading up to his death last December, he also faced a new factor, one that is less understood.

He was accused — in a highly public and digital way — of bringing harm to an animal. 

He never faced trial. He never even entered a plea. But his rare and easy-to-Google name was firmly attached to the accusation. And with that came the judgment, swift and harsh.

We don't know what role, if any, this played in his death. His loved ones believe the non-criminal charge he faced — and the visceral public reaction to it — had an impact on his already fragile state of mind. But they don't go so far as to suggest a direct, causal link. And mental health experts say suicide is almost never the result of one, single factor.

At the same time, animal cruelty laws exist for a reason. And when a person is charged with violating those laws, there is a public interest in having that information made available in a public way.

But Quaile's case raises questions about the broader impacts that modern media — and the mob mentality that often accompanies it — can have on an accused who's already struggling with mental health issues.

How do we treat people charged with breaking a law that ranks low on the justice system's scale of severity but high in terms of public outrage? Do we publish their names, knowing the penalties handed down by the court of public opinion may outstrip any legal penalties eventually handed down by a court of law?

And what if they turn out to be innocent? Or, at least, not as guilty as the mob immediately assumes?

The truth of a matter can take months, even years, to sort out.

But, these days, the consequences can be immediate.

The pace of justice and media

In Quaile's case, those consequences began last July, when his dog was left inside a hot car and died of hyperthermia.

Knightley, an eight-year-old black lab, was confined within the vehicle for several days as outside temperatures soared as high as 31 C.

Exactly how long she had been in the car is unclear. You can read more about that in the first article of this two-part series.

The short version is that Quaile said it was an accident. He said he lost track of Knightley while on a multi-day drinking binge and suggested someone else might have put the dog in his vehicle. He told his family he had reported the dog missing, but the Calgary Humane Society says that's not true.

Peace officers with the animal protection agency investigated and found enough evidence to charge him under Alberta's Animal Protection Act. The humane society then issued a press release about the charge, which was quickly picked up by the news media.

Quaile's side of the story wasn't part of the initial coverage last July, however. And that's pretty typical, given the order — and pace — of events that usually unfold in cases like this.

Knightley was an eight-year-old black lab that was a constant companion to Jeremy Quaile, according to his loved ones. (Jeremy Quaile/Facebook)

Major crimes are handled differently, but when a more modest charge is announced, news organizations will usually publish an early story about the charge, itself, often written directly from a press release. Sometimes those stories are fleshed out later in the same day, with a bit more detail.

But, even then, it's rare for much context to be included in these initial stories. Law enforcement agencies are reluctant to say too much while the matter is before the courts. And the accused, acting on the advice of lawyers, almost never give interviews.

So, while there are two sides to a story, neither is particularly clear this early on. Over time, more of the truth emerges as a case works its way through the courts.

This is part of the open-court principle that guides our justice system. From the initial charge to the final verdict, it's all part of the public record.

But sorting out a matter in court can take months. In the meantime, the public can lose interest and the initial story about the charge can end up as the only one most people remember.

That's especially true if the story strikes a nerve right off the bat, as cases of animal neglect or abuse tend to do.

Animal neglect and mental health

Stories about animals being mistreated evoke something deep within our psyches and sometimes elicit stronger reactions, especially online, than stories about humans being mistreated.

Bruce Cameron with Social Media ROI, a consulting firm that specializes in digital communication, believes it has to do with the deeply human desire to do something — anything — when confronted with a terrible situation, but only if we believe we can make a difference.

"Cruelty to animals touches a raw nerve for a lot of people because it's something they feel they can probably have an impact on," he said.

"If it's something as terrible as human trafficking happening halfway around the world, well, people feel powerless to influence or really stop that."

The result can be seen in the social media response to any number of animal neglect cases, which routinely include calls for stiffer penalties under the law and, in some cases, calls for violence from people who want to take the law into their own hands.

And so we get comments like "Get a rope!" in response to the Calgary woman who hoarded 89 cats in deplorable conditions.

