In January 2012, CBC News reported four separate incidents of violence against Canadians in Mexico.
On January 5, a University of British Columbia graduate student and her partner were found tied up and stabbed to death on a beach in Huatulco. CBC.ca carried a question- and-answer feature with a travel expert on how safe Canadians were in Mexico.
On January 15, Salih Abdulaziz Sahbaz was found dead on the street in Culiacan, shot nine times.
The following week, Sheila Nabb was severely beaten in a hotel in Mazatlan; several stories followed on the police investigation and her return home and recovery.
The reports of violence were not the only coverage on this theme. CBC also reported online that the Department of Foreign Affairs urged Canadians to be cautious due to security issues in certain parts of Mexico. CBC Television reported on drug-related gang violence in Mexico. CBC.ca noted that Mexico experienced record-level tourism from Canada, provided another online guide to safer travel there, and looked at the comparative levels of tourist safety for Canadians abroad.
The complainant, Rudy Peters, wrote January 30 to express his “concerns, bordering on disgust” about CBC's negative portrayal of Mexico when there was so much other news more worthy of coverage. Peters said he and his wife had been travelling to Mexico for 50 years safely.
The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back February 7 to explain the news judgment in these cases.
“News, by definition, is about what is new, about the unusual,” Enkin wrote. “That is why the one commuter skidding into a ditch is news, while thousands returning home safely every evening is not. For the same reason hundreds of thousands of Canadian tourists quietly visiting Mexico – as you wrote you have vacationed every year in Mazatlan – and returning safely home is not especially newsworthy. What is newsworthy is Canadians running into trouble on their trips, especially when that happens frequently.”
She added: “The rapid growth of the drug cartels in Mexico and drug related violence over the past few years gives these stories greater significance. It is an unsettling phenomenon that has reportedly seen some 47,000 people killed in Mexico over the past five years, many publicly and in a deliberately gruesome fashion.”
Peters wrote again March 17. He sought a review of the complaint and further outlined his concerns about the definition of news, his concerns about the fear-mongering nature of some coverage, the role of the public broadcaster in preserving standards, and the fairness of reports that characterized the security of tourists in Mexico.
He concluded: “I would like you to investigate who is responsible for misrepresenting facts and for slanting stories about Mexico in a fashion calculated to engender fear. I would like an explanation as to why this kind of reporting has occurred, and a commitment that it will not occur in the future. Furthermore, given that it takes nine times longer to change a behaviour or an impression than to create it in the first place, for every minute of audio, or visual, or line of print defaming Mexico, I would like to see nine minutes of audio, visual, or lines of print portraying Mexico as a place where tourists and expats can not only feel but factually be, safer than at home.”
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices encourage fair, accurate and impartial coverage of events that foster respect and understanding.
In the depiction of violence: “We reflect the reality of the situations we report. We also respect the sensibilities of our viewers, listeners and readers.”
The respect extends to the nature of the portrayal: “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”
News is an unexpected departure from the norm, and many can find that frame uncomfortable and even unfair, particularly if they have first-hand knowledge of an issue, a place, or of the relevant routines and mundane way of life involved.
Still, given the long history of generally safe travel to Mexico, it was newsworthy and responsible for CBC News to chronicle these unusual incidents. Moreover, given the extensive travel pattern, there was a relevant public safety issue to be examined in the course of its coverage.
But it is also fair for critics to expect the coverage to provide context while the issue remains top-of-mind so as not to sustain any false fears. In this respect, CBC News quickly built a broader understanding of the relative dangers of travel to Mexico and gave its audience a much clearer portrait of the true nature of the risks.
Even though there was a handful of violent episodes CBC News reported as more urgent news, I concluded it made conscientious effort to provide balanced, accurate work involving reflection over a reasonable period of time in accordance with policy.
There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.