Video clip of a semi-automatic rifle in a report about a bill to eliminate the long-gun registry
You wrote initially to complain about an item carried on the November 12, 2009, edition of The National. The item concerned a vote on a private member's bill that would eliminate the long-gun registry. You said , among other things, that a visual showing someone handling a firearm was, in effect, “unbalanced” and “offensive” to legal gun owners since the weapon shown was an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle which is restricted and remains so. You also said that CBC's coverage did not reflect the reality of life in many parts of the country.
Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National, responded, acknowledging that the video clip was an inappropriate illustration of the question at issue. However, he said, “I do not believe viewers would be confused by the story. The content and purpose of Bill C-391 was clear from the beginning…(The bill) only applies to non-restricted long-guns. It does not change the registry requirements for restricted weapons (like the one shown)…”
He did acknowledge that the inclusion of the video clip was “entirely inadvertent” and that he regretted the error.
He noted further that CBC News, in various formats, had provided significant coverage of the bill's progress, reflecting “a wide range of views.”
You were not satisfied with the response and asked for a review, saying “the millions of firearms owners in this country strongly object to negative portrayal of their chosen hobbies as illicit or unsavoury, especially by the broadcaster they fund.”
In CBC's Journalistic Standards and Policies we find this under “Accuracy”:
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.
Mr. Harrison has already acknowledged that the use of the video clip was an error. He went on to say that viewers would not be confused. However, as one of those “residents of the concrete canyons of Toronto” to which you refer, I have to agree that the story was misleading. Using a restricted weapon as illustration would confuse the ordinary non-gun owner, leading one to believe that the dangerous weapon being shown would not have to be registered under the new law.
When I first got into television more than 35 years ago, one of the things I learned—and I have not seen disproven—is that when we, as television journalists, set up a conflict between the eye and the ear, the eye wins. I would have assumed that the weapon being shown fell within the ambit of the story.
It may seem a relatively minor point, but as there seems to be a greater reliance on illustrative footage almost constantly on broadcasts, there rises an even greater responsibility to ensure the “disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.” I have noted occasions where visuals either misled viewers or contradicted what was being said. In fact, I will be dealing with the subject in another review.
New times and new program formats call for careful thought and response. Mr. Harrison acknowledged the error and apologized, and I can find no grounds for concluding that the stray visual in this case was an attempt to spread disinformation. But it should serve as a warning that, in television, visuals have as much journalistic value as words.
The same care should be exercised in the selection and slotting of illustrative material as is used in crafting the words. While you are correct about the inappropriateness of the visual, I cannot agree with your apparent suggestion that this story was not worth covering. You made a more general observation that the CBC neither understands or wants to portray firearms ownership in this country in a positive light.” I have no evidence that that is the case. As Mr. Harrison pointed out, before the story of November 4th, other items had been broadcast reflecting a wide range of views.
As Mr. Harrison has said, the visual clip was inappropriate and broadcast in error. Senior journalists should ensure that appropriate supervision is exercised over visual presentation, particularly in light of the more intensive use of such material.