Speculation as reporting - Proceed with caution

The complainant, Chuck Erlichman, thought an article about the issue of property rights in relation to the shooting of a young Indigenous man was irresponsible and could fan racist sentiment. The story was flawed but publishing an article addressing the issue was not in and of itself a violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

In August of this year, a young First Nations man was shot and killed on a farm near Biggar, Saskatchewan. The farmer has been charged with murder. The incident has provoked strong community reaction. On August 12, three days after the shooting, CBC News in Saskatchewan published an online article entitledDeadly shooting near Biggar, Sask. sparks debate over right to defend.” You felt the article was “irresponsible and damaging.” You thought it was reckless to publish an article which explored the concept of the “right to defend” because there was nothing in the reporting to date about this incident that would suggest that it was a factor in the shooting. On the contrary, you stated there were three witnesses who said the dead man had driven his car onto Gordon Stanley’s farm seeking help. You added:

The article, whether intended or not, is framing this murder as defence of property. This is irresponsible and not based in fact. Clearly CBC Saskatoon does not have enough facts to make that claim and the story goes against its own reporting of the events in question. I'm sickened to see CBC Saskatoon incite and exacerbate racist fear in this way.

The event had stimulated a lot of discussion on various social media platforms. You questioned why a responsible media organization like CBC would feel it had to respond to uninformed comments, and risk giving credibility to false and racist statements. This was a very sensitive story and it deserved more equitable treatment.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer for Radio Current Affairs in Saskatchewan, Paul Dornstauder, responded to your complaint. He agreed with you this was a sensitive story. He added it is always difficult to report stories involving violence and death but that there is a journalistic responsibility to explore the issues raised. He added that in this case “I think we might have made that clearer in the way we framed the story.” He explained that this was one of many stories CBC Saskatchewan published about this incident:

Were it the only story, you would be right to question its approach. But it was not. This was just one of a number of stories -- just one element of our coverage of a complex, and controversial, event that is still unfolding and likely will continue to for some time to come.

He said that the story was done in the light of a contentious and often angry debate about the shooting on social media like Facebook and Twitter. One of the issues raised in those discussions was “the notion of ‘protection of property.’” He agreed with you that there were few facts clear about what had happened on the farm, and the comments about the right to protect property “seemed beset by ignorance and misinformation.” Mr. Dornstauder explained this was the reason for doing the article - to bring some understanding and facts to a discussion, not to endorse protection of property or self defense as a justification for the shooting.

REVIEW

This story had an electrifying effect in Saskatchewan. A First Nations man was shot and killed after he turned onto a farm. The land owner, Gerald Stanley, accused of shooting him, is facing a second degree murder charge. As Mr. Dornstauder mentioned in his response to you, there was a vigorous and at times rancorous debate about what had happened and why, some of which was racist. You thought it inappropriate for CBC News to pay attention to a debate generated on social media. In this day and age, that is almost impossible to do. It is the new agora, the marketplace where ideas are shared and issues raised, without any filters. Unfortunately, it is a space also known for shouting and bullying. Nevertheless, it has entered and for better or ill, shapes public discourse. CBC journalists are cautioned to ensure information taken from social media is sourced and verified before republishing it. It doesn’t prohibit them from taking ideas or threads of discussions to generate stories or further exploration of issues raised. In the old days, they might have done what were called “streeters” - random comments from people in coffee shops or on the street.

The issue you said hadn’t been reported, in fact, was already part of the public discourse. And obliquely, the RCMP had announced on August 11th, after Mr. Stanley appeared in court, that they were looking into charges against the victim and the people with him. This is what the Regina Leader Post quoted RCMP as telling reporters:

A man was declared dead at the scene. Another man “associated to the property” was arrested by police at the scene without incident. No charges were immediately laid.

Three occupants of the vehicle — one woman, one girl and one man — were taken into custody as part of a related theft investigation, police said. Police later identified and located a fourth boy who was in the vehicle.

Police on Thursday said “charges are still being considered with respect to some property-related offences pending further investigation.”

The CBC News story you objected to was published on August 12. In its mission and values, CBC News states:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

You were not alone in thinking it was wrong of CBC News to publish this article, that it fed into a racist argument about Indigenous peoples that saw Mr. Boushie as a menace. It was seen as an endorsement of the use of violence by some readers. This office received 24 complaints similar to yours. Testing ideas means repeating them - and it is a judgment call whether it might do more harm than good. It is rarely a good idea to censor ideas or discussion of them - not in a society that believes in freedom of expression.

Mr. Dornstauder told you that the writer and editor of the article might have done a better job of making clear what the context for the story was. And he is right. This is where the story fell short of the clarity demanded by CBC Journalistic policy. The headline got it right, but there is one sentence in particular in the story that gave the impression that the issue of property defense was a fact in this case, and it muddied the waters from there on in.

While the debate over what happened rages online, a question that will soon be before the courts has emerged.

I recommend this sentence be amended or removed. It states as a fact that this will form part of the criminal proceedings. It might - but when this article was published, the RCMP had said they were investigating and little was known. To this date, no property-related charges have been laid. I agree that although much of the piece dealt with debunking notions about property rights, it left the impression it was definitely a factor in this case.

Mr. Dornstauder points out that this was one of many treatments of this ongoing story and that it is consistent with CBC policy to provide multiple perspectives over time. I note the day before an article was published quoting Colten Boushie’s uncle, which recounts what he thinks happened that day. Members of the public who accessed CBC News would have heard different perspectives and voices to form their own judgments. So while choosing to examine the issue is in no way a violation of policy, the article lacked clarity and fell short of standards.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman