Public interest vs potential harm

In covering the court proceedings involving a second degree murder trial in Edmonton, CBC News revealed the defendant was also being charged with sexual assault and the minor victim of that assault was pregnant. The 15 year old was not named, and the information had some relevance to the murder charge. The complainant, Frank Berkshire, felt this was an invasion of privacy and would cause undue suffering to the family. The review weights the notion of public interest against privacy concerns.

COMPLAINT

You objected to CBC Calgary’s decision to report the fact that a fifteen year old girl was pregnant as the result of a sexual assault. This fact was reported in the context of ongoing coverage of a murder case in the Calgary area.

CBC Calgary had been following the story of the stabbing deaths of a woman and her five year old son. Guevera Wilson Clorina, who is related to the murder victims, was quickly caught and charged with second degree murder. He was subsequently charged with sexual assault and sexual touching. The details of the additional charges were public, but only CBC reported that the victim of the assault was pregnant, according to unnamed sources. The fifteen year old is not named and her identity is protected by a publication ban.

This was the subject of the story published on June 17 you referenced in your complaint. You felt it was sufficient for readers to know that he had been charged, and that the added detail, exclusive to CBC, that the alleged 15 year old victim was pregnant was entirely gratuitous and would cause undue suffering to her and her family:

“The victim and family are already dealing with the loss of a mother and child and now obviously have even more issues to deal with in terms of the sexual assault and pregnancy. To have this issue thrust into the public eye based on "sources" only adds to the teenage girl and her family's anguish and burden. This type of reporting amounted to no more than sensationalism and the lowest form of tabloid journalism. I expect a higher standard from my public broadcaster. I believe CBC and the reporter involved should issue an immediate apology to the girl and her family.”

In your follow-up letter after receiving an explanation from the Managing Editor in Calgary you added:

“If the case proceeds to trial, then all facts that are judged by the prosecution as necessary to present to a jury in order to achieve a conviction become part of the public record. Until that time there is no need for this type of information about a minor to be reported, given the potential harm and added stress it places on the victim. “

You felt there was no justification for reporting the information.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC News in Calgary, Helen Henderson, explained the decision to make the detail of the pregnancy public was not taken lightly.

We struggle daily with balancing transparency and privacy, and balancing the public's right to know the facts in a story with the importance of minimizing harm to victims. We don't at all take lightly a decision to reveal personal information such as this about a minor.”

She said the decision to publish the information about the pregnancy was based on the judgment that the public interest was served in doing so:

We believe it speaks directly to potential motive, and is important to helping the public understand both the circumstances surrounding what is alleged to have happened, and to the character of the accused.”

She added that the decision was taken in consultation with senior news managers charged with overseeing compliance with CBC News’ Journalistic Standards and Practices.

REVIEW

The issue you raise is one journalists frequently confront: what is the public interest, and how does one balance the potential harm versus the duty to truth telling and sharing the information available. Journalists’ instincts are always to tell what they know. The ethical dilemma they face is to find the tipping point between that potential harm and the need to know.

One question might be not whether to tell but when, as you point out when you say this information might come out in court. Wherever possible, journalists must try to mitigate harm – but that doesn’t mean eliminate it. The judgment is about the value of the information in helping citizens understand a situation in the news.

CBC policy provides guidance and criteria, but in the end, it is a judgment call in each case. Journalists invoke the public interest, and the values outlined in the policy define what that might be:

To serve the public interest

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

One of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society is the workings of the justice system. Covering justice and the courts is a particularly important pursuit in a democracy. Our courts have emphasized the need for openness in the justice system on numerous occasions.

The fact that the young woman is not named makes all the difference in weighing the two sides of the equation – the duty to telling what is known and relevant, and the harm or discomfort it might cause. We have knowledge of the pregnancy, not who the young woman is or what her relationship to the accused or the victims might be. Because the information can explain a motive for the killing, it helps people following the case understand what might have happened.

The story also mentions that the dead woman may have had knowledge of an inappropriate sexual relationship. The facts laid out in the story are somewhat disjointed – and that is because the journalists are carefully phrasing the story in such a way that a member of the general public could not piece together the identity of the sexual assault victim. From the published details there is no way to know what her relationship to any of the family members might be. It is true, as you point out, more details might come out at trial, but that is a question of timing. It will be no less problematic reporting it then as now.

You mention that the prosecution will decide which facts should be entered in evidence. That may be the case. You should know that there have been particularly gruesome court cases where journalists have not reported details released by the Crown Attorneys or made available through testimony because in that case the harm outweighed any need to know or to increase public understanding. The judgment of what to report, provided it doesn’t violate court orders, rests with the journalists. The news department requires consultation at a senior level before a decision is made.

One cannot truly imagine the grief and suffering all the people involved in this tragic tale are experiencing. I can understand why you find this detail distasteful, but while you know the young woman is pregnant, you do not know who she is. There is no risk of increasing public attention because her identity is shielded. It is reasonable that you disagree with the decision to mention the pregnancy. But the fact that it was done is not a violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman