The wrong place at the wrong time: Reporting on crime

The complainant, Suzanne Maloney, thought this was an inappropriate turn of phrase to use when referring to the stabbing of a woman on the streets of Montreal. She thought it implied that the victim was to blame. I disagreed, because both in common usage and in the context of the story it was clear the reference was to the completely random nature of the crime.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that the report of a crime in Montreal made it sound as if the victim, a woman, was to blame for the incident. The piece, “Police say Monkland Ave. stabbing was random act of violence”, was published on the Montreal CBC News website in late January. The report was about a young woman who had been attacked while walking home late at night from the Metro. You were disgusted by the fact that the police used the phrase “in the wrong place at the wrong time” in describing the crime, and you explained why:

Such a mindless and useless choice of words suggests that it is her fault that she got stabbed. So if that is the way the police see this incident and CBC regards it as worth reporting in this way, then maybe the CBC can inform the women of Montreal as to where and when the police of Montreal think women can circulate where they are in the right place at the right time.

You questioned the police using this phrase, asking, “Why was she ‘at the wrong place at the wrong time’? Is that place forbidden to women at that time of day?” You suggested the reporter should have challenged the police officer to clarify what he meant by that phrase. You thought the officer was implying that this was a dangerous part of town and that women should avoid the area.

You pointed out that stabbings that had been reported a few days earlier in a different part of the city were not reported in the same fashion:

What I see is that only a day or so earlier CBC reported that there were stabbings in the Montreal district of Villeray and it appears that no one there was in the “wrong place at the wrong time”, nor does it appear that any of them were women. So we can therefore conclude that men can be anywhere and get stabbed because they are members of “street gangs”. But, if it’s a woman who is stabbed she is simply “at the wrong place at the wrong time”.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC News in Quebec, Helen Evans, responded to your complaint. She explained the context of the story. She said that any time there is a stabbing in Montreal it is a news story, as it is a “rare event” and raises fears until a perpetrator is caught. People want to know why a crime happened so they might understand if they are at risk. She explained there was another element to this particular incident:

But this was a very big story not only for those reasons, but because it took place in NDG and community religious leaders quickly identified the victim as Jewish, which raised the question of whether the attack was planned and anti-Semitic.

Perhaps to allay those fears, Montreal police were quick to assure the city that the woman was not attacked because of her religion. The story quoted police as saying “it appears to be a random act of violence”. And that was the way we began our story.

She explained the way the story was framed was to underline that this was a random act, that there was no apparent motive, and the perpetrator and victim did not know each other. It is in this context that the constable was quoted as saying “the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time”:

In saying the victim was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, Const. Leclerc was simply emphasizing the crime’s random nature. It’s a phrase commonly used by police to suggest the victim was just unlucky, not that she or he had done anything wrong or that it was the victim’s “fault”. Indeed, the phrase is used and widely understood to mean just the opposite.

REVIEW

CBC News’ Journalistic Standards and Practices has this to say about the use of language:

CBC is a language model for its audiences. Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism. Our language should be simple, clear and concrete.

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.

Clarity is also essential when numbers and statistics are involved. It is essential to avoid confusion and to take care to properly grasp the numbers used.

The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.

The news report begins with these words:

A stabbing in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood early Wednesday appears to be a random act of violence, according to Montreal police.

“It seems that we are in the presence of a random crime and the victim was unknown to the suspect,” said Const. André Leclerc.

“The victim was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

While you are certain that the phrase “wrong place at the wrong time” has an implication of blame, it is not a view I share. And even if one could argue that it could be misinterpreted, I am not sure how the context could have been any clearer. Life is full of random acts. There is no implication here that there was choice or free will involved. Had the officer gone on to say women should not be out late at night, or that she was doing something that would provoke an attack, then there might be some merit to your argument.

As Ms. Evans pointed out, one of the reasons events like this are reported is because people have a strong need to know if they are safe in their community. Based on this report, if I were living in N.D.G., I would certainly feel vulnerable until the perpetrator was caught. If, on the other hand, the victim and perpetrator knew each other, or the motive was gang related, I might feel concern but might not feel as personally at risk.

You take the phrase to mean something else. One citation, which gives both its literal and idiomatic meaning, might explain why. Wiktionary has this citation:

1. (literally) Describing actions or activities that the speaker considers inappropriate, misdirected, or unlikely to yield good results.

2. (idiomatic) At a location where something bad is about to happen at just the time of its occurrence.

On the other hand, many other citations, like this one from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus give the commonly used meaning and understanding of this idiom:

In a situation where something bad happens to you because you are unlucky:

It wasn’t his fault. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As for your reference to other stabbing incidents where this phrase was not used, it might well have been because it did not pertain in that situation, and not because of the gender of the victim. The article I found mentioned that theft may have been a motive. And while it is true that that poor victim was also in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is merely a matter of emphasis. In the story you are concerned about, it is that very random nature of the event that is being underlined. There is no violation of CBC News journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman