Bicycle thief

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Interview with thief in The National's report about bicycle thefts in Vancouver

You wrote in August, 2008, to complain about a story on The National concerning a raft of bicycle thefts in Vancouver. In the course of the story, reporter Duncan McCue and producer Cedric Monteiro left a bike at a busy downtown location, known for being a prime target area for bicycle thieves. They then waited with a hidden camera to see what would happen.

Within a short time, a young man cut the lock on the bike and began to leave the scene. The reporter and crew approached him and told him that they had recorded his theft. The man, named Kevin, proceeded to answer questions from Mr. McCue, saying that he had a drug problem and was unable to get into a rehabilitation program.

You wrote: “I particularly object to the footage of the reporter's interrogation (not interview) of the bicycle thief. If the point was that bicycles secured by cheap locks can be stolen quickly, the reporter could have ended the report with the scene of the thief cutting the lock. Instead, The National chose to show us a confrontation with what appeared to be a sick, vulnerable and desperate individual. The person deserved compassion and treatment, not exploitation by our national broadcaster. In his agitated state, he certainly did not appear to be capable of giving his consent to a nationally televised ‘interview'…Broadcasting this footage, it seems to me, crossed an ethical line.”

Mark Harrison, then acting Executive Producer of The National, responded, saying he did not share your view. He wrote: “The interview was touching and disturbing. Had the segment ended when Kevin snipped the lock, it would have made the point about the ease and frequency of bike theft but said nothing about the reasons some people steal bikes. By including a relatively lengthy segment with Kevin, the interview did what you suggested it should. It gave him a face, it showcased his sickness, his vulnerability and his desperation in a way viewers would otherwise have not seen.

You rejected Mr. Harrison's explanation, saying: “At the time the footage was shot, was Kevin's mental state one that would have allowed him to consent to this ‘interview'? Did you actually seek his consent before airing this footage? You say that the interview gave him a face. It also profoundly affected his privacy and may have untold implications for his private life…” You asked me to review the matter.


You raise very interesting and important questions: what are the rights of interview subjects and what are the responsibilities of ethical journalists? There are a couple of policy statements from CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices that might apply to these circumstances. One concerns the general notion of privacy:

PRIVACY VERSUS PUBLIC LIFE

Privacy in this sense refers to protecting an individual's personal and private life, as opposed to his or her public life, from intrusion or exposure to the public view. Journalists on occasion may appear to infringe an individual's privacy in this sense. This is generally warranted only when the individual's private life impinges on or becomes part of his or her public life, is relevant to discussion of a public issue or becomes a matter of legitimate public concern. There are a number of situations in which individuals should not be identified. Identification here means more than just not reporting the individual's name. It also means not using a photograph or reporting any details that would identify the individual to the public.

Another concerns interviews without permission:

INTERVIEW WITHOUT CONSENT

In most cases people are willing to be interviewed for broadcast. Public figures such as politicians know that they will frequently be questioned by the media, even though at times they might prefer not to be. Sometimes people who are not public figures wish to decline an interview. For people who are not public figures, this desire should be respected.

The exceptions to this practice might occur, particularly with investigative pieces, when a subject who is crucial to a story will not agree to be interviewed. Every effort should be made to persuade the person to participate. If such repeated efforts at persuasion are unsuccessful, it may as a last resort be necessary to confront and record the subject without his or her consent. This technique is sometimes referred to as a “doorstep” interview. It should only be done when it is essential to an important story, and never simply for aesthetic effect.

The permission of the senior officer in information programming of the appropriate media line, in consultation with the Law Department, should be secured before this kind of interview is undertaken. In any case, the permission of the senior officer in information programming must be secured prior to broadcast.

Before this type of interview is conducted it should be determined that:

(a) The investigation concerns a key person in a story that is of great importance to the community or that involves serious anti-social behavior.

(b) Every reasonable effort has been made, and has failed, to persuade the subject to be interviewed.

As you will note, the second policy relates tangentially to this case. The subject matter was clearly a matter of public interest and importance, but the “key person” in this case presented himself by committing the act in public.

The first policy, somewhat more general, deals with general ethical approaches, allowing that there are circumstances that would justify an impingement on privacy, while also saying that there are occasions when identity should be shielded. To be honest, it is virtually impossible to draw up a list of those circumstances that would justify shielding identity. In any event, ethics is not a list of “do's” and “don'ts”, but a habit of mind and behaviour.

Did Kevin, as a citizen, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in this case? I think the answer is clearly “no.” Committing an offense on one of the busiest streets in Vancouver would not summon up that expectation.

The next question would be whether circumstances other than an expectation of privacy would justify shielding his identity. This is a more nuanced and difficult question. I suspect that the team involved were somewhat surprised that Kevin agreed to stop and talk with them.

The team's producer, Cedric Monteiro, told me that “(Kevin) did not at any point say he did not wish to talk, or ask us to turn off the camera, or shield his face as he talked to us. We did tell him right off the bat that this was for broadcast, and explicitly asked him if he had any advice for our viewers.”

Mr. Monteiro also advises that they did not rush the material to air, but considered the question of whether or not to conceal Kevin's identity. They asked for advice from senior producers in Toronto. The decision was made that Kevin had implicitly agreed to the interview. As Mr. Harrison said in his response, the interview was, indeed, “touching and disturbing.” And it certainly answered questions that many viewers would have concerning the nature and motivation of the thieves.

Kevin certainly seemed lucid in the interview, if a bit distraught, understandable, I guess, since he was observed and recorded committing an offense. Your point appears to be that CBC journalists should have made a further calculation about Kevin's ability to make the decision he did—staying to talk to the reporter. A difficult question since it diverges from ordinary policy into a consideration of more general ethics.

Ethical theory often summons up the notion of responsibility—for whom am I acting, to whom do I have “duties”? In the nursing profession, for instance, nurses are instructed that they have a “duty of care” to their patient—each individual patient—as a primary responsibility. This becomes somewhat confused with public health nurses who are increasingly asked to report previously confidential patient information as a “duty” to the general public. Practitioners continue to debate this conflict of duties.

For journalists, training both academic and on the job tends to emphasize a duty to the reader/listener/viewer, with obligations as well to their employers and to the “craft.” These do not always line up neatly. More recently, some journalists and teachers have put forth the notion that, in some circumstances, journalists also have a “duty of care” to subjects— particularly subjects who might not realize the implications of what they are doing. (Full disclosure: I have taught media ethics over a number of years, and have written and spoken about a “duty of care.”)

Not all journalistic practitioners would agree with that concept, beyond acknowledging that care must be taken with children and people who are clearly incapacitated. Many would argue strongly, and cogently, that it is the journalist's primary obligation to bring light to subjects, to try to explain as well as show. In this case, Kevin brought some light to the subject, as well as raising, indeed epitomizing, the subject of drug rehabilitation. I cannot imagine anyone not being affected by his abject statement that he cannot get into rehab.

The interview did not appear to me to qualify as an “interrogation.” Certainly the initial questions just after the theft were sharp, but as the back and forth went on, the exchange seemed to fit well into the category of investigative reporting. And the results of the interview seem also clearly to qualify as matters of public interest.

The question that remains is whether the same goal could have been achieved by shielding the subject's identity. That's a judgment that has to balance the clarity of the story against the perception that Kevin had to be protected from himself.

My examination of the internal transactions shows that the journalists involved tried to perform that balancing test. They concluded that Kevin knew he was being interviewed for television, agreed by his actions to continue the interview and concluded it on his own terms. The default position for journalists is often the “public's right to know.” Those involved clearly felt that, after discussion, the item met the appropriate tests and should be broadcast. In fact, I can find no direct violation of policy in that judgment.

However, one can try to advance ethical thought and procedures. Some practices that were routinely accepted, or at least tolerated, when I started in journalism, more than 40 years ago, are now rightly condemned. The CBC itself began working on a clear statement of Journalistic Standards and Practices when it felt that ethical parameters needed to be clearly drawn. That work continues with a new edition of the “book” currently underway.

In the case at hand, the important information was the motivation and personal story of the thief. His identity was actually of lesser significance. I could make the argument that shielding his face during the exchange would not have lessened the impact of the story. I recognize that the producers may argue otherwise—that putting an actual face to the offense and the personal circumstances of the subject added to the piece.

It is interesting to note that in the course of my work I observed footage taken by a regional unit in another city. The concealed camera footage showed a man behind the counter of a store selling a prohibited substance to a reporter. The point that the substance, called Dode, was readily available was clearly made. The face of the man doing the selling was concealed through “pixelation.”

It seems obvious that there may not be a unanimity of approach within the News Service. The “pixelation” did not detract from the very forceful point being made. I suspect that the main points of the bicycle theft story would also have been clear and forceful without a clear image of Kevin. While I appreciate the care the unit and the producers took, it might have been appropriate to consider more deeply the ethics of using an image of someone who, while cooperating, was clearly “strung out”—as he himself effectively conceded.

Conclusion

The item does not violate the strict terms of CBC's Journalistic Policy, but the broader ethical parameters appear to need some adjustment: the apparently rational, clear headed seller of a prohibited substance is shielded while a strung out bicycle thief is not. I would urge programmers to begin applying more consistently a “duty of care” standard in such cases.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman