CHEK-TV re a report on CHEK News at Five (“Animal Cruelty”)

british columbia regional Panel
CBSC Decision 09/10-1915 & -1929
S. Warren (Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), J. Doobay, G. Leighton, M. Loh, T. Plasteras

THE FACTS

CHEK News at Five is broadcast weekdays by CHEK-TV (Victoria).  On July 19, 2010, the lead story on that newscast, anchored that night by Scott Fee, was entitled “Animal Cruelty”.  The introduction to the newscast included a teaser for the upcoming story:

Voice-over:       Tonight on CHEK News … [A caption at the bottom of the screen read “Animals Attacked”; scene of two SPCA workers walking towards a car parked on a residential street]  A grim story of animal abuse.  [Scene of the exterior of a house with two vans/SUVs parked in the driveway]  Dead raccoons found spread around a neighbourhood [scene of side yard with bicycles and an overturned boat].

Interview with man:        I saw him hit, at least hit the baby at least ten times.

The actual report began a few seconds later:

Anchor Scott Fee [graphic of group of raccoons in upper right corner]:   Good evening.  We start tonight with a disturbing incident in one Greater Victoria neighbourhood.  The SPCA is investigating after residents of a quiet street in Esquimalt say they watched their neighbour beat a family of raccoons to death with a hockey stick.  CHEK News reporter Kristen Robinson has the story.  And we warn you there are images in this report that some viewers may find offensive.

Robinson:         [SPCA worker dragging two dead raccoons out from under bush]  An SPCA animal protection officer removes two dead raccoons, a mother and baby, from the blackberry bushes at the end of [X] Street in Esquimalt.  [Close-up of dead raccoons]  Neighbours say both animals were violently attacked around midnight Sunday.

Interview with James Adam, Raccoon Beating Witness:   And I heard the mother squealing and, and then, um, he came over and he opened the garbage can and then pulled out the baby.  [Another close-up of the two dead raccoons]  And the baby was still alive.  I saw him hit, at least hit the baby at least ten times with the hockey stick.

Robinson:         [Scene of exterior of house] James Adam looked out from his apartment and says he witnessed his neighbour beating the mother and baby with a hockey stick, apparently upset the wild animals keep getting into his unsecured garbage bins.  [Close-up of garbage bin with concrete blocks and garbage bags in it]

Adam:  I yelled down to him that wasn’t a good idea.  And he looked right up at me and turned around and started whacking them again.

Robinson:         [Scene of Adam talking to SPCA worker] The SPCA is speaking with witnesses of the deadly attack.  [Scene of worker pulling dead raccoon out from bush & putting it in bag]  A post-mortem will be done on the raccoons to see what injuries they suffered and determine if animal cruelty charges are warranted.  Some wild animals can be killed humanely by homeowners if they’re pests.

Interview with Erika Paul, SPCA Animal Protection Officer:          I don’t believe bludgeoning falls, uh, under the category of “to humane legal standards”.  So that’s what we’ll be investigating here.

Interview with Shalom Carpenter, Raccoon-Beating Witness:        That’s very sad.  That’s very sad and very disturbing.  Especially considering this person and this house has two kids.

Robinson:         [SPCA worker talking to someone through front door of house]  The SPCA spoke with the raccoon beating suspect’s wife through the door before leaving a business card in the mailbox. [Close-up of business card in mailbox; followed by scene of yard with children’s toys]  [T. & K.W.] live at [X] Street with their young children.  [Close-up of yellow & purple sticker on door with image of dog that reads “DogFinder:  In case of fire, please save dog”]  And possibly a dog.  [Scene of woman knocking on door]  No one answered the door Monday afternoon.  Neighbours say they’ve heard arguments at the home in the past.  [Exterior of house]

Interview with Dolores Vanderauwera, Suspect’s Neighbour:        I’ve heard violence that goes on in there.  Her yelling “No, please don’t” and then wham.  All you could hear is bam [claps hands together] and “Please don’t, please don’t”.  He’s a violent man.  He’s not well.

Robinson:         [SPCA worker putting dead raccoons into bag]  So far no charges have been laid in the deadly raccoon attack.

The CBSC received five complaints about this broadcast, only two of which were followed by a Ruling Request.  The first of these was received on July 29.  It read:

The TV station reported a SPCA investigation of an attack on a mother raccoon and a kit and gave the full names and address of the occupants of the “suspects’” house after giving a one-sided account.  This has caused great stress and fear for myself, wife and four young children as we are the occupants of the house mentioned.  Since then we have had to change our phone number to stop the harassing and threatening phone calls and have had death threats.  I have not given a complaint to the station for fear of retribution.

The second was sent to the CBSC on August 3.  It read:

I want to register a complaint against CHEK-TV for airing the name and address of the people involved in the raccoon episode.  There was very poor, one-sided reporting done and it has had devastating, dangerous results.  Surely the health and safety of children should be considered over a “scoop”.  I have already expressed my views to CHEK.

Since it did not provide sufficient broadcast details for the CBSC to proceed, the Council Secretariat asked for the date and time.  The complainant responded the following day, saying, “I believe it was the 19th of July around 5 or 6 pm.”

The broadcaster responded to both complainants on August 5.  To the first complainant, the CHEK News Director wrote:

I have received your complaint through the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  As a member of the CBSC, CHEK News is committed to upholding the highest level of journalistic integrity.  CHEK also subscribes to the Radio Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics.

I have reviewed the story from July 19 as well as follow-up stories, which aired July 20 and 27.

I believe the stories are in the public interest.  The stories focused on allegations of animal abuse and an investigation by the SPCA.  The story was covered province-wide by CBC, Global, A Channel and CTV.  It is common for broadcasters to report the address where an alleged crime has taken place; however, it is unusual for CHEK to report names of homeowners in connection with a story unless they are named as suspects and formal charges have been laid.  I have met with the reporter and editor of the July 19 story to ensure they are aware of our policy.  CHEK omitted your name from stories which have aired after July 19.

Regarding your concerns about bias, CHEK has made several attempts to contact you to hear your perspective.  CHEK would still like to interview you and report your side of the story.  Please feel free to contact me directly in the future if you have concerns about our coverage.

To the second, he wrote:

I have received your complaint through the CBSC.  CHEK NEWS is committed to upholding the highest journalistic standards.  I have reviewed the story in question.  CHEK News has decided to omit using the names of the homeowners since the original story aired July 19.  We have made several attempts to contact the homeowners to learn their side of the story.  If you have a perspective on the story that is different from what was reported, we would like to hear from you.  Please feel free to contact me directly.

The first complainant was dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response and sent his Ruling Request on August 9, supplemented by the following letter:

I do not agree that my or my wife’s names and place of residence were in the public interest.  Public interest is a very large brush touching many different areas but a few typical goals of public interest would be;

  • protect people and the environment;
  • hold accountable those who abuse power;
  • challenge governmental, corporate and individual wrongdoing.

So did the news story achieve any of these?  No.  What it did accomplish is two days of phone calls received of vulgar cursing and death threats until we changed our phone number.  Death threats left at the house and on-line.  Along with our property being vandalized for about $4,500 worth of damage.  Threats of bricks to be thrown through the window.  My two young daughters, ages 11 and 4 having to sleep in the back room with my two sons ages 9 and 7.  Children too afraid to go out and play in their own front yard.  Trying to explain to my children why 3 people with knives would come and slash 3 of our tires and scratch up our vehicle.  Sleepless nights waking to every noise wondering if something else has been vandalized and if my children are ok.  Now to feel safe we will need to move which will cost thousands of dollars in legal fees, realtor and listing fees and land transfer taxes.  Your story invaded our privacy, caused and is still causing us harm and was nothing more than inciting a mob to gain vigilante justice which is never in the public interest.

You should be ashamed of your low brow story and lack of forethought.

Two days later, he sent the following additional note:

Thank you for your prompt responses.  There is one thing that has been bothering me that I did not add to the rebuttal which I would appreciate if I could.  CHEK News stated that they tried to get a hold of me to get my side of the story.  Yet they never called, never left a note and in fact aired the story before I had even gotten home from work.  If you could add that to the file it would be greatly appreciated.

On August 18, the second complainant sent the following additional note:

Yes, I have received a couple of responses from CHEK-TV but I was not satisfied.  They purposely went out to smear someone on the strength of one witness alone.  Then they advertised the name and address of the occupants and house.  Although things hopefully have died down in the last few days, there was some really ugly fallout (slashed tires, etc.).  I feel there was a great amount of irresponsibility on the part of the reporters and the editor.  Are we supposed to be thoroughly frightened of TV reporters?  I know after this incident that I am.  And I hate living in fear.

THE DECISION

The British Columbia Regional Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics and the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 5 – News

It shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias.  Broadcasters shall satisfy themselves that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result.  They shall also ensure that news broadcasts are not editorial.

News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be formulated on the basis of the beliefs, opinions or desires of management, the editor or others engaged in its preparation or delivery.  The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions.

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 1 – Accuracy

Broadcast journalists will inform the public in an accurate, comprehensive and fair manner about events and issues of importance.

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 4 – Privacy

Broadcast journalists will respect the dignity, privacy and well-being of everyone with whom they deal, and will make every effort to ensure that news gathering and reporting does not unreasonably infringe privacy except when necessary in the public interest.  Hidden audio and video recording devices should only be used when it is necessary to the credibility or accuracy of a story in the public interest.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the challenged newscast.  The Panel concludes that CHEK-TV violated each of the foregoing codified standards.

Fairness of the Report

Not all news reports are of a nature that they could be said to have two sides, but where they do, they should try to present both sides of the issue.  That said, this is not always possible.  Among other things, a news report may, by its nature, present bad or negative news about a person, group or business.  This can, for example, be expected to occur in the case of a consumer-oriented investigation such as that dealt with in CFCN-TV re “Consumer Watch” (Travel Agency) (CBSC Decision 95/96-0240, December 16, 1997), in which a discount travel agency was targeted by the “Consumer Watch” reporters.  The Prairie Regional Panel said:

It appears to the Council that the complainant, in alleging that the story should have included “the other side of the issues”, considers that the fairness and balance requirement for news reports means that negative comments about a company must be balanced by positive comments.  The Council disagrees.  Were the complainant’s view correct, there could never be a negative or critical news report.  At the end of the day, it is the reporting of the newsworthy event which must be evaluated for its objectivity and fairness and not the overall effect of the news report on the person or company who is its subject. […]

In this case, the story was about the complaints received about Platinum Passports.  While the requirement to be fair and objective may have required that a response from the company targeted by the report be sought, there certainly exists no obligation on behalf of the newscaster to find positive comments to say about the company to counter-balance the reporting of the complaints. [Emphasis original.]

A report with two potential sides, reflecting only one, may also be expected to occur when persons are charged with a criminal offence by police.  CITY-TV re Newscast (Toronto Humane Society) (CBSC Decision 95/96-0226, October 21, 1996) dealt with the reporting of the case of a couple who had been charged with unnecessary cruelty to animals, fraud, and other offences following a raid that uncovered some 70 cats and dogs living in their home.  It showed the couple, the exterior of their residence and also informed viewers about the activities of animal welfare organizations.  The complaint came from the accused, who felt that the coverage was biased and sensationalized for profit.  The Panel disagreed:

Insofar as the reporting of the arrest of the individuals is concerned, the Council has no difficulty.  Nor does the Council consider that, in not interviewing the parties charged by the police, the broadcaster has done anything improper or out of the ordinary.  It must be remembered that the reporting of an arrest is not the equivalent of the reporting of two or more sides of a controversial issue.  In the latter case there is an obligation on the broadcaster to present the various points of view fairly.  No such obligation exists in the simple reporting of a non-controversial news event, which is what an arrest is.  If there is any counterpoint to the arrest itself, it is provided by the rules of the criminal justice system.  There is necessarily attached to every arrest a societal presumption of innocence which is, in a sense, the counterpoint or balance to the news of the arrest itself.  There is not otherwise any duty on the broadcaster to seek the almost inevitable claim of innocence on the part of the accused.  A forum is provided for accused individuals to articulate that perspective; there is no need for the broadcaster to provide it before the trial.

[…] If sensationalism there was, it arose out of the story itself and not from the station’s reporting of it.  There was no distortion in the recounting of events by CITY-TV. [Emphasis original.]

In TQS re a News Report on Le Grand Journal (CBSC Decision 01/02-0512, December 20, 2002), the Quebec Regional Panel dealt with a complaint about a news broadcast concerning a woman who, having sheltered nearly 150 cats and dogs on her property, was being evicted.  SPCA workers were shown gathering up the animals, some of which appeared sick or wounded, for relocation.  The reporter reported from the town of Ste-Sophie that the municipality had obtained a Superior Court decision authorizing the SPCA to seize the large number of animals the woman had been sheltering and to evict her from the leased premises she had been occupying.  Updates about the story in progress were provided throughout the midday news broadcast.  Interviews with SPCA representatives, a veterinarian and the accused woman herself were included.  The complaint came from that woman, who felt that the information and images contained in the report had been inaccurate as they did not tell the whole story.  The Panel found no Code breach in respect of the accuracy of the report.

The matter at hand differs from the foregoing cases.  While it goes without saying that the Panel has no comment as to the veracity of the report, it does have something to say regarding the reporting.  First, the station was of course entitled to report such an horrendous event as the apparently inhumane killing of the raccoons.  Second, the station was entitled to leave a negative sense of the occurrence with the audience.  Third, though, an additional degree of care in terms of the balance of the story was required in the total absence of any judicial or police intervention in the matter.

It was, in the view of the Panel, extremely risky without such a “stamp of disapproval” by authorities to identify individuals allegedly associated with the extermination of the raccoons.  The Panel has no way of knowing whether any serious attempt was made by the broadcaster to include an interview with the target of the story at a material time during the normal life cycle of the news item.  The Panel does know that no such interview was included with the July 19 story.  Moreover, the CHEK-TV news story identified by name the individual associated, the station asserted, with the death of the raccoons, as well as his wife, despite the fact that she had no alleged connection with incident.  Since no charges had been laid, as in the CITY-TV and TQS decisions cited above, and no countervailing viewpoint was provided to the audience, the Panel concludes that the news report of July 19 was neither comprehensive nor fair, and thus in breach of Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

Moreover, the Panel finds that the following statements by the reporter and the one interviewed neighbour are unconnected with the raccoon incident except in the peripheral and legally-unjustified perspective of the reporter, who wished to establish the likelihood that the target of her report was inclined to such actions.  The reporter said, in her own words, that “neighbours […] heard arguments at the home in the past” and included in the report the following statement by one of the neighbours:

I’ve heard violence that goes on in there.  Her yelling “No, please don’t” and then wham.  All you could hear is bam [claps hands together] and “Please don’t, please don’t”.  He’s a violent man.  He’s not well.

The reporter could only have included that statement and the interview in order to help convince her audience of her target’s guilt.  It was not her job to do so on the basis of such prejudicial and legally inadmissible content.  It was entirely unwarranted and an extremely poor example of journalistic judgment.  The Panel concludes that it was: neither comprehensive nor fair; evidence of the reporter’s bias; and that it failed the test of “enabl[ing] people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions.”  The Panel concludes that it was also thus in breach of Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics and Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

The Invasion of Privacy

As the Code provision dealing with privacy clearly indicates, the privacy of individuals may be infringed when it is “necessary in the public interest” and when that privacy is not unreasonably infringed.  When persons are involved in court proceedings, formal charges, or judicial writs, seizures or similar interventions, for example, Panels have concluded that the right of privacy of an individual involved in those proceedings is no longer inviolate.  [See, e.g., CHBC-TV re Newscast (CBSC Decision 93/94-0292, December 18, 1996), CKCO-TV re a News Item (Disappearance) (CBSC Decision 00/01-0739, June 28, 2001), CITY-TV re CityPulse at Six News Report (CBSC Decision 04/05-0933, April 19, 2005), and the CITY-TV and TQS decisions referred to above.]  It is also acceptable to show the exterior of a house without showing its address or otherwise identifying its occupants.  [See, e.g., CKCO-TV re News Report (Police Arrest) (CBSC Decision 96/97-0174, February 20, 1998) and CIHF-TV re News Item (Random Neighbourhood Shooting) (CBSC Decision 97/98-0622, November 25, 1998).]  Where, however, the civic address of a home or the names of individuals have been provided (when such information is not relevant to the story), a breach will be found.  [See, e.g. CKYK-FM re broadcast of a civic address (CBSC Decision 05/06-0710, June 30, 2006) and CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) re CTV News report (terrorist suspects) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1641, January 9, 2007).]

Applying the foregoing principles to the matter at hand, the Panel notes first that there is no doubt about the public interest in the story about the killing of the raccoons.  It is not on that ground that the newscast fails the Privacy Article.  The Panel does find that the broadcaster fails the second test, namely, the reasonableness of the infringement.  It concludes that the naming of the husband, who, it was claimed, had killed the animals, and the wife, who had no connection whatsoever to the events constituted a breach of their privacy.  Had the police laid charges or judicial proceedings been begun, that conclusion may well have been different (with respect to the naming of the husband).  In the absence of either, the identification of the individuals infringed their right to privacy.  The fact that their names were removed from later broadcasts of the story does not alleviate the broadcaster of responsibility for the stories it ran with their names included.  For the same reasons, the Panel concludes that the broadcast of the family’s civic address constituted a breach of their privacy.  Consequently, the Panel finds the newscast of July 19 entitled “Animal Cruelty” in violation of Article 4 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Council’s Panels assess the broadcaster’s responsiveness to the complainant.  In the present instance, the Panel notes that the broadcaster’s News Director responded to the complaints raised by the complainants.  While none of the responses prevented the complainants from filing a Ruling Request, the Panel considers that the responses of the News Director focussed directly on the issues that concerned the complainants.  It is of course the case that, when any complainant does not share the broadcaster’s perspective and so advises the CBSC, the result is that the complaint file is referred to either the Secretariat or a Panel for adjudication.  In the end, it is the thoughtfulness of the response that determines whether the broadcaster has met the CBSC membership responsibility of responsiveness, and the Panel considers that CHEK-TV has met that membership obligation in this instance.

Announcement Of The Decision

CHEK-TV is required to: 1) announce the decision, in the following terms, once during prime time within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which CHEK News at Five was broadcast, but not on the same day as the first mandated announcement; 2) within fourteen days following the broadcasts of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by CHEK-TV.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CHEK-TV’s broadcast of a news story called “Animal Cruelty” on July 19, 2010 breached provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  By naming and connecting an individual and his wife to the story of animal cruelty in the absence of any judicial proceedings or charges laid by the police, and by failing to include any balancing interview, CHEK-TV’s news report was neither comprehensive nor fair, and thus in breach of Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  By broadcasting a prejudicial interview with a neighbour that was unconnected to the story of the “Animal Cruelty”, CHEK-TV breached Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics and Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics.  By broadcasting the names and the civic address of the husband and wife, CHEK-TV also breached Article 4 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.