The Calgary Humane Society seized 89 cats from a woman's home in 2016, many of them suffering from health conditions. (Calgary Humane Society)

Or, in response to the woman who had 200 dogs seized from her property in Milk River, Alta., and later fled to Jamaica: "Start some rumors about her and she'll be killed in the streets like a rat."

The difficulty is that these types of cases can involve people with mental health issues. Animal hoarding, in particular, is now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder.

"It is something we are seeing throughout North America and around the world, actually," Randall Lockwood, a psychologist with the American SPCA, told CBC News.

"One of the characteristics of the animal hoarder is they have very little insight into the harm they are causing. They feel they are doing nothing wrong. They feel persecuted by legitimate humane groups, animal control, and law enforcement."

In Quaile's case, hoarding wasn't an issue. But friends and family believe his struggles with addiction played a role in the series of events that led to him being charged in relation to his dog's death.

The digital effect

Twenty years ago, a non-criminal charge like the one he faced might not have made the news. If it did, you probably wouldn't see it on the front page of a newspaper or leading a TV broadcast.

But things are different in the digital age.

What might have been a minor news item in the past can quickly turn into a major online sensation, as audiences share and re-share it over social media.

Animal stories, in particular, tend to go viral. And Quaile's case was no exception.

News articles about the charge he faced — complete with a photo the humane society released of his dead dog wrapped in a black garbage bag — circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter.

The remains of a female black lab that the Calgary Humane Society says was 'left in a car for an extended period of time during extremely hot weather.' (Calgary Humane Society)

Outraged readers didn't hold back in their comments. Looking to mete out their own form of justice, some tried to dig up personal details about where Quaile worked and lived. They called on him to be fired (not realizing he had already lost his job nearly two years earlier) or "visited" at home by those willing to take their vigilantism offline.

Others simply hurled insults at him. More than a few levelled threats.

His mother, Lynda Diotte, said it all had an effect on her son.

"It made him feel like he was some kind of monster," she said.

The coverage and the reaction also bothered Jim Gountounas, one of Jeremy's closest friends since childhood.

"He was so distraught," Gountounas said. "He felt shame because his name was in the news. And they made him sound like he was the worst person, ever."

The weight of accusation

The specific wording of the charge against Quaile is to "cause or permit an animal ... to be in distress." A conviction carries a maximum fine of $20,000. In practice, though, the fines tend to max out around $5,000.

But the accusation, alone, can be even more costly.

"It can destroy lives and reputations, because there's this immediate rush to judgment — long before anything has been heard in court or the facts have been sorted through," said Cameron, with Social Media ROI.

"The actual impact of that is, in some cases, even greater than the [penalty] set by the courts."

For those at risk of suicide, it can also "exacerbate the situation," said Robert Olson with the Centre for Suicide Prevention, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"It might be a precipitating factor, if the individual is already at risk, to put him or her over the edge," Olson said.

Allan Quaile questions why the humane society chose to bring attention to his son's case, in particular, while other people accused of criminal acts go through the justice system without such fanfare.

The humane society wouldn't comment on that for this story.

Last summer, however, the agency suggested part of the reason was to make other dog owners aware of the consequences of leaving their pets in hot vehicles.

Brad Nichols with the Calgary Humane Society, giving an interview to CBC News about charges against a woman who hoarded cats in her home in 2016. He declined to speak with us about how Jeremy Quaile's case was handled. (CBC)

At the time, senior investigations manager Brad Nichols said "this is an important message for the public ... and should serve as a sobering deterrent."

And Peter Sankoff, a law professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in the relationship between animals and the law, says there is an important "communicative function" when it comes to reporting on these kinds of charges.

"It's in the public interest to know the sorts of activities that are going in the community, where harm is being caused — especially to animals, who are particularly vulnerable," he said.

"Especially in a case like that, when an animal dies by being neglected in a car, there's a huge public function," Sankoff added.

"These cases come up every year. So, as a result, it's really important to continue to remind owners that they can't leave their dogs in cars. There's a lot of evidence to show people consistently underestimate the heat in the car and the extent to which the dog is going to suffer."

Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, is generally in favour of more information being made publicly available. At the same time, he says it can be tough to gauge the full impacts that releasing some kinds of information will have.

"A lot of this comes down to the unintended consequences of public relations," he said. "When we make choices about what to release — and what not to release — that has consequences."

The same holds true, Holman says, for journalists.

Journalism vs. 'churnalism'

Much of the initial coverage of the charge against Quaile — including, it should be noted, my own reporting for CBC News — falls into a category that Holman describes as "churnalism."

These are the stories that reporters churn out on a daily basis. They are written quickly from press releases and the aspiration is to update them later with more thorough reporting. But the reality often falls short, especially as newsroom resources shrink. And, as we've seen, the initial story is often the one that sticks.

This, Holman believes, played into the way Quaile's story was received by the public.

Jeremy Quaile and his dog, Knightley. (Jeremy Quaile/Facebook)

"There was a failure on the part of the media," he said.

"Putting up a news release without context, without challenge, without an attempt to find the truth, is serving no one. And it's certainly not serving our public interest."

Olson, with the Centre for Suicide Prevention, sees it similarly. But he also understands the pressures of daily news reporting.

"The facts [in the Quaile case] were pretty horrific, initially — I remember hearing the story — but we didn't hear much of the background," he said.

"If you're a reporter, try to get as many details and facts as possible and not be too quick to report on a particular incident ... but I mean, there's a tension between getting that right and then, of course, making copy that has to go out on the airwaves."

Remembering empathy

Of course, no press release or news copy contained insults or threats. The truly vicious stuff came in response, largely on social media.

And this, in Holman's view, compounds the challenge of modern communication. Social media, he says, encourages users to be "very reductive and reactionary" in how they respond to limited amounts of information.

Facebook prompts us to express how we feel in one of six pre-defined ways. Twitter limits our posts to 280 characters. Both platforms promote speed over depth. So is it any wonder that, when presented with a story that seems to have a clear villain at first glance, we jump to conclusions, rush to convict, collude to dole out our own forms of punishment, and pat each other on the back along the way?

"I think that brings up another problem, which is: What is the role of reason and empathy in modern society?" Holman said. "And are we doing enough, as a society, to foster reason and empathy?"

Cameron, with Social Media ROI, isn't so sure we are.

"We live in such an immediate age with a lot of rage online," he said.

"That's a problem that's not simply legal or journalistic. It's basically our mob mentality and the tendency for humans to publicly shame others who are doing something that they perceive to be wrong. And the technology allows that to happen immediately, as opposed to with some kind of deliberation."

Part of this boils down to human nature, in Cameron's view, making it a difficult problem to solve. But he sees some evidence that social media users are starting to police their own behaviour, as well. 

Bruce Cameron, president of Social Media ROI, a consulting firm that specializes in digital communication. (CBC)

"There is a backlash brewing," he said. "And the backlash is that maybe this mob mentality is a little out of control."

When it comes to suicide prevention, in particular, Olson said it's important to remember that real people are behind their digital representations. It's easy to forget, especially when hurling vitriol from behind a cloak of online anonymity, that those on the receiving end are complex human beings.

In general, he advised treating people online the same way you would, face-to-face.

"We call it digital citizenship," he said. "To be a good digital citizen, that's the ideal."

Whether better law enforcement, better journalism, or better digital citizenship would have made a difference for Quaile, we'll never know for sure. Olson said suicide is an "incredibly complex" thing and there's almost never a simple response to the question of why someone would choose to take their own life.

The answers may not be obvious. But the questions surrounding the way we all treated this person — and others whom we might rush to judge — are worth considering, as we dwell and interact with one another, increasingly, on our digital devices.


If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling toll-free 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645 or chatting online with Crisis Services Canada.

About the Author

Robson Fletcher

Reporter / Editor

Robson Fletcher joined the CBC Calgary digital team in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.