Video evidence from trial for murder of police officer

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review follows a complaint about a CBC Ottawa television and online report featuring video provided as evidence in a trial for the murder of a police officer. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On March 7, 2012, CBC Ottawa presented video that had been presented at the first-degree murder trial in the 2009 killing of Ottawa Police Constable Eric Czapnik.

CBC Ottawa presented excerpts of the video, taken from a stationed hospital emergency room camera, on three of its local newscasts that evening. It heavily edited about 11 minutes of video into a report of less than a minute. As is customary, it also prepared an online report arising from the broadcast.

The edited video seemingly depicted paramedics rushing outside of Ottawa Civic Hospital and off-camera to the scene of a stabbing attack on Czapnik. It then showed Czapnik running into the hospital to be treated for his wounds, including an apparent one to his neck. It also showed the alleged attacker later being accompanied into the hospital and taken to another room.

Czapnik would die moments later from the multiple stab wounds. (The trial would convict Kevin Gregson on March 13.)

The complainant, Bob McRae, wrote CBC News March 13 that he would find it “sad and surprising” if CBC felt it was upholding its standards by presenting the video. He cited CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy that calls for journalists to weigh the public interest in deciding whether to present information and to show compassion, restraint and consideration. At the very least, he argued, CBC should remove the video from its website.

Later that day, Paula Waddell, the executive producer of regional news for CBC Ottawa, wrote McRae to say she respected the concern he'd raised. She outlined the editorial process that led CBC News to use the video.

Waddell said managers were instructed not to use the available material before it was reviewed by editorial managers. She and others viewed the video and determined that it provided “public information that had not been revealed before” and a greater understanding of the tragedy.

She outlined other measures CBC took to restrain its use: it did not enhance or enlarge the video, it did not use the video in headlines, promotional material or commercial “teases” for the newscast, it assigned a reporter to provide greater background and context on the material presented, and it alerted the audience to the nature of the material it would consume on television and online.

“Those warnings remain in place and as per CBC policy, we would not now remove this content from the CBC website,” she wrote.

McRae wrote the next day to ask for a review of the matter.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices intersect with the complaint in several ways.

While part of its policy on crime reporting is directed at the issue of dealing with victims and witnesses, it is worth noting the general approach of CBC News in that respect aims to “carefully weigh both the public interest of full reporting and the need to show compassion and restraint. In such situations we are considerate and we use judgment.

When journalists encounter possibly disturbing imagery, the policy advises restraint: “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.”

On the matter of depiction of violence, the policy notes: “We reflect 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, disaster, crime and conflict. We respect 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.”

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

While not explicitly in the policy, a general CBC News practice as an extension of policy is to minimize the use of graphic images in the many forms of newscast programming that outline what's ahead.

Conclusion

It is very understandable that some find troubling and object to the presentation of imagery that features physical distress — or much more poignantly, a struggle for life. The context of that imagery changes considerably, too, when one knows of a tragic outcome.

It should be noted that a public complaint of this nature, then, might be reconcilable within a framework of journalistic policy but not necessarily reconcilable with an individual's perspectives.

I found in this instance that CBC News was exemplary in adhering to policy and best practices. Among other approaches, it:

Directed the newsroom to refrain from using the material until it spent hours discussing within the wider organization whether to use the video and, then, how to tell the story with the most limited portrayal possible.

Determined that it would not exploit the material in its afternoon promotion of the evening newscast, nor inside the newscast in the many standard avenues available to tell viewers what was ahead.

Decided, unlike some other media, not to magnify or freeze-frame the distant and unclear image of the bloodied and injured officer as he ran into the emergency room.

 Alerted viewers as the story unfolded in the newscast of the shocking and disturbing nature of the material they were about to see.

In the end, CBC determined there was a public interest in presenting a heavily-edited excerpt of an 11-minute video seen that day in a courtroom. I concluded its treatment was sensitive under the circumstances. In taking the time it did, CBC News was not interested in being the first news organization to present the video to the wider public; instead, it reflected on the most appropriate way in which to do so.

CBC also took its decision to proceed, in part, because until then it had been assumed that the officer did not receive treatment quickly — that paramedics were restraining the attacker. The video demonstrated that the officer was able to run into the hospital on his own while paramedics dealt with the attacker. This was new information, and while that might not have been the full reason for using the video, it acceptably helped justify journalistically the decision to proceed.

I did not conclude that the fleeting imagery of the injured officer — video that lasted perhaps a second or so — was unusually graphic in the context of modern media, even in the context of new understanding about the attack's eventual outcome. Even though the audience knew what the video presented, the image was distant, dimly illuminated, and unfocused. As earlier mentioned, CBC News chose not to technically enhance the video in any way.

The issue arises at times in the digital age about the impact of a permanent online record of something broadcast only once — more precisely in this case, in three separate and sequential half-hour newscasts.

I have noted in earlier findings that online permanence has shifted the ground of the journalistic record and augmented the impact of a story or event. But there are principled reasons generally behind the decision not to delete — what is commonly called “unpublishing” content — unless there are inaccuracies in it. As difficult as imagery can be to see once, there can be a more profound principle at stake when anyone decides it can only be seen once.

The policy of CBC News reflects policy elsewhere in journalism generally: To unpublish is to erase history and revise the public record. While there can be compassionate grounds to unpublish when someone's personal safety is at risk, that principle isn't extended to those who might find the content troubling.

No question, the presentation of such content can never be without impact. But CBC News did its best to minimize harm, a key principle in responsible journalism.

I also take note in this instance of the same-day response from CBC News to the complainant. While this did not satisfy him, it was a model of accessibility and accountability.

For these reasons, I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman