Disturbing images

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Images of Michael Jackson presented at the trial of his physician

The complaint concerns the September 28, 2011, edition of the CBC News Morning program on CBC News Network, specifically its presentation of the opening of the trial a day earlier in Los Angeles of Dr. Conrad Murray on an involuntary manslaughter charge in the death of entertainer Michael Jackson.

Reporter Lyndsey Duncombe prepared a report that included a photograph of Jackson's corpse lying on a stretcher, with all but his face and arms covered by a sheet. The image was shown for three or four seconds.

The first presentation around 6:20 a.m. Eastern Time was set up by a scripted introduction from host Heather Hiscox. She referred to the court proceeding as “the trial of the year” and noted its first day featured the presence of the Jackson family in the courtroom and a “shocking” image of Jackson.

When the story was next presented an hour later around 7:20 a.m., Hiscox went further in noting the presence of the image in the report. “Now a warning: You may find that image disturbing.”

In the next presentation around 8:35 a.m., she said: “Now we're going to show you that image. We want to warn you. You might find it disturbing.”

Later that morning around 10:25 a.m., host Jennifer Hall preceded the same report with “a warning that some people might find the image disturbing.”

Later that program she discussed the testimony and the anticipated developments in the trial with Duncombe. While they made mention of the image, it was not shown.

On the previous evening, CBC Television's The National carried a report on the trial. Host Peter Mansbridge preceded it with his own advisory. “And a warning: One of the images presented in court today is disturbing.”

The complainant, Michael Kilby, wrote September 28 to say he found the image “unnecessary, pretentious and disgusting,” and referred to the approach as U.S.-style “gutter tripe.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back October 25, 2011, to express regret that Kilby had been disappointed in CBC. She said the image was “germane to the theme and relevant to the integrity of the story.”

Enkin asserted that the segment was exploring what was expected to be a lengthy trial and that it had started with a great deal of drama, including the presence of Jackson's family and the “shocking” photo of Jackson's body on a stretcher.

“The image shown was opaque, milky, as though shot through gauze,” Enkin wrote.

“I appreciate – and agree with you – that the image may be disturbing to some viewers. On the other hand, it is our responsibility to report the news, and news by its very nature is often about disturbing things,” Enkin said.

“While CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices acknowledges that CBC programs should be in good taste and reflect the generally accepted values of society, at the same time it also recognizes that there are occasions when the accuracy, integrity or the significance of the story would be impaired by leaving out words or information that might otherwise be considered offensive,” she wrote.

“We are sensitive to the fact that we are a guest in the homes of our viewers. However, we also have an obligation to convey the information Canadians need to understand the forces and events that are affecting our society, our country and the world around us.”

Enkin further noted that in some instances CBC will alert the audience to impending graphic content when it believes some might be offended. In this instance, she said, Hiscox twice warned viewers they might find the image disturbing.

“I want to assure you that it is never our intention to use images of this . . . kind in a gratuitous or sensational manner. I regret that you feel we failed in this instance,” Enkin wrote.

Kilby found the response “arrogant and wordy” and argued that the image was not necessarily suited for Canadian audiences just because it had appeared in a court in the United States. “This was not court, but TV,” he wrote in asking for a review and an apology.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for “openness and respect” in journalistic treatment of individuals and restraint in court reporting to minimize the pain and suffering of the victim's family. The policy asks that the audience be alerted to difficult or graphic information.

“When images or audio clips could upset part of the audience, we choose them carefully,” the policy reads. “We limit their use to what is necessary for an understanding of the subject and we provide an audience advisory before use on any of our platforms.”

A passage in the policy discusses language use, but it has some application on this issue. It calls on CBC not to gratuitously offend, but to respect and reflect “generally accepted values of society. We are aware that the audiences we address do not all have the same definition of good taste.”

Conclusion

One of journalism's central tensions is the degree to which it exercises restraint in presenting graphic images and language. A principle of journalism is to minimize harm. Television, radio and online journalism offer increasing access to content some find disturbing, but responsible media organizations set limits and conditions on the use of this content to demonstrate sensitivity and brace the audience when they determine graphic material is relevant.

The CBC policy on this matter is a strong, minimize-harm model: Only carry such material occasionally, use only what's needed to tell the story, and alert the audience beforehand. I sense CBC, like others, also generally applies a time-of-day sensitivity to restrain the presence of such difficult imagery in the morning. Even then, though, it and other organizations recognize it is in the public interest that it not suppress even the graphic content of significant stories.

In this instance I concluded there was a production error when CBC failed to warn viewers when it first presented the image on the morning program. While that breached its Journalistic Standards and Practices, I take note that the production team immediately recognized the oversight and went to lengths to address the matter in subsequent presentations.

CBC senior programmers had discussed the issue the previous day and adequately alerted the audience about the image. Several other news organizations provided the same alert. This and the warnings on the morning of September 28 showed respect for viewers, particularly young viewers in front of the television set with parents, without so restraining the story-telling as to be ineffective.

I don't think anyone should ever be insensitive to a photo of a corpse, and there are many instances in which its presentation would be lurid and gratuitous. One of many considerations at times can be if the photograph depicts the result of physical trauma; in this instance it did not. And in some instances a celebrity-oriented story might be criticized as peripheral; in this instance it was not.

I concluded that in this case the photograph was relevant and sufficiently newsworthy under the standards and practices of CBC News. Jackson was one of the world's most famous performers and questions lingered about the circumstances involving his sudden death. The

story mattered for many in the audience and coverage of the trial necessarily included details of the testimony.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman