Live broadcast killing

When two reporters were shot and killed on live breakfast TV in the U.S., footage of their murder was shown on CBC News Network. The complainant, Richard McNamee, was shocked at its use, and thought it completely unacceptable. CBC News Network coverage was restrained and provided ample and detailed warning. It is hard to watch but its use did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

Last August two journalists were shot while broadcasting live on a television station in Roanoke, Virginia. In the course of reporting the story that morning, CBC News Network showed the video of the shooting. You objected to its use: “The live murder of two reporters should not be shown on live TV.” You said no other TV networks broadcast the footage.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC News Network, Jennifer Harwood, responded to your concerns. She told you that she could understand why someone watching the coverage that morning would be disturbed by it, and would disagree with the decision to air it. She pointed out that the video was used in moderation and that prior to airing there was a clear warning given that it would be shocking and disturbing. She went on to explain some of the thinking that went into the decision to include the images:

CBC has an obligation to report the news and news by its very nature is often about disturbing events. We do take very seriously our responsibility to depict harrowing incidents such as this one with discretion and restraint. In fact, after the initial decision to air the video from WDBJ7-TV, CBC News decided to stop showing video of the shooting. A few hours after news of the shooting broke, we pulled the video from coverage. We moved instead to focus on Ms. Parker and Mr. Ward, giving viewers a sense of their lives before this terrible attack. We also tried to move away from the shocking images of WHAT had happened, towards coverage about WHY it happened, as details of the gunman emerged.

She also told you that she thought CBC News Network coverage was consistent with that of other major news outlets.

REVIEW

This summer alone, at least three gun violence stories made a major impact on news coverage – the shooting at a college in Colorado on October 1, the mass murder at a Charleston, South Carolina black church, and the shooting of two journalists broadcasting live on the local morning show on WDBJ7, a CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia. Each was horrible. Only one, the shooting of the journalists, was caught live on air, providing a record of what had actually occurred.

CBC News Network chose to run some of that footage from the station’s broadcast. The perpetrator posted his own point-of-view recording of the murders on social media, which was removed shortly after it began to circulate. CBC News did not run any of that footage.

I provide this context because there are no easy answers here, not even using CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices as a guide. Because no two situations are alike, because context is critical, CBC policy on the use of graphic images or portrayal of grief and suffering are based on principles, not absolutes. There is one basic principle – that graphic images never be used without good reason, or to grab viewers’ attention. There is a policy entitled “Explicit Sexual or Violent content:

Violence, nudity and sexuality are never presented without good reason. They may be justified when they are important to an understanding of the world we live in. Where they are necessary, we present them without undue exploitation, voyeurism or sensationalism and without trivializing, encouraging or glorifying.

We treat painful scenes with discretion and restraint and without prolonging them unduly.

When it is necessary to present explicit content that some could find shocking, we provide an audience advisory.

The same principles are reiterated another way under “Depiction of Violence.” The policy states:

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 coverage on CBC News Network included video of the shooting four times in about an eight hour period. It was used from mid-morning until about mid-afternoon. In fact, at one point, before running it the presenter stated that CBC News Network would only use these images once in an hour. The news agenda that day meant that the story was being updated roughly every half hour in that period. It was never used as a headline, or the lead-in to a story. It was used in the telling of the event, and in the context of what happened. It was never run without discussion and other important details before and after it. Leaving aside for a moment whether it should have been used at all, the warning that preceded it was exemplary. After showing a freeze frame of the reporter interviewing her subject, who was also shot but not fatally, the presenter, Natasha Fatah, explained to the audience what was happening and went on to say:

“As I mentioned, Suhanna (program host), this all took place live on air and so we have footage of that for you which we are about to show you. But just a warning to folks at home. You are about to hear gunshots, you are about to hear the reporter scream in desperation and you’re going to see the cameraman fall to the ground...so just be warned this may be disturbing. Have a look.”

There are several seconds of benign images with a “graphic warning” on the screen before the shooting begins. This certainly adequately fulfills the policy injunction to adequately respect the sensibilities of the people viewing the content.

The thorny question about whether it should have been used at all remains. Given the wording of the policy, it was not a violation to have done so. Proper warning was given. Its use was in the context of showing and explaining what had happened that day.

Ms. Harwood told you that by its nature news is often disturbing. The daily judgment call is around how much of the graphic nature of that disturbance belongs in a television broadcast. Journalists are faced with this choice constantly. In the explosion of platforms and the ubiquitous nature of camera phones, there is rarely an event, triumphant or tragic, that is not recorded and available for download. There are a couple of important tests – reporters after all have a duty to truth telling, and the ugliness and brutality of an event just might be part of it. More importantly, there is a question about whether showing the images will provide information to citizens to make up their minds about what happened and what its impact might be. Some of the graphic images out of the confrontation between African Americans and police in U.S. cities come to mind, as does the recent release of footage of the shooting of Sammy Yatim in Toronto. There is the competing value of telling and showing the truth and impact of an event, against the right to privacy of the victims, as well as respect for a viewer’s sensibility.

In these violent events when a single shooter creates carnage and then often takes his own life, it is generally CBC policy to downplay coverage of the perpetrator and to refrain from doing anything that would tend to glorify the act and the actor. So one could argue that by showing the shooting, the news staff did just that. There is an equally compelling argument that showing the image is not in fact the same as approving of it, but that it is necessary to show the reality of the gun violence that seems almost a quotidian event in the United States. Here are the musings of Los Angeles Times correspondent Mary McNamara from a column she did in the wake of the shootings and the coverage of them:

The random, senseless horror of their deaths — one minute Parker is doing her job, the next minute running for her life — should remind us that murder, which remains the No. 1 narrative arc in television drama, is not entertainment, that real killers are not fascinating creatures of tortured back story and twisted mythology. It should stop us in our tracks with the knowledge we are all vulnerable to random gun violence and that threats and signs of stalking should be taken seriously.

I, like you, found the video of the shooting terribly disturbing. The visuals are actually not that graphic – it was the screaming of the young reporter that was almost unbearable. Viewers were given a chance to turn away. And that is a reasonable choice. Others were given the choice to experience, as Ms. McNamara stated, not the TV entertainment take on violence, but the real thing. The footage was used responsibly. One can quibble how often might be enough, but it is important to note that all-news television is programmed on the assumption that people only watch in short increments. In this case, while it was right at the line the handling of the material did not cross it.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman