Safety First

The complainant, Jennifer Farr, was concerned that the mention of the presence of a security guard at a Vancouver French school, hired in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, makes it more vulnerable to terrorist attack. The story was actually about a dispute over neighbourhood access to the private school’s playground. She wanted the reference removed. I didn’t think that was necessary.

COMPLAINT

CBC News published a story on February 24, 2015, about a dispute over use of a playground attached to a private school in Vancouver. The story, entitled “Restricted playground access sparks angry exchange between school principal, parent”, recounted a confrontation between the principal of the Cousteau International French School and local parents. The school is leasing the site of a former public school. While it still was a public school, according to the story, neighbourhood parents had fund-raised to build the attached playground. Some of them felt their children should still have unfettered access to it.

The school principal is quoted in the story as having security concerns for the students currently attending the private institution and as saying that neighbourhood children can use the facility after 5:00 p.m. What concerned you most about the story is a reference to the fact that the school has hired a security guard since the January Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris because it comes under the jurisdiction of the French Ministry of Education.

You feel by having mentioned this there is even a greater likelihood of an attack, and the students are being put under unacceptable risk. You want that reference taken out of the story because you don’t think it is relevant and does more harm than good:

...it greatly concerns me that there is a reference to the Paris attacks and discussion about how this school is a target....When I now google “North Vancouver Terrorist Attack”, this is one of the first stories that appears. Since children do not have voices that can be heard, I am contacting everyone I can to take this reference out of the story. In my opinion, previous to the story being published, there was no concern about terrorist attacks. The online story now makes it a target…

You believe that the ethically correct thing to do is to eliminate these references because the health and safety of people must be paramount “if there is even the slightest chance that a safety issue may arise.” In a phone conversation with me, you reiterated that you feel the very mention of the fact that the school has a security presence makes it more of a target. Nothing is more important, you said, than the safety of our children.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Brodie Fenlon, the managing editor of CBCNews.ca, replied to you after a phone conversation. He told you he also consulted with Jack Nagler, the director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, about your concerns. He told you that he and Mr. Nagler are “of the same mind that the facts you would like removed from the story are not only accurate but integral to the story. Moreover, there’s nothing in the story that reasonably exposes children at the school to greater risk. We will not be changing the story.”

Since he had dealt with you directly, he told you that if you wished you could send a formal complaint to this office.

REVIEW

There is no arguing with the statement that there is nothing more important than the safety of our children. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices and journalism codes in general do address this basic ethical point of competing values in making choices about what to publish. Frequently, journalists must weigh their duty to truth telling, to telling what they know, and any potential unintended harm or danger it might create. The CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices also makes a strong commitment to leaving the published record untouched. This is consistent with the practice of most media organizations.

There are two policies that speak to this issue: one is “Correcting archived online material” and the other is “Requests for deletions”. In both cases, changes can only be made after consultation at a fairly senior level. This gives you a sense of how seriously it is taken. The policy on deletions states:

We generally do not agree to requests to remove published material from our web pages.

Our published content is a matter of public record. To change the content of previously published material alters that record. Altering the record could undermine our credibility and the public’s trust in our journalism.

So while there is little argument that we all wish to keep our children as safe as possible, there is room for disagreement on the risk assessment. I understand that there is a sense of vulnerability – that an attack can come any time and in any place. It is a reflection of the times we live in. It is the job of journalists to make sense of that sense of risk and vulnerability, and to put it into a realistic context. It is the job of parents and school administrators to assess their particular situations and act accordingly. But I think we can all agree that the risk is pretty low. And I am not convinced that this story raises it in any way.

The reference that concerns you is about two thirds of the way through a story that is all about the confrontation between the principal and a parent, with each side giving a version of what happened. In its entirety it says:

The private school also hired a security guard in January following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Cousteau is one of 480 schools around the world that fall under French Ministry of Education jurisdiction, and they have all stepped up security since the attacks.

It is there to explain some of the principal’s security concerns and why there is a security guard (who asked a mother to leave) on the premises. It is true if you Google “North Vancouver terrorist attack,” this article comes up, about ninth when I tried it. It seems a stretch that a potential attacker would put that combination of words together, even if focussing on all terrorist attacks. The likelihood of this being a trigger and the determinant of the target, by any measure really does seem infinitesimal.

I am sorry this is causing you concern, but there is no violation of policy in having it in the story, nor is there in declining to remove it.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman