CIII-TV (Global Toronto) & CHCH-TV re broadcasts of a police radio transmission

ONTARIO REGIONAL PANEL
CBSC Decision 10/11-2040 & -2187
March 7, 2012
D. Braun (ad hoc), J. David, D. Dobbie (ad hoc), M. Harris

THE FACTS

On June 28, 2011, a police officer with the York Regional Police Force (in the Greater Toronto area) was pinned under a mini-van during an early morning traffic stop. He was able to radio for help and to talk to the dispatcher for a few moments.  He later succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.

Both CIII-TV (Global Toronto) and CHCH-TV covered the story in their early evening newscasts (transcripts and descriptions of the broadcasts are available in Appendix A). The officer was identified by name in the reports.  Both stations included audio excerpts of the officer’s radio transmission in their reports.  The constable was heard telling the dispatcher that he had a car on top of him, that it hurt, and also that there were people in the van and he did not know how they were doing.  The Global reports also provided details about the officer’s family, a statement from the York Regional Police Chief, interviews with people affected by the tragedy and details about the circumstances of the incident which were available at the time.

Before broadcasting the audio excerpts of the officer’s distress call, the Global news anchors warned viewers about its disturbing content. The words “Warning:  Disturbing Content” also appeared on screen.  The CHCH-TV news anchor also provided a similar verbal warning.

The CBSC received a complaint dated June 30 about these broadcasts from the York Region Chief of Police (the full text of that letter and all other correspondence can be found in Appendix B). He objected to the broadcast of the constable’s radio transmission since it showed the officer’s obvious pain and distress as the man lay dying.  He described the decision to broadcast the excerpts as “callous” and wrote that it had caused “additional anguish” to the already-grief-stricken family and colleagues of the constable.  He suggested that the broadcasters should have found a more appropriate method of informing the public about the incident, while at the same time respecting the rights of the victim and his family.  He argued that the broadcasters’ actions were unethical and that they had “resort[ed] to sensationalism”.  He also wrote that he had not authorized “the release of these radio transmissions” and would not have done so “in these tragic circumstances”.

That initial letter did not identify specific broadcast dates and times which are required for the CBSC to initiate its official complaints-resolution process. In a letter of July 25, the Chief provided that information and identified a number of different broadcasters.  The complaints against CITY-TV and CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) are dealt with in a separate decision[1] because those stations took a different approach from Global and CHCH-TV to their presentation of the incident.

Global Toronto’s and CHCH-TV’s letters of response to the police chief explained that the decision to air the audio of the officer’s radio transmissions had been taken after serious consideration and discussion. The stations chose to air the recording because the story was in the public interest and the recording demonstrated that the officer had maintained his composure, professionalism and concern for others even while in severe physical distress.  The reports presented the radio transmissions in that context.  The broadcasters pointed out that the transmissions were public and available to anyone tuned into that frequency; the transmission signal had not been encrypted.

The police chief sent a letter indicating his dissatisfaction with all of the broadcasters’ responses. He asserted that the stations had violated the Radio Television Digital News Association’s (RTDNA) Code of Ethics and reiterated his view that the broadcast of the distress call was “a callous invasion of privacy” and a sensationalization of events.

THE DECISION

The Ontario Regional Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada (RTDNA) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, as well as Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code and Code of Ethics:

RTDNA Code of Ethics, Article 4 – Privacy

Electronic journalists will respect the dignity, privacy and well-being of everyone with whom they deal, and will make every effort to ensure that newsgathering and reporting does not unreasonably infringe privacy except when necessary in the public interest. Clandestine newsgathering techniques should only be used when necessary to the credibility or accuracy of a story in the public interest.

RTDNA Code of Ethics, Article 8 – Decency and Conduct

Electronic journalists will treat people who are subjects and sources with decency. They will use special sensitivity when dealing with children.  They will strive to conduct themselves in a courteous and considerate manner, newsgathering as unobtrusively as possible.  They will strive to prevent their presence from distorting the character or importance of events.

CAB Violence Code, Article 6 – News & Public Affairs Programming

6.1        Broadcasters shall use appropriate editorial judgment in the reporting of, and the pictorial representation of violence, aggression or destruction within their news and public affairs programming.

6.2        Caution shall be used in the selection of, and repetition of, video which depicts violence.

6.3        Broadcasters shall advise viewers in advance of showing scenes of extra-ordinary violence, or graphic reporting on delicate subject matter such as sexual assault or court action related to sexual crimes, particularly during afternoon or early evening newscasts and updates when children could be viewing.

6.4        Broadcasters shall employ discretion in the use of explicit or graphic language related to stories of destruction, accidents or sexual violence, which could disturb children and their families.

[…]

6.6        While broadcasters shall not exaggerate or exploit situations of aggression, conflict or confrontation, equal care shall be taken not to sanitize the reality of the human condition.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster. This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the broadcasts in question. The majority of the Panel concludes that neither CIII-TV nor CHCH-TV violated any of the aforementioned Code provisions.  One adjudicator dissents with respect to Articles 4 and 8 of the RTDNA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

Privacy and Decency

The majority of the Panel determined that the broadcast of the constable’s radio transmission did not violate Articles 4 (Privacy) and 8 (Decency and Conduct) of the RTDNA Code of Ethics.  The distress call was in fact made on the public airwaves and could be received by the public since it was not encrypted in any way.[2]

Moreover, the broadcasters in both cases decided to air the recording after assessing its impact and concluding that it was in the interests of both the public and police forces in the sense that it informed viewers of the high degree of professionalism demonstrated by the constable in the performance of his duties, and showed, in a general fashion, the circumstances that law enforcement officers often face and that can, as in the present case, even lead to death.

 

Consent

The majority of the Panel determined that Global and CHCH-TV were not required to obtain the consent of the York Regional Police Chief to broadcast the recording of the officer’s call. That non-encrypted recording had in fact been initially received on the public airwaves and then re-broadcast on the Internet.  It was therefore in the public domain and the York Regional Police Chief was not in a position to authorise or prohibit the broadcast.

 

Minority Opinion of D. Braun

Contrary to the majority, Mr. Braun does not agree that the broadcasters complied with Articles 4 and 8 of the RTDNA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics nor does he agree that the stations were not required to obtain the consent of the police force.  He is of the opinion that it was not up to Global and CHCH-TV to broadcast the last words of a dying man.  He feels the broadcasters should have opted for paraphrasing the policeman’s last words in order to comply with the provisions of the RTDNA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics on Privacy and Decency and Conduct.[3]  He also considers that, even though police transmissions can be intercepted with scanners, it does not mean that police forces have given tacit approval to broadcast the content; broadcasters should obtain consent before disseminating the content.

 

Sensationalism

In light of the fact that the provisions of the RTDNA Code of Ethics on sensationalism were repealed when that Code was revised in 2000, the CBSC relies upon Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics when dealing with a complaint on sensationalism.

The Panel unanimously determined that Global and CHCH-TV did not sensationalise this news story. Rather, the broadcasters in both cases highlighted the officer’s professionalism who, though seriously injured, was concerned with the fate of occupants of the van that had just pinned him down.

While they do not, however, conclude that Global violated Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics, the Panel adjudicators were concerned by the fact this broadcaster decided to re-air this recording several times during its 6:00 pm News Hour.

Disturbing Content and Warnings to Viewers

The Panel unanimously determined that neither Global nor CHCH-TV violated the provisions of Article 6 of the CAB Violence Code because the audio broadcast of the constable’s last words was done in the public interest.

In addition, both Global and CHCH-TV broadcast the appropriate viewer advisories concerning the disturbing content of the audio segment in accordance with Article 6.3 of the Code.[4]  The Panel noted also that such viewer advisories are particularly important when this type of content airs in an early evening newscast, as children could be watching.

Finally, the Panel adjudicators were concerned by the number of times Global re-broadcast the audio segment of the constable’s call in its newscast, but concluded that Global did not violate Article 6.2 of the CAB Violence Code.[5]

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcasters’ responses to the complainants. The broadcasters certainly need not agree with the complainants’ position, but they must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, Global Toronto replied to the complainant with a lengthy letter even before the complainant had identified a specific broadcast date and time.  Global also provided an additional letter later in the process to further explain its position.  CHCH-TV provided a thoughtful, thorough letter as well.  Both Global Toronto and CHCH-TV have met their CBSC membership requirements of responsiveness; nothing further is required in that respect.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.

[1] CITY-TV & CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) re broadcasts of a police radio transmission (CBSC Decision 10/11-2185 & -2186, February 7, 2012).

[2] See the following previous CBSC decisions for cases where the CBSC found no violations of privacy or dignity: CKEN-AM re Newscast (CBSC Decision 95/96-0134, February 14, 1997); CTV re coverage of the fatal luge accident at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games (CBSC Decision 09/10-0895+, November 12, 2010); and CHOI-FM re Dupont le midi (suicide) (CBSC Decision 08/09-2041 & 09/10-1462, September 23, 2010).

[3] See the following previous CBSC decisions for cases where the CBSC did find violations of the privacy or dignity of people about to die: CHAN-TV (BCTV) re Newscast (Toronto Subway Death) (CBSC Decision 97/98-0383, May 20, 1998) and CTV re a News Report on Charles Ng’s Sentencing (CBSC Decision 98/99-1120, March 22, 2000).

[4] See the following previous decisions where the CBSC acknowledged that news coverage of disturbing events did not violate the CAB Violence Code and that the broadcasters acted appropriately by providing warnings: CTV re Canada AM (Airborne Hazing) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0159, March 12, 1996); CTV Newsnet re a News Item (Hostage Murder in Riyadh) (CBSC Decision 03/04-1817, December 15, 2004); and CTV re coverage of the fatal luge accident at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games (CBSC Decision 09/10-0895+, November 12, 2010).

[5] See the following case where the CBSC found issues with the repetition of disturbing clips: CICT-TV re a news report on the Tour de France (CBSC Decision 00/01-0982, January 14, 2002).