Competing Narratives.

The complainant, Marjaleena Repo, said CBC News coverage of the trial surrounding the death of Colten Boushie was misleading and contributed to a narrative of racism. She thought that not enough attention or detail was given regarding the behaviour and activities of Boushie and his companions prior to Gerald Stanley shooting him. CBC reporting was extensive and presented the testimony and accounts of all the eyewitnesses. Information was provided, along with contextual pieces about the broader issues, so that people could draw their own conclusions.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that CBC News coverage, through various phases of the reporting on Gerald Stanley’s trial for the second-degree murder of Colten Boushie, was “misleading.” You said you saw the same pattern in the subsequent stories following the acquittal of Mr. Stanley.

You thought there was an omission of details of the behaviour of Mr. Boushie and his friends, and the downplaying of their attempts to steal a truck at a different farm earlier in the day. You thought that the language used minimized that behavior and did not create an accurate picture of events. You felt that CBC’s coverage was presenting a narrative that a racist farmer shot an innocent Indigenous youth because he and his friends drove onto his farm looking for help with a flat tire. You cited this example from a piece published just as the trial was moving to final arguments:

Five young people from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation were in the vehicle. They told police later that they had gone to the farm to seek help after losing a tire. An altercation occurred between the strangers in the SUV and Stanley, his son and his wife." This seems to me highly misleading as it neglects to mention the attempted theft of the quad and the smashing into the Stanley's SUV, as well as the attempt shortly before to steal a vehicle on the nearby Fouhy farm and smashing its window with a rifle! This is hardly "seeking help," as you write, and needs to be corrected. The evidence at the trial must not be whitewashed.

You cited several more articles published after the trial which you believed also distorted the testimony that was presented during the trial in order to minimize the behaviour of Colten Boushie and his friends. In one example, in an article about the fears and frustrations of farmers in rural Saskatchewan, you noted that the reporter referenced “Colten Boushie, a young man from Red Pheasant First Nation who drove onto Stanley’s rural property in August 2016 with four friends.” You said it should have also stated that they “immediately proceeded to steal a vehicle.” In another article, you objected to a reference to Boushie being shot while sitting in an SUV. You noted “It is well known that there was more than ‘sitting’ involved and that action led to his death.”

You objected to other programmes and articles framing the discussion around racism and racial stereotyping. You believe there is a narrative being pushed by CBC and other news outlets - “‘racist farmer shooting an indigenous youth coming for help, killing one of them’ which indigenous and other activists have adopted as their own not-to-be questioned one”. You thought that proper reporting of the story would show the untruth of that position. The “dangerously misleading information” published and broadcast by CBC, you stated, “incites strife and polarization in our society.”

I am convinced that if these same people, petitioning and protesting against the verdict would have received factual information about the events on August 9, 2016, about the first farm family invaded, about the trial, the nature of the jury selection, and what went into the verdict, there would be far fewer angry and upset people in Canada today, shouting and demonstrating about “white supremacy,” “racism” and “injustice.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

David Hutton, the Managing Editor for CBC Saskatchewan, replied to your concerns. He stated that in fact CBC provided “a full narrative of witness testimony at the trial,” including that of Mr. Stanley and his son, as well as three of the people who were in the vehicle with Mr. Boushie.

Those reports go into great detail about what happened from each of their perspectives including the attempted theft of the ATV and the smashing into the Mr. Stanley's SUV and the events at the Fouhy farm you cite in your letter.

All of this testimony was included in daily reports on web, radio and television and a live blog on our website and Twitter and brought up again when Mr. Stanley’s lawyer gave his closing statement and in our story on the verdict.

He acknowledged that Mr. Boushie’s death and the subsequent trial of Mr. Stanley “has polarized the country,” and there continues to be a debate about what happened that day, and why it occurred. He also said that there is a journalistic obligation not only to report the facts as they become known, but to address the issues raised by this event.

He pointed to stories which addressed the views of people living in rural Saskatchewan who have ongoing concerns about policing and theft of their property. He noted that one of the issues was the role of race and racism. He told you that Cross Country Checkup, CBC’s national call-in programme, featured interviews with people who “felt the trial was not about race and who took issue with the role of Mr. Boushie’s friends.”

REVIEW

As Mr. Hutton pointed out, the death of Colten Boushie and the trial of Gerald Stanley have elicited strong reactions from Canadians. It has stirred longstanding fears, anger, stereotypes and unresolved conflict. To say that the media coverage has created this polarized and racially-charged environment is to ignore history and the social reality of Canada. The media coverage and the competing narratives are a symptom of underlying issues and did not create them. You believe that if people had the facts they would not be protesting. The reality is those facts, reported over weeks and months, still lead people to different conclusions and assumptions. That is because different people cling to a different narrative about the underlying issues.

CBC News, locally and nationally, devoted a great deal of coverage to the shooting itself, then the trial and its aftermath. You believe that the absence of certain information distorts the narrative. In an evolving and ongoing story, a picture of what happened and why it might have happened, emerges over time. Getting at the truth in a journalistic context is always an iterative process. As Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel state in their introduction to “The New Ethics of Journalism,” “Truth emerges not only in a single story, but also in the sorting out that occurs over time as different accounts probe an event and its implications.” The impact of events in Saskatchewan have been so profound that sorting out is ongoing.

I have reviewed a great deal of the CBC coverage - especially during the trial and its aftermath. There was live and daily coverage as the Crown and defense made their cases. The incident you consider so critical, which occurred at another farm earlier that day, was reported. I appreciate for you this is an important piece of context, but I do not agree that it required constant repetition. The jury in the trial had to make their decision based on the testimony of those who were on Gerald Stanley’s farm. That is where the focus of the coverage properly belonged. One of the articles you cited was published just as the jury was to begin deliberations. The reporter wrote:

Boushie, 22, was fatally shot on Stanley's Biggar-area farm in August 2016. Stanley has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Boushie was in an SUV that had pulled into the driveway of Stanley's farm, along with other young people from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation. An altercation occurred between the strangers in the SUV and Stanley, his son and his wife.

It concisely conveys the point of view of the people in the car and acknowledges there was a confrontation. This is after days of reporting the testimony. There are links to several pieces which provide more detail. This technique of linking the various accounts was used in much of the coverage so that readers could get more detail and background. I note later in the same piece, the reporter stated that Mr. Stanley feared his wife was pinned under their vehicle when the gun went off.

You rejected several stories that Mr. Hutton cited to show you the range of views and perspectives presented as irrelevant to your complaint which centres around an insistence of telling the events in a certain way. They are relevant because they provide a wider context to explain how people understand the events and some of the underlying issues. One of them, Frustrated and helpless’: rural residents say Stanley trail highlights crime, police response time concerns,” highlighted the issue you cite - that there is criminal activity in rural areas, and farmers and residents do not feel properly protected. Presenting that perspective provided context for what happened. The writer states the “feelings of frustration and helplessness simmering in rural parts of Saskatchewan in the wake of the Gerald Stanley trial, which reignited longstanding concerns over crime and law enforcement’s ability to adequately respond to it.” Again, there are many links to extensive coverage of the trial, including a comprehensive account of what the various witnesses said happened on the farm that day. You cited a sentence accompanying a photo in this piece as misleading. It said:

The road to Gerald Stanley's farm in the Biggar, Sask., area in a photo taken in August 2017. Stanley, 56, was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, a young man from Red Pheasant First Nation who drove onto Stanley's rural property in August 2016 with four friends.

Not every mention, especially in a cutline below a photo, can tell the entire story. Taking phrases out of context is not a useful way to analyze the coverage. There were other references to what happened in the piece. It is obvious that the interlopers were seen as a threat.

You also rejected an episode of Cross Country Checkup which addressed the role of race in this case. I respect that you have a particular view of the narrative and which facts are entirely relevant. Others see and interpret those same facts somewhat differently - understanding why that is the case is entirely relevant to your concerns and your perception that it is media coverage which has created an issue around race. The Checkup episode provided a platform for those who agree with your assessment of the situation and others who see it differently, which is what is called for in CBC journalistic policy. It was summed up this way on the programme’s website:

​​The verdict has divided people across the country. While some see the decision as proof of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples within the justice system, others see it as a fair outcome in a case that examined a property owner's response to trespassers.

Melissa Primeau, who identified herself as Indigenous, believes that the conversation surrounding Boushie's death and the subsequent trial are focused too heavily on race.

"If it was a white man who shot another white individual, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now," said Primeau from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

"We need to stop using the racial card," she said.

You are concerned the coverage left the impression that five young Indigenous people happened on the farm, and one of them was shot. I do not share your concerns or conclusions. The coverage amply provided information and perspective and clarified it as it became clearer. Some of it is still contradictory. It was clear in reporting that a jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty because they believed his account of what happened regarding the fatal bullet - that it was accidental. Beyond that, the coverage presented the perspectives of those who interpreted events in other ways - including Mr. Boushie’s family and other Indigenous people who believe there was underlying racism in the confrontation, and in the judicial process. This has been a polarizing event. CBC News has a responsibility to frame the discussion in ways that might lead to some useful understanding and dialogue. It is not to tell Canadians what they should think or to embrace one narrative over another.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman