Warning: Disturbing Material - The public deserves to know when they are going to have to see or hear shocking images

CBC news in Calgary used the images of a dead dog and cat, with tape all over the muzzle, as an over the shoulder shot while the anchors introduced a story about animal cruelty. The complainant, Faisal Jhandir was watching the news with his two young children when the images came on screen. He wrote to complain about their use and the lack of warning. The use within the report was reasonable. The lack of warning was bad judgement and a policy breach.

COMPLAINT

You were disturbed and alarmed by the use of graphic images of dead animals in a news report on the May 7, 2014, local news in Calgary. The images appeared without warning. The newscast did not air at the usual time, but began after the end of a play-off hockey game. You were watching with your two young children, ages 7 and 5, who were “shocked and could not take their eyes off and seem visibly disturbed by that story and images.” You thought the timing right after a hockey game was particularly inappropriate. You suggested that news be made “family friendly” and that like other programming it should be rated “for example ‘PG-13’ or ‘R’ etc. and have control on times and channels accordingly and not just pop up after hockey.” You questioned the value of using images like these and the reporting of the story at all.

The story in question was an update on a case involving the torture and killing of a cat and dog earlier in the year. The nineteen year old charged in the case had appeared in court that day. The judge had ordered psychiatric testing for the accused. Outside the court, animal activists were asking for a maximum sentence if he was found guilty. The story began with an introduction from the news anchors with large images of a dead dog and a dead cat with its muzzle heavily taped on the screen behind them.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC News in Calgary, Helen Henderson, responded to your concerns. She agreed with you that it was an error to broadcast the images without a warning to viewers beforehand. She apologized that the programmers had not done so, and told you she had reviewed their lapse with them.

She explained that by definition, news “by its very nature is often about disturbing events” and “we have a responsibility to report the news.” She told you that, guided by CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, CBC journalists are asked to “be sensitive to the potential effect of graphic images on viewers.” She said that it is a question of judgment about which images are needed to convey the sense of the story, and in what context it is appropriate to use them. She explained that in this case, reporters and editors thought it was necessary to use the graphic pictures to convey the degree of cruelty involved in the incident.

REVIEW

As Ms. Henderson mentioned, CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices provides a road map for decision making around the use of graphic or disturbing images. All aspects are relevant to the complaint you made:

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.

Programmers and journalists must be familiar with CRTC regulations about the depiction of violence and adhere to those guidelines.

If it is necessary to use graphic images, we will put a warning ahead of their use.

The decision to use the images in some fashion in the report is justified because it does convey the reality of the situation. As Ms. Henderson explained, it is a judgement call. There will never be an absolute set of guidelines. Programmers have to consider context, time of day and prevailing cultural norms, and the relevance of the material to the story.

I appreciate your concern that this came right after a hockey game, which families watch together, but it was after 8 p.m. in the evening. Even if it had been on at the usual 6 o’clock slot, it would have been acceptable, if there had been a warning before the images were shown. While you make an interesting suggestion about a rating system for news, it is generally understood that news often involves reporting on disturbing topics, accompanied by unpleasant images or verbal descriptions.

Having said that, CBC News Calgary was in violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices because the images were used without warning. It was a lapse in judgment to put up those images behind the anchors without any warning. Used in the context of the piece, there was justification. There was none for opening with those images. I also noted that the same pictures were used multiple times – singly and together. If the case being made is that it was important to convey the depth of cruelty, once would have sufficed.

You asked if news could be made family friendly. The very definition of news means that attention will be given to unusual and often frightening events. Violence, whether man made or nature induced, features in many news stories. Sanitizing the presentation of the information would violate CBC journalism policy which demands accuracy and a fair representation of events. The competing need to respect sensibilities and to shield young children is achieved through the use of warnings, and judicious and minimal use of the disturbing images. I am glad Ms. Henderson has reviewed the necessity to do so.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman