Image and Perception: The use of covershots in ongoing news stories

The complainant, Don Craig, was concerned about the repeated use of stock footage of Stephen Harper at a campaign event that included shots of some men wearing skull caps. He was concerned this might have an impact on people who are anti-Semitic. I did not agree the images were used inappropriately in any way.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that footage used in CBC News Network coverage of the leaders’ debate was inappropriate and dangerous. In the course of covering the debate, producers showed images of Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper being greeted by citizens at an event. Some of the men present were wearing yarmulkes, the traditional head covering worn by Jewish men. You asked this question:

whenever the cbc was talking about the PM last night ..you continually looped, the same picture of harper talking to a group, where many were wearing yarmulkes... do you agree with this thinly veiled subliminal message to anti semites?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jennifer Harwood, the Managing Editor of CBC News Network, responded to your concern.

She told you there was no hidden message in the use of the visuals:

I can reassure you, with no reservations whatsoever, that this was not the case. The visuals came from a campaign event held a couple of days before debate night, featuring Stephen Harper on August 4 in North York at a Conservative Party election rally. The shots used during segments on debate night were chosen at random to show Mr. Harper and the people who came to see him in North York on August 4th. There was no intent to highlight anybody’s religious garb, or focus on any particular group.

She said she appreciated your sensitivity to the issue of racism but hoped that showing pictures of the Prime Minister with any particular group would reinforce the diversity of Canada rather than foster enmity.

REVIEW

The loop you referred to was used at least three times in the course of two hours of coverage of the first leaders’ debate. There was also footage of the other leaders and later in the broadcast, footage from the debate itself.

The first time there was a shot of the back of a head with a skull cap on it was during a conversation between program host Chris Brown and reporter Margo McDiarmid, who was reporting live outside the venue of the first leaders’ debate of the 2015 federal election campaign. As she talked about each leader, footage of them at other events appeared on half the screen.

In the case of Mr. Harper, the sequence used was of him standing at a microphone with a diverse group of men in safety vests behind him, and an audience listening. One man with a skullcap on his head can be seen in the shot of the audience. The next time the image is used the sequence provides a bit more context, as it shows Mr. Harper and his wife walking into some sort of industrial site greeting men wearing the same safety vests. The sequence also includes the same shot of Mr. Harper talking to a crowd with the workers behind him. And in this iteration, the wider shot features the backs of two men’s heads covered with skullcaps. In this instance, Chris Brown was in conversation with Rosemary Barton. It is not possible to link to the video, but here are two screenshots taken from that segment:

The sequence is a bit out of context, but clearly it was shot at a site with a diverse workforce. Some of the men surrounding Mr. Harper when he is addressing the audience are visible minorities. At this particular location and this particular event, a cross section of Canadians were present and applauding the Prime Minister. The fact that two of them happen to be wearing skullcaps is irrelevant. I do not see how this would be a “subliminal message to anti-Semites.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices recognizes the need to be mindful of how minorities are portrayed:

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

There is nothing in this shot that brings the men into disrepute or danger. In fact, in this context it is completely normative – two men who wear a head covering happen to be present at an event. Footage of this sort is known as “b roll” and it is used to provide visual interest when there are periods of conversation, in this case between reporters and program presenter. It would have been strange to censor it because of the appearance of some of the people in the shot. I would have welcomed a conversation to better understand the thought process that brought you to this conclusion. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman