Doing the Time, Forget the Crime: The ethics of reporting on a convicted sex offender's past

The complainant, David Huntley, thought it was wrong to report on a Regina man who had a website “Babes Behind Bars,” which featured American women doing time. One of the details about them was information about their children. The complainant thought while the site might be in bad taste, it wasn’t illegal and it was unjustified to bring up the blogger’s past child sex offence convictions.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a series of stories prepared by the CBC News Saskatchewan investigative team and the lead reporter on the story, Geoff Leo. The story involved Rodney Barras, who at the time was running a website entitled “Babes Behind Bars,” a dating site for women in the United States who were serving time in prison. The site featured personal details about the women, including details about their children. The coverage also revealed that Mr. Barras had past convictions for child sexual abuse.

You felt that the stories were “salacious” and had no public interest other than a prurient one. You pointed out that the convictions were from a long time ago, and that it was unfair to bring up his past:

What he did was horrible, but CBC is not only plastering many pics of him, video, his name and whereabouts - they went to great lengths to superimpose pics to punish him for not being truthful to CBC.

None of that is illegal. The guy paid his dues, is not a registered offender, but CBC can harass him? We don't do this to murderers or even terrorists - the only thing that lured CBC in was sex, plain and simple a seedy website.

You believe that since Mr. Barras denied that he was the same man convicted of crimes, the reporter was vindictive in his coverage for that reason. You also thought that part of the story was misleading and inaccurate:

I have since learned that this article also did something that is exceptionally wrong, and that was it mislead people. The target Leo had focussed on had convictions from years ago for sex offenses of varying degrees but nothing that got him on a national sex offender registry. Leo implies that he is, but he is not, and the best CBC SK can come up with is that “Toronto police have him on a list of people who are likely to reoffend.” Hardly the same, and really meaningless, as the man has committed no crime nor done anything illegal to trigger this article.

You wondered if the Toronto list existed at all.

You thought the story was built on flimsy evidence. You pointed out the woman complaining about Mr. Barras was the mother who pressed charges against him because she said he had molested her son. You asserted that none of the women who participated in the website had complained, and so this coverage was unjustified.

The reason why CBC has to investigate this because it is a purely moral crusade you have run against Barras. He has done bad things and left victims. On that we can both agree, he’s probably not a very nice man, I don’t know. But his dues are currently paid up. He starts off a seedy website, salacious yes because it includes sex, and Saskatchewan has a truly odd attitude to it so it’s great to play devil’s advocate (Albert St used to be lined with XXX video stores until the internet came along, but no strip bars pls.) If he sold Tupperware I think you would be less interested. But whether I like his site or not, no one involved with his website complained...

You thought that Mr. Leo was inappropriate in the way he got Mr. Barras to talk to him, saying he was doing a story about the website when it was really about him and his past. You also thought that Mr. Leo was unable to do this story fairly because of his own beliefs and values, although you say you don’t know him.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Dederick, the managing editor for news in Saskatchewan, replied to your concerns. He told you that the decision to publish these stories was not taken lightly, and that they weighed the competing values at play. On balance, he and his team believed there was a public interest in proceeding. As he said to me, they had to decide whether doing this story was in the public interest or just interesting to the public. He wrote:

I understand and respect your position: Mr. Barras has paid his dues to society for past convictions, and given that there was no evidence this website was illegal, doesn’t he have a right to live his life out of the public spotlight?

We don’t disagree with that principle at all. But we have to weigh it against the public interest. Experts told us that Barras’ activities were potentially bringing him closer to the patterns of behaviour that had led to criminal acts in the past.

He added that they consulted lawyers about the best way to handle the claims of a woman who said her son was molested by Mr. Barras, although there was no conviction. The woman came forward to express her concerns, and the lawyers advised that it was acceptable and legitimate to report on those concerns, regardless of the fact the charge did not lead to a conviction.

He pointed out that they approached Mr. Barras for his comments and to get his side of the story. He didn’t respond to those phone calls and emails. Mr. Dederick told you that in earlier conversations, he had tried to deny he was the same person named in the past convictions, but that CBC has independently verified it.

You had pointed out that Mr. Barras does not feature on any public list of sex offenders, and that since the bar to be placed on the U.S. list is quite low, the report used “innuendo” to imply a problem. Mr. Dederick explained that the facts were different:

I will remind you that in Canada there is no official public list of sex offenders. The information is instead shared with police forces, which use their own discretion to decide what information to give the public. So in my view, your comparison to the United States is not entirely germane. Our information from Toronto was valid and reinforced for us the very reason why doing the story was the correct decision. It struck us as relevant and fair to report.

He also explained that there was no intention to dupe Mr. Barras when he was first approached by the reporter. The original assignment was to find out about this rather unique and unusual website. But once Mr. Leo learned about Mr. Barras’s background, the focus of the story changed.

He responded to your concerns about Mr. Leo. He told you that he was “loathe to respond” to the point you raised about his religious beliefs. He assured you that Mr. Leo does not bring a personal agenda to his work, and that there are many checks and balances before a story, especially one with as many ethical challenges as this one, is published.

REVIEW

This story does indeed have many ethical questions. And as in all ethical dilemmas, there are competing values to consider. In this case, there is the consideration of privacy for Mr. Barras, and the public interest in someone with his background running the website he created. The reporters sought the opinions of experts, who had concerns about the pattern of behavior and motivations for the creation of the website. As Mr. Dederick mentioned, this sparked quite an editorial discussion. He told me that it went to the most senior levels of the news service for consideration and sign off. They would have used CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices as part of their deliberations. The policy on privacy addresses the issue of public interest versus individual rights:

Without limiting the meaning of public interest, we work in the public interest when we reveal information that helps our audience make decisions about matters of public debate and when we expose illegal activity, anti-social behavior, corruption, abuse of trust, negligence and incompetence, or a situation that poses a risk to the health and safety of others.

Mr. Leo’s interest in the story was piqued when he saw an ad for the “Babes Behind Bars” site on a truck near CBC. Checking it out, he was intrigued by the concept behind it and what would motivate someone to create and maintain it. When his colleagues agreed it would make an interesting story, he performed due diligence in preparation for the interview with Mr. Barras. It was at that point he discovered Mr. Barras’s criminal record.

As is often the case in journalism, stories change direction. Mr. Leo has a journalistic responsibility to explore what he knows. It was not misleading his interview subject. Rather he did what is required of him to achieve balance and fairness – he told Mr. Barras what he had learned and asked for his comment. Mr. Barras denied he had ever been in prison or had been convicted of any crimes. That was reported, more than once over the several pieces published on this story:

He said he has never faced sex-related charges against children and has never been to prison.

That’s despite the fact that his full name and birthdate match the identity of the man facing charges in this story.

The stories also report Mr. Barras’s reasons for developing and maintaining the website. He is quoted as saying he did so to help lonely women in prison:

The site contains photos of women serving time in prisons across the U.S. It includes details the inmates have provided, such as their crimes, former professions, religion, measurements and how many children they have.

Barras said he doesn’t just run the site. He also regularly writes to five or six women that he finds attractive, though he said he has no romantic intentions.

He said he's just trying to help.

“An act of love if you will. It sounds kind of corny, but it is actually true,” Barras said.

I am puzzled why you believe CBC was “punishing” Mr. Barras for lying to the reporter by quoting him at length. In doing so, the reporters were fulfilling the obligation to provide balance, and to hear from both sides in a controversial matter.

Once Mr. Leo had learned of his subject’s past, he did what any professional journalist would do; he dug deeper. He told me part of the discussion was to simply drop the story because it wasn’t turning out to be what they thought it would be, or to explore further to ascertain if there was value in telling this story. They dug deeper, and what they learned made them decide to publish.

Your concern about the story being based on the complaint of only one person might have weight if that were the case, but it’s not. Other voices are present. Her opinions certainly are fair comment, but they are also backed up by the assessment of an expert in the field and the fact that the Toronto police have the name on their list of “potential sex offenders.” I would also point out that when contacted, one of the inmates who had corresponded with Mr. Barras was horrified that she had shared pictures of her child with him. The stories lay out the facts and concerns, including Mr. Barras’s perspective, and allow members of the public to draw their own conclusions. That is the proper role of journalism.

I want to address your concerns about Mr. Leo’s personal beliefs, although you are not clear about what you think they are. We all come from a particular background and formulate a world view. You can’t be in conflict of interest simply for who you are. Gay people cover issues of gay marriage and gay rights. Aboriginal people cover stories involving other aboriginal people, to cite but a few examples. There is a professional way to behave that mitigates those concerns. Of course we all operate out of a certain perspective, and there may be times it would not be appropriate to cover something a reporter might be deeply invested in. This is definitely not one of them.

You may not agree that there was a strong enough issue of public safety or concern to warrant doing these stories. The stories were handled even-handedly and responsibly, and according to CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman