Covering Court requires attention to detail

The complainant, Mandeep Sidhu, was the defendant in a court case in which he was acquitted of a charge of uttering a death threat against a police officer. He felt the coverage of the case in Whitehorse was seriously flawed and showed bias in favor of the RCMP. The coverage fell short of the standards of CBC journalism. There was no obvious bias, but there was inadequate reporting.

COMPLAINT

You were the defendant in a trial in Whitehorse in which you were tried on a charge of uttering a death threat against an RCMP officer. You were acquitted of the charge. You felt an account of the trial on CBC radio and on cbcnews.ca was biased and misleading. You felt the story did not accurately reflect what occurred at trial: “Much like the testimony given by the R.CM.P, it seems as though the broadcast CBC aired provided no context and henpecked (sic) details.” You felt there were many details of the case omitted because there was an inherent bias in favour of the RCMP. Your saw the phrasing of the last sentence in the story as further evidence of bias because it begins with the word ‘but’ when it mentions the judge acquitted you. You thought this implied that there should have been a conviction based on the evidence, but the judge acquitted you anyway.

But on Friday morning, Judge Richard Thompson ruled that, despite the character portrayed by Sidhu, he can't be sure his words were threats”.

You also said the story got the testimony wrong:

Your story also misquotes testimony; at no time was it said "Someone's gonna die!" and "A bullet sounds the same in every language" (not "bullets have no name") was a line from Family Guy which was explained to the judge. Dunmall and myself were speaking about pop culture, Family Guy and music were brought up, the line was a direct quote from the show. Also the call made to 911 that was "filled" with homophobic slurs is completely false. The word "faggot" was used once (court transcripts prove this)”.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of news for the north, Archie McLean responded to your concerns.

He explained this was a “straightforward news story” and that it emphasized you were acquitted of the charges. He explained the lack of detail and context:

Given the constraints of radio news, our scripts are often short as are the subsequent web articles. For that reason, we have to carefully choose the information that goes into our stories -- it's simply not possible to include all the testimony that happens in court.”

He added that many of the details you provided about what happened prior to the incident that led to the charges were not relevant in this context.

He assured you that the use of the word ‘but’ in the last sentence was in no way used to imply guilt. Rather “It simply reflects the fact that despite evidence presented in court by the prosecution, the judge did not agree.”

The story was modified in a small way to reflect that you used the word “faggot” only once; to say you had used a homophobic slur, singular, not plural as the original story had stated. The change is noted on the web site.

REVIEW

You were found not guilty of the charge because the judge said there was reasonable doubt that a threat was uttered. I will not go into great detail here, because my job is not to report the event, but to assess whether CBC News adequately did so.

Much of the testimony dealt with a conversation you had with Corporal Natasha Dumwall on December 2, 2012. At the trial it was revealed that there were no verbatim notes or an electronic recording made of that lengthy (approximately one hour) conversation. There were a number of areas where her testimony and yours contradicted each other. One important one was a phrase, taken from a Family Guy episode. The RCMP officer said you stated “bullets have no names”. You stated that in fact what you had actually said to her “a bullet sounds the same in any language.”

The story published by cbc.ca renders it this way:

It's that conversation, with references to "bullets have no name" and "someone's gonna die" that prompted the charges.”

It is true that it was a conversation at the RCMP office that led to the charges, but to say there were references to the phrases “bullets have no name” and “someone’s gonna die”, without attributing them, or explaining that is what the officer alleged, is a misrepresentation of what actually occurred. Accuracy is a fundamental in journalism. It is set out in CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. This story is imprecise and sloppy.

I agree with Mr. Mclean that is was not necessary to go into all the background that led to the charges being laid. But it is basic journalism to render the court proceedings in a meaningful way. The journalistic purpose of covering a trial is to be the eyes and ears of the public who could not be there. This story does not do that.

The final paragraph has further difficulties beyond the use of the word “but”. Mr. McLean’s explanation is credible, and the headline makes it quite clear you are not guilty. My concern is in the phrase “despite the character portrayed by Mr. Sidhu, he can’t be sure his words were threats.” In fact, what Judge Richard Thompson actually said in his judgment was that Mr. Sidhu had shown a different aspect of his personality in court than that exhibited on the i-phone recording he had made of his encounter with police. The heated exchange had been played in court as testimony. What concerns me about the accuracy of this piece is that the judge gave other reasons why he did not believe the words uttered were threats. It would be useful to have given some of the details of how and why he came to his conclusion. His judgment was not very long and could have been summarize in a few more sentences. And it is his explanation of why there was reasonable doubt about what was actually said that is really the heart of this story. It is completely lacking in this account. In part , the judge stated:

“Clearly it’s a question of credibility and reliability of each version of this conversation which took place between them, and in particular what Mr. Sidhu said on that evening…. The reliability of Corporal Dumwall’s testimony wherein she alleges a threat is hampered by a lack of complete notes; in other words a verbatim rendering of what was said or recording of the conversation… Mr. Sidhu puts forward another version of the conversation which if accepted would not be construed as a threat, or certainly could be construed as not being a threat…In the end I conclude that his version might reasonably be true...He is entitled to an acquittal based on the reasonable doubt that I’m left with as to the actual words uttered by him which Corporal Dumwall alleged to be a threat.”

The Judge spoke at some length about weighing the credibility of the witnesses. That should have been included in this account.

My concerns here are not ones of bias – it is not clear that there is any. There is no basis to say that CBC is inherently biased in favour of the RCMP. You only have to look at the body of work on the force that CBC News has done over the last few years to know that is not the case.

The problem here is that the story is extremely brief, and in its compression, it sacrifices presenting a full picture of what occurred in the trial. It simply did not provide enough information or context to make it meaningful to anyone who had not sat in the courtroom. And that compromises fairness, another obligation under CBC journalistic policy. If the purpose of the piece was to simply note the verdict, then it should have done only that. If the purpose of the piece was to give an account of the trial, it fell far short.

I urge CBC news management to ensure reporters assigned to court or the justice beat have adequate training to do the job properly. I also strongly suggest this story be amended to more fully reflect the facts of the case.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman