Video of dead body

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

You wrote initially in May, 2009, to complain about an item on CBC Newsworld (now CBC News Network) concerning the recently ended conflict in Sri Lanka. Your concern was with several seconds of video that showed a dead body.

You noted the absence of any warning before the footage was shown, but, even if there had been a warning, you wrote, “The video was exploitative, and had no apparent relevance to the story of the aftermath of civil war. The dwelling and focus on this single deceased person was macabre…”

Cynthia Kinch, the Director of CBC Newsworld responded. She said that she agreed that viewers should have been warned of the nature of the images. However, she pointed out, the image in question was pertinent to the story since the body was purported to be that of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil insurgency. As noted in the script accompanying the images, the Sri Lankan government said the body was Mr. Prabhakaran while members of the insurgency denied that.

You requested a review.


We should review the appropriate segments of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices that might apply to this case

In the section on Good Taste, we find:

Where matters of taste are concerned, therefore, care must be taken not to cause gratuitous offence to the audience. However, there will be occasions when in reflecting reality it would be inappropriate to excise certain uses of language or depictions of violence or sexuality which normally would be avoided.

Under Grief and Suffering:

Discretion is necessary in showing harrowing sights and, if used, they should not be prolonged unnecessarily.

And under Cautionary Announcements:

Should a program contain material which may be disturbing to some segments of the audience — and particularly children — because of scenes of violence, sexual behaviour, or language, cautionary announcements before or during the program should be used.

As Ms. Kinch has acknowledged, the last provision was violated. Although the scene of the dead body was relatively brief, it might be disturbing to some.

That being said, and assuming that proper warning would be given, the subject of Mr. Prabhakaran's death was at the core of that part of the story. It would have been ignoring reality for journalists not to deal with it. I did not find that the item dwelled unnecessarily on the body or its injuries; certainly not to the extent that it would be a breach of CBC's policies.

Conclusion

Although the image involved was both shocking and disturbing, it was a central part of the story being told, and therefore there was no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. As Ms. Kinch said, there should have been a warning.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman