Home Invasion: Did it cross a threshold of good practice when CBC reporters went into the home of the San Bernardino shooters?

The complainant, Nicholas Doyle, said he was disgusted by the lack of journalistic integrity when reporters went into the home of the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. He said it added little insight and was an invasion of privacy. I found that CBC reporters were restrained and entering the premises was justified and did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

You strongly objected to the behaviour of a CBC journalist who was part of the team covering a mass shooting and its aftermath in San Bernardino, California this last December. On December 2 Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on people attending a holiday party at a social services facility. Fourteen were killed and 17 were injured. Two days later, on December 4, reporters entered the rented home of the dead shooters. You objected to the fact that Matt Kwong was among them and sent tweets from the facility. You were also critical of another story on CBCNews.ca based on Mr. Kwong’s reporting, entitled “Reporters root through San Bernardino shooters’ apartment on live TV.” You stated:

He should have respected both the personal privacy of this family, the integrity of the crime scene, and at most, he should have been reporting on the illegal and unethical actions of the reporters from outside the house.

You found the whole episode extremely distasteful. You said you were “quite disgusted by the lack of journalistic integrity displayed by the CBC in this instance.” You suspected that members of the media had paid the landlord to gain entry to the rented townhouse. You characterized this incident as both unethical and likely illegal. You said it was illegal for two reasons: One was that the reporters entered the property only two days after the shooting and were likely destroying the “integrity of the crime scene.” Furthermore, you added, the presence of the reporters violated California tenant law. You said the landlord did not have the right to provide access.

You objected to the fact that reporters went through the personal effects of the dead suspects, and likely endangered members of their family by showing documents which identified them:

Finally, ransacking a house and displaying personal effects on TV is hardly journalism. This was nothing but a gross tabloid-style display of exhibitionism. This added nothing to the story, gained no insight into the killers, and seemed to merely allow news outlets to seek out Islamic symbols (Qu’rans, prayer mats, etc.) to help fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment in the media. The personal information broadcast during this event puts the family of the killers - who did not participate in any of it - at physical risk.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns. He told you that you raised some important issues, and while he agreed “that there appears to have been a circus-like atmosphere that day, and it felt somewhat tawdry,” he did not agree with your conclusions.

He explained that there was no violation of the integrity of the crime scene because at the point at which reporters went in, the FBI had released the dwelling. He said that while it may be true that under California tenant law the landlord should not have opened up the house, it was he who broke the law, not the reporters. He added that “it is not a realistic expectation that a reporter on the world’s biggest story would decline an opportunity to enter the property when allowed in by the owner.”

Mr. Nagler also told you that Mr. Kwong did as you suggested, that he did report on the behaviour of some of the reporters. He cited two sections of the story to show this was the case. The first was a tweet embedded in the story:

Bizarre scene inside the home of Farook and Malik.

The second paragraph he quoted stated:

CBC’s Matt Kwong, who was inside the apartment, said reporters were leafing through papers, splaying out baby photos on a bathroom floor, holding up Islamic literature and rummaging through food in the couple’s pantry.

He pointed out that while other media outlets showed details, the CBC’s coverage took pains to preserve the privacy of family members not involved in the crime, and that it was careful “not to employ tactics which would draw the audience to link Islam with terrorists.” He said the CBC coverage tried to give members of the public a sense of what went on there that day, and what was found there, so that they could form their own judgements. He concluded by saying:

Let me be clear. I am not endorsing the odd scene that unfolded that day. But it is a reality that reporters sometimes do things they may find unpleasant in order to get more facts and a fuller understanding of a story. The key ethical question then is what a news organization does with the facts, images and sounds it has gathered. In this instance, I would argue that CBC behaved responsibly and properly.

REVIEW

In this case, the most relevant part of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices is the policy on privacy. Here is the general principle:

We exercise our right of access to information and our freedom of expression within the context of individual rights. One of these is the right to privacy.

In situations involving personal suffering and pain, we balance the public’s right to know against individual human dignity.

We disclose information of a private nature only when the subject matter is of public interest.

In considering this matter, it is necessary to separate the unseemly behavior of some reporters and networks, and the decision to go in at all. I do not see a violation of CBC journalistic policy in the fact that both Matt Kwong and Kim Brunhuber went in. After every one of these all too common events, there is a desire to know and try to understand the motivation of the people who committed such violence. As perpetrators, they are very much in the public eye, and in these circumstances there is not the same right to privacy. An opportunity to see where they lived might provide insight. CBC news staff did not broadcast live from the scene, except for some tweets that could be considered “live” since they were in real time.

Reporters frequently do things that may seem intrusive and distasteful. If there is a possibility there might be a public interest, or some information about an important issue, it may be justified. It is a judgement call. And it was not possible to know if important insights or information would be gained until the scene was assessed. So the issue was not entering the house, the issue was taking the time to consider what was there, and what was of value for members of the public to learn about. While the CBC staff were part of that scrum, they did not broadcast live, without any thought about what was being shown, as some other networks did. That makes a difference. There was some attempt to bring context and meaning to what was found there. Mr. Nagler mentioned that there was a live walk-through posted on CBCNews.ca for a short time, but it was taken down. That was a good call.

The whole incident provoked some good and necessary thought on what had happened. The Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement after this event. I endorse it:

Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.

The violation of privacy, the showing of the identities of family members not related to the shootings, occurred on networks that broadcast the walk-through live. The CBCNews.ca piece you took issue with was about that very media circus. You mentioned that Mr. Kwong could have reported about that from outside of the house. Reporters are obliged to report facts, to be eyes and ears on the ground, and then to provide context and meaning to what they find. I think it is not realistic to think that could be done without knowing what was actually going on inside the dwelling.

The CBC article you cite was actually written by Lauren O’Neill, based in part on Mr. Kwong’s experience. It is framed as a piece about what the reporters had done, and what the reaction had been.

Reporters from several major news networks entered the apartment of Syed Rizwan Farook and wife Tashfeen Malik on Friday morning with cameras rolling to show the world what lay inside — live, uncensored and on national TV….

Footage of the apartment aired Friday by CNN and MSNBC was described as everything from “surreal” to “disturbing.” Reporters could be seen going through household items, broken toys and photos of unidentified children. Clear images of IDs belonging to Farook and Malik, who were shot and killed by police, were broadcast – along with other IDs found in the home.

The piece aggregates various tweets commenting on the media presence in the apartment, as well as more information about how it happened. It does, as much as possible, provide some context so that, as Mr. Nagler pointed out to you, members of the public can make their own decision about what happened, and whether it should have.

CBC News was fairly restrained in the amount of coverage and what was shown. On The National the night of December 4, the coverage focused on a range of developments for the day with only a brief reference to the tour of the house:

It was like a surreal open house. The FBI had finished searching, so the landlord allowed media and neighbours into the home of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. In one bedroom, prayer books, beds strewn with photos. In the other bedroom, a crib, a box filled with baby shoes. A picture of a happy family. But in the living room, a different story. Next to the shards of broken glass and children’s toys, the FBI left behind lists of items seized from the home—box after box of various types of ammunition and gun parts. The landlord says the suspects were just like any other young professional couple—no problems, no red flags.

There was not much else done on the house itself. There was a brief walk-through posted by Mr. Brunhuber on CBCNews.ca. I did a review, although not a comprehensive one, of that day’s News Network coverage, and there was little mention of the house or scenes from the interior.

As for the issue of legality that you raised: The early reports were unclear about how the reporters gained access. Later comments from the FBI indicated that the townhouse was no longer an active crime scene. As for the issue of California law, you raise a good point. But the landlord was the person who opened the door, and in the moment, it is hard to fault the reporters for entering, especially since the tenants were deceased. It would not be obvious that they would continue to have tenants’ rights.

Journalists must manage competing pressures. In this case, there was certainly the pressure of speed and competition. But overarching all of that has to be one question – what is the journalistic purpose for what we are doing?

At the end of the day, I agree with you that what was found in the house provided little true insight into motivation or the personalities of the perpetrators. It did provide, through the FBI lists left behind, some idea of what was found there along with the quotidian artifacts of everyday life.

I had conversations with some of the reporters and desk editors involved in making decisions about the coverage of this event. One of the producers mentioned to me that this is the first time they have been faced with a situation like this, and it happened so quickly it was hard to keep up. They didn’t really have a plan going in. There was undoubtedly a circus-like atmosphere that does not reflect well on the profession. With sadness and certainty I can say there will be another mass shooting. With digital media, live networks and live streaming, the pressure and competition to be there and do something, do anything, is very real. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has guides to live broadcasting, but they can’t cover every situation. At some point, a live walk-through was published and there seems to not have been much discussion about it before hand, even though it was taken down in a short time.

In light of this event, I hope news staff consider how they managed this episode, and talk about smart and ethical ways to handle a similar situation in the future.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman