Thunder Bay court case

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

CBC Radio report about a disturbing Thunder Bay criminal court case

You wrote to complain about an item carried on the local radio news in Thunder Bay on February 12, 2010. The item concerned Michael Shingabis, a Thunder Bay man who had pleaded guilty in Superior court earlier that day to murdering his common-law girl friend and some days later having intercourse with the body. You wrote that you feel including this information in the story is “completely unnecessary” and “offensive.”

Susan Rogers, the Program Manager for CBC Thunder Bay, responded. She said “…it is our view that including some specific information about the circumstances and the nature of the man's crime is important, relevant and indeed critical to understanding the story. Although, in light of its disturbing nature, we pared that information down to its most essential details.”

She also said that there should have been a warning before the item that it might contain offensive material.

You responded further: “My point was that the details were, in fact, completely unnecessary. (Ms. Rogers) states that in the future they would consider warning listeners so that people could turn off their radio and thus not be offended. Again, this misses my point entirely. Although I did mention that I did not wish for my children to hear such material, my primary concern was that the victim has been re-victimized by including this information.” You asked me to review the matter.

This is one of the most difficult areas in which to exercise journalistic judgment. On the one hand, most journalists, and CBC journalists in particular, are committed to providing fully contexualized information. At the same time, CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices urges caution:

“CBC programs should be in good taste, that is to say, they should respect and reflect the generally accepted values in society regarding such matters as vulgarity, profanity or sexual behaviour…Where matters of taste are concerned…care must be taken not to cause gratuitous offence to the audience.”

But the policy goes on to say:

“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. To do so would be to deny CBC audiences access to certain events which may contribute materially to an understanding of the world in which they live.”

The same section also urges programmers to broadcast cautionary announcements for those segments which “contain material which may be disturbing to some segments of the audience—and particularly children…”

The purpose of having courts open to the press is to allow the wider public to monitor what is going on. The press plays an active role in this “call to attend,” as legal scholars term it. The theory is that the media should report fairly and accurately about the trials in the community so that the public can monitor the activities of police and the judicial system. Are procedures being followed, rights guaranteed; are judges being fair to both the accused and the victim? Are sentences commensurate with the nature of the crime?

I know it has become a popular theme to demonize crime and court journalists as only interested in sensation. However, that has not been my experience. Most journalists who specialize in the area see themselves as performing a valuable service to their audiences and to the system.

The CBC, by both policy and reputation, has tried to carry out those functions in the various localities it serves. In this case, the crime was of obvious note to the local community. In fact, the combination of charges would have made it a significant topic of community interest. The disposition of the matter would and should be of great interest, both to the press and the public.

One could argue that the second charge of “committing an indignity to a dead body” would be sufficient to the purpose. However, that charge could cover anything from burying the body to the awful charge against Mr. Shingabis. Convictions and sentences are not tied to notional crimes— assault, for instance—but to the details contained within that category which, presumably, could range from striking someone, to seriously beating them. The public has the right, and need, to know the context of the charge.

In the case at issue, the charge is, indeed, troubling and disturbing to the average person. For that reason, Ms. Rogers is right to conclude that a cautionary announcement should have been made. However, I cannot conclude that providing the further detail of the charge of “committing an indignity” violates CBC policy.

Conclusion

A cautionary announcement should have been made, but the broadcast of the substance of the charge did not violate CBC policy.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman