Misidentification of a minor

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the wrongful identification of someone involved in an altercation and concerns about his vulnerability as a minor. CBC acknowledged a policy violation in the error but did not otherwise violate policy.

On July 4, 2012, CBC Television and CBC.ca reported on recent altercations and vandalism at and around a Toronto home. Mike Greer, the homeowner, said the incidents started after he confronted a group of teens in a schoolyard in back of his house. The teens were hostile to his request that they move along.

Incidents that followed ranged from eggs thrown at the house, damage to his cars, to what Greer said was a so-called Molotov cocktail of ignited gasoline thrown into his driveway. He installed a video camera that had captured at least one of these episodes.

On July 4 a local newspaper published a photo of a young man gesturing rudely when Greer took photos of teens near his house. CBC News followed the story on the day of publication and its report included home video taken by Greer's camera.

CBC News interviewed Taylor Germain, a teen it reported was the same person in the photo published by the newspaper. In the CBC reports, Germain was quoted as saying Greer had brought his problems on to himself.

Kristina Germain, the complainant, is the mother of the young man CBC News interviewed. She initially contacted CBC News to note her son was not the same person in the photo published by the paper. She said her son should not have been interviewed and identified because he is a minor. Germain said someone had started to harass them because of the CBC report. She objected to CBC's continued pursuit of the story.

Cathy Perry, CBC's managing editor for CBC News Toronto, wrote to her July 12 indicating CBC wanted to update the story, in part to deal with the harassment her family was facing. But Perry said CBC would respect her wishes not to be involved in a follow-up report.

Perry said a CBC journalist had gone back to the neighbourhood, discussed the published photo with Taylor Germain and Mike Greer, and concluded it was not Taylor Germain in the photo. CBC.ca corrected the online story to that effect by deleting the reference. CBC said Germain was involved in a recent altercation with the homeowner.

Kristina Germain wrote again July 17 to say her son had not been in an altercation with Greer. She objected to the online publication of his image taken from the CBC television report — and to his name being used — and asked for the online story to be amended to take out all references to him.

Perry wrote back July 18. While she said what had taken place might be construed as an altercation, CBC had further amended the online article to describe differently the interaction between Greer and the young man. A Corrections and Clarification box at the end of the story said Germain “was among the group of teens that Greer encountered by the school.”

Perry said CBC was declining to take down the story because it felt the young man's perspective was an essential part of it.

Germain then asked this Office for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices acknowledge the “special challenges” of reporting on youth. It notes: “Children and youth do not necessarily have the experience to weigh the consequences of publication of their statements. They nevertheless enjoy freedom of expression and the right to information. Their realities and concerns cannot be fully reflected without being heard in our reporting.”

It says: “Parents or those exercising parental authority are often the guardians of this balance and we generally respect their judgment in this regard.”

But: “There are also other circumstances where it may be appropriate to allow youths to exercise their good judgment about granting an interview or otherwise participating in our programming or content, for instance when no foreseeable inconvenience or detrimental consequences for them or their family could ensue.”

In all cases there is a careful consideration of factors. The policy concludes: “We respect the will of the child or youth and we put his or her interests foremost.”

The policy calls for openness involving those interviewed: “We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.”

It also does not permit “unpublishing” of online content unless there are “personal considerations” worth addressing.

Conclusion

The initial mistake — when CBC News misidentified the complainant's son as the young person in the photograph taken by the homeowner and published by the newspaper — was a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

CBC responded appropriately online to the complaint. It corrected the story and provided information for the audience about the error. It even went further and issued a second amendment about the nature of the interaction between the teen and the homeowner to remove any sense of confrontation in the episode. In these respects it fulfilled its policy on corrections and went further to apply neutral language so as not to harshly characterize the encounter.

CBC's view was that a correction to the television report would have reopened what was best left alone and would have had the effect of re-identifying the young man. In essence, though, that is what has happened online — and what continues to happen, given the permanence of the website record — so I couldn't agree it would have been inappropriate for television to correct the story at the time. That being said, so much time has passed that any correction now would be difficult for CBC to explain and for the audience to comprehend. Corrections are far best done swiftly when the memory is fresh.

There can be justifiable concerns that young people cannot provide informed consent to their participation in journalism because they do not apprehend the consequences of their involvement. A teenager may seem savvy, but media can't take that for granted. It is very understandable when parents express concern when their children are portrayed in media.

A principle of journalism is to minimize harm. The CBC policy sensitively identifies the option of restraint when there might be consequences arising from youth participation in its journalism. Had this option been exercised in this instance, it would have ensured there would be no consequences of an online story in which a teen asserted a homeowner brought his vandalism problems on himself. Indeed, the immature remark might have alerted CBC to the need to exercise restraint.

The journalistic policy permits CBC to exercise judgment, determine his involvement as integral in the story, and not be bound by this concern of consequence. Similarly, the policy permits CBC to delete a story for “personal considerations” but does not require it to do so.

I agree that there was sufficient public interest in the story to merit coverage, but I believe it was entirely possible in this instance — just as it is in other such matters — to more than adequately report while more than adequately respect the vulnerability of youth. It is possible to fulfill the policy's objective of hearing young voices in CBC journalism without necessarily seeing them or knowing who they are all the time.

There was no policy violation, only exercises of discretion within the policy, but I believe there was room for improvement.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman