Crime Reporting: Naming names in the digital age.

The complainant, Paul Walton, thought it was not fair or balanced to provide the names in some crime stories, but leave them out in others. As long as there was no ethical or legal reason, it is not a decision reporters should make. CBC policy states if you report someone is accused of a crime, you need to report the outcome. Since that isn’t always possible, the choice to withhold a name, especially when it lives online forever, is a valid choice.

COMPLAINT

You were troubled by the fact that CBC news stories do not always identify people accused of crimes. You also cited the CBC News decision to blur the faces of a group of Queen’s University students who took part in a masquerade party dressed as various racial or ethnic groups. The students were accused of racism in doing so. You mentioned some other examples where the accused was not named, but the information was available through other publications. One such article was published on the CBC Ottawa website: Gatineau man charged with wearing anti-gay T shirt to Saunders Farm.” You pointed out that you were able to obtain the name of the individual from the Ottawa Citizen website. You had the same issue with a crime story published on the Edmonton CBC News website. It also left out the name of the accused. This story reported that a bank employee had been charged with defrauding his employer, HSBC Bank of Canada, of $3 million over a 5 year period. You were able to find the employee’s name on another news organization’s website in that case as well.

You believe this practice undermines the credibility of CBC News as a news source.

A story that is worth reporting includes all important and relevant facts or it is not worth reporting at all. That would mean reporting all names where legally and ethically permissible. And those stories where journalistic ethics prevent revealing those who could or would be otherwise named fall within strict and well defined boundaries common to the journalism profession for many years.

The CBC must also extend those principles to all accused persons. Naming some accused and not others is unfair to those who are named in stories. Doing so according to an internal policy amounts to a bias at odds with the responsibilities of a free press.

You think that CBC is practicing “self-censorship” and this “raises questions of bias and a lack of fairness and balance.” You feel the only logical and ethical practice is to report all names all the time, within the bounds of the law and other ethical considerations. You think this is in the public interest and anything less is a disservice, and that the choice of which accused to name is not CBC News personnel’s to make:

Doing so partially is a disservice to the communities you serve, poor journalistic practice, incompatible with the principles of justice and unfair to those accused whose names are reported — as well as victims who may strongly disagree with the CBC’s assessment of what constitutes a serious crime.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

You received responses from two senior CBC News staff. Steve Ladurantaye, Managing Editor @cbcnews, responded to your complaint about the Queen’s University students’ story and addressed your concern about the policy of not consistently naming all accused people in articles about their crimes.

He told you that there was a vigorous discussion about blurring the faces of the Queen’s University students. He shared the factors taken into account to reach the decision they did:

  • The party was private.

  • Students did not break any laws (as far as we are aware).

  • They had an expectation of privacy.

  • The photos were screen grabs from Facebook which have since been removed.

He acknowledged that some other news outlets did publish the photos without blurring the faces. He explained that CBC News personnel make their decisions on what they consider to be the right ethical choice in a particular situation, and do not hinge that decision on what other outlets opt to do. In this case, he added:

We felt it would have been irresponsible to do without more information or a public interest that went beyond the general shaming of the students involved.

He told you the general principle that guides the decision to name or to omit the names of those accused of crimes is based on whether the story will be followed through all the way to its resolution in court. He stated that if there was an issue of public safety, the accused or suspects would be named.

Paula Waddell, the Executive Producer of CBC News in Ottawa, responded to your query about the article on the man charged for wearing an anti-gay T-Shirt. She informed you the primary consideration was whether the news service would be able to follow the case right through the legal system, and report the outcome. She explained that “dozens of people are charged every day” and there simply are not the resources to follow through on all of them. In this case, she said:

...we thought it editorially more relevant to our community to focus on the public's strong reaction to the incident. Here are some links to some of our coverage:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/man-wears-anti-gay-tshirt-saunders-farm-hate-1.3831796

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/anti-gay-t-shirt-saunders-farm-charges-1.3858238

I understand why not everyone would agree with our decision making in this case but upon review, I think the coverage was fair and balanced.

She told you the accused are named when the charges come under some of the “most serious crimes in Canada’s Criminal Code.” She explained that in those cases, “we know we will follow up and the public record is updated” with the verdict.

REVIEW

CBC journalists operate within the framework of the Journalistic Standards and Practices. The document is a set of guidelines based on principles of ethical decision making. For that reason, on some matters, there is quite a bit of discretion within the parameters of policy. Ethical decision making involves choosing between two or more competing values and needs. That is certainly the case in the matter of naming, or identifying accused people or people involved in behaviour that could be deemed anti-social, if not illegal, as was the case of the Queen’s University students. I note that in your response to Mr. Ladurantaye you accepted the values and thinking that went into the decision not to publish the photos of the students’ faces. Your concern about crime reporting remained.

You raise an interesting question -- where is the fairness in naming some and not others. Your definition of fairness is that all should be named as there is an obligation to tell what you know. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices does not envision the question or the answer in such absolute terms. It recognizes that context matters, and that there are competing considerations. There is a section of the JSP entitled Court Reporting, and it begins with this statement of principle:

Citizens have the right to know how the State is discharging its responsibility to enforce the law and help suppress crime. Citizens have an interest in knowing how safe their environment is. Our mission to serve the public interest includes rigorous scrutiny of the work of police and courts. In doing so we help ensure the openness on which the legitimacy of these institutions rests.

That would appear to reinforce your view of the matter, as does this policy on “Identification of persons involved in legal proceedings”:

Parties in a case:

In principle, and unless forbidden by law, identification of persons involved in a case (accused, party in a civil case, witness, attorney, judge) contributes to the openness of legal proceedings and serves the public interest. In some circumstances we will be required by law or court order to refrain, at least for a time, from publishing the name or identity of certain persons involved. We might also choose not to publish the name of an especially vulnerable person involved if his or her identify is not essential to an understanding of the facts.

There is also a discussion of publication bans and I note the policy’s default is to refrain from naming suspects - that is individuals who may be under investigation but where no charges have been laid.

If the policy ended here, I would have to conclude that there was a violation of policy, but there are two other policies to consider in making a judgment. One is “Fair treatment and reporting of outcome,” which follows on from the identification policy. It states:

When we cover a legal proceeding, we are aware of the importance of reporting its outcome and we treat the persons concerned with dignity. Rigour in coverage requires that we report fairly on the evidence and the claims of all the parties and give significant play to the verdict. The verdict must be accessible to users of CBC.ca or Radio-Canada.ca who consult archival material identifying an accused.

If we invite audience comment on news from legal proceedings, we ensure that the comments published will not compromise due process.

The other relevant policy is one of the underlying principles which begin the JSP, and that is that CBC journalists are expected to use their professional judgment based on facts and expertise. In doing so, CBC journalists are expected to ask an overarching principle - what is the journalistic purpose in reporting a story, and the facts within it. Your definition of good journalism includes the need to report everything that is known. That is generally the impulse, but the skill is to discern what is the most important. It is not stenography - every report involves choosing what facts to include, and what context to provide. Crime reporting presents a particular set of challenges. The CBC policy on court reporting emphasizes the importance of making the criminal justice system understandable and to hold it to account. That may include naming defendants, but there are circumstances where that might not be the best choice; that is where professional judgment comes in. As Ms. Waddell pointed out, the CBC Ottawa journalists felt the community reaction to the wearing of the offensive t-shirt was the most important element. Knowing there would be a small likelihood that the story could be followed all the way through the court proceedings, the choice would be not to report it at all, or to report it without the name. That is a valid choice. I agree with you that CBC journalists should probably think very carefully about why a crime story is being reported, and what the value is if it is not seen through to completion. The reality is that resources in any newsroom are limited, and choices are made all the time. I do not see the choice to not to follow through on a particular crime story as a breach of policy or of journalistic ethics. If there is uncertainty at the time of publication, the decision to leave out the name is a reasonable one. If events change, and a journalistic reason to cover the case arises, then the name can be added, but it can’t be taken away, not in the digital age.

While you talk about “well defined boundaries common to journalism”, I do not believe they are well defined, common or very clear any more. As you also point out the information is available on other sources and through social media, without any mediation or thought to the ethics of the situation. It is also available forever. And that is not only a game changer, but also alters the ethical thinking and obligation of publishing in a digital environment. Unless the name and identity are a matter of public safety or crucial to the understanding of the story, it is worth thinking twice about its publication. It is also worth assessing the purpose and value of crime stories in general, given that not many of them will be followed through. To leave the record that an individual has been charged without reporting the outcome, is unfair and potentially damaging to that person’s reputation. It is one of the biggest challenges of the digital age in journalism. The decision to leave out a name is one option in face of this dilemma. The fact that there are countless other sources where the information might be available is not part of the ethical decision-making process - although the pressure to be competitive would be a consideration in the overall process. You see the decision not to publish as an ethical failing - but the fact is, by definition, ethical decision-making implies there is more than one right answer.

In all the cases you cited, there was a process followed based on CBC policies.

You were particularly concerned about the criterion of a “serious crime” coming into play. I believe that Ms. Waddell was pointing out that there was a higher likelihood in crimes like murder, sexual assault that CBC News would follow through and report the disposition of the case. While you don’t believe that is a valid journalistic reason, it is the reality. There is interest in reporting what has gone on in a community and providing some context about why it matters, but there simply are not the resources to cover every court case. There was no violation of policy in omitting names or blurring faces.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman