Graphic images

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the depiction of graphic images on CBC Television's The National. CBC did not violate its journalistic policy but could have done more to alert viewers to the material they would see.

On May 31, 2012, CBC Television's The National carried a report with images of torture.

Their source was home video created by Luka Rocco Magnotta, an actor and model charged in the dismemberment and killing of Lin Jun, an international student at Concordia University in Montreal.

Magnotta was accused of mailing Jun's severed limbs to the Ottawa-based national offices of two political parties and to two Vancouver-area schools. After a video allegedly depicting a murder was posted online, he fled Canada and was arrested a week and a half later in Berlin. He was returned to Canada to face charges.

That video was excerpted for several television and online reports by international media. In its May 31 newscast, The National featured less than two seconds of video of a bound, blindfolded man it said had been posted by Magnotta. The video was part of a wider report on the “mind of a perpetrator.”

The report was part of a package of reports on the story. In advance of the package, but not in advance of this particular report, host Diana Swain warned viewers: "Some of the details you will hear are disturbing."

The complainant, Adam Wiendels, wrote June 1 to question why any of the video needed to be featured.

“This is deeply offensive to the victim and the most blatant disregard for journalistic integrity I've ever seen — CBC or anywhere else,” he wrote. “Thanks to you, I have the image of the

victim in his most vulnerable, nightmarish moment filmed by his murderer seared into my brain. What was the point of airing this? Did it add to the story? Or, was it just so trashy and salacious that your news team couldn't resist?”

Wiendels added: “The victim was horrifically murdered and your news organization was just complicit in taking any bits of dignity this poor gentleman might have had left.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back June 29 and expressed regret that Wiendels was offended.

“Certainly, we do not normally condone the inclusion of such graphic images,” she wrote. “However, in this particular instance we feel it was important to the theme and integrity of the story.”

Enkin said The National “included just over one second of the 10½-minute-long video.”

She added: “However, I should be clear that the image was not what you suggested. In addition to being short, it was blurry and indistinct. The face was not visible and the body covered. Indeed, had reporter Ioanna Roumeliotis not identified it, it would not be immediately evident what was depicted.”

Enkin said Magnotta had left an extensive trail of information and that it was difficult to convey the substance of it.

“However, it is important to understand that it is our responsibility to report the news, and news by its very nature is often about upsetting events. Nevertheless, we recognize that we have an obligation to consider the impact of disturbing events, like this one, on our viewers and to convey information about them with discretion and restraint, fully aware that we are a guest in the homes of Canadians,” she wrote.

On the other hand, we also have an obligation to convey the information Canadians need to understand the events we are reporting and the disturbing nature of what happened. Reconciling these two obligations means treading a narrow path between what could be seen as gratuitous and tasteless exploitation and the forthright portrayal of a disturbing event.”

She went on: “That said, deciding when the information is relevant and important to the story, to what extent it is appropriate to relate it, and when that line has been crossed, is often difficult. As with so many other things in journalism, this decision, too, is a matter of judgment.”

She added: “I can tell you that the reporter and editors carefully reviewed this story with these questions in mind before it was broadcast. Certainly, there is no ‘right' answer; every story is different and our editors must assess the significance of the information in relation to the story on an individual basis. I regret that you feel we failed in this instance.”

Wiendels wrote back July 4 to request a review.

He took issue with the view that it was not clear what the video depicted.

“In the context of the story, it was absolutely clear what was being depicted beyond any shadow of doubt - with or without reporter identification,” he wrote. “The face was not visible because it was covered up by the killer, not some sympathetic editing by the CBC.”

He said his primary concern was not how he was offended but the impact on a victim's family who were unable to complain. He questioned whether CBC would show video of torture by convicted serial killer Robert Pickton and consider it necessary to the telling of the story.

He suggested CBC was contradicting itself. “On the one hand . . . the clip was so essential for Canadians to see to understand the horror of the story, but on the other hand . . . the clip was very short, nothing of interest was shown and people wouldn't even have known what it was without narration. So, if people . . . wouldn't be seeing anything or wouldn't know what was being shown, why was it essential to show for people to understand the story?”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for sensitive, even-handed, respectful treatment of difficult subjects.

CBC policy says its journalism reflects “the reality of the situations we report. We also respect the sensibilities of our viewers, listeners and readers. Scenes of violence and suffering are part of our coverage of wars, disasters, crime and conflict.”

The policy says CBC respects “our audience by assessing the impact of our images according to time of day and the context of the program where such material is appearing.”

“When images or audio clips could upset part of the audience, we choose them carefully. 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,” the policy says.

It adds: “If it is necessary to use graphic images, we will put a warning ahead of their use.”

In matters of privacy, the policy calls for a balance: “In situations involving personal suffering and pain, we balance the public's right to know against individual human dignity.”  

Conclusion

I could not accept CBC's view that the images were non-descript. Viewers were primed by descriptions. During the report and preceding the short video clip, an expert described the video as “a person killing another person on the Internet” and the reporter indicated Magnotta had posted video of “his own crime.”

Nor did brevity absolve the disturbing quality. Even though there was no commission of physical harm in the brief images, the context was clear once the description was applied: The images depicted a man bound and blindfolded who the audience understood would be an eventual murder victim.

I accepted, with some reservations, that the difficult subject matter — about a graphic video of a crime that had been posted online — could not be fully reported in the absence of any excerpt. As troubling as the material is, I concluded CBC News provided the least amount possible to report the story — less than two seconds — and took several measures to fulfill policy.

The policy assumes discussion and reflection before carrying graphic material. CBC confirms this happened. The prevailing factor in its journalistic policy, then, is whether it provided a viewer alert to the graphic material.

CBC News fulfilled policy by providing an alert in advance of a package of reports on the matter. The program host said: "Some of the details you will hear are disturbing."

The wording was not ideal. It might have noted, too, that some of the images, and not just the words, could be disturbing — that some might find troubling not just what they would “hear” but what they would “see.”

It might also have made sense to repeat the alert, given there was more than one related report in the newscast. Near the top of the hour, many broadcast viewers might have tuned in late and missed the initial alert.

While they were not central to this review, I should note two other factors that made findings difficult in these circumstances. In an age of all-hours Internet consumption, it is less germane to assess content against a policy that takes into account the time of day content is broadcast. Additionally, the tendency online to consume a single story or video — not a larger newscast — raises questions about the effectiveness of one alert ahead of a package of broadcast stories.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman