Correct Choice Made in Selection of Video Clip for a Report on a Hostage Murder, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, March 14, 2005 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning a CTV Newsnet report about the body of an American found in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Before any video clips were shown, the news anchor said, “Viewers should be aware that this story contains graphic video.” The report began with an update on the fate of Paul Johnston, an American who had been working in Saudi Arabia for the previous ten years and had disappeared. The news anchor then stated that another apparent Al-Qaeda web site provided access to a video clip of what was explained as the newly-reported murder of an American, Robert Jacob. The news item then showed the image of a web page with the title, in Arabic, “The Death of the American Jew Robert Jacob”. It was followed by a short, slightly blurred, erratically shot video clip of the murder, which lasted approximately eight seconds. The beginning of the clip featured no distinguishable activity on screen, only the sound of a man’s voice pleading for his life, followed by the sound of a gunshot and, at some distance from the camera, the scene of a body falling to the ground and another man running towards it. A complainant wrote that “Canadians should be able to watch the news without being subject to this graphic sound and imagery that adds no value to the program.” The National Specialty Services Panel laid out the applicable principles:

[I]t is provided [in Article 6 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Violence Code] that broadcasters must use appropriate editorial judgment in the reporting, and the pictorial representation, of violence within their news programming and shall be cautious in the selection of video clips depicting violence. They must not exaggerate or exploit violent situations and must take equal care not to sanitize the reality of the human condition. They must, in other words, draw a careful line or balance between their duty to report newsworthy events and the way in which they accomplish that responsibility.

Applying these principles, the Panel considered that CTV Newsnet had made the correct editorial decisions in its report of the Robert Jacob murder:

[I]t is the view of the Panel that the footage selected was entirely reasonable. That there was fear, if not terror, in the voice of the hostage is undeniable. The video clip used, though, did not show the face of the victim, or other physical evidence of the murderous assault. The shot was fired off-screen and, other than seeing the victim fall (from behind and at some distance) there was not blood or other physical manifestation of the terrible event. In the view of the Panel, the broadcaster chose wisely, balancing its belief that visual representation of the event was appropriate with the sense that members of the audience would not wish to be exposed to anything excessively graphic. Moreover, the anchor advised that “Viewers should be aware that this story contains graphic video.” The Panel finds that there is no breach of the foregoing Code provisions.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970.  More than 550 radio and television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council. 

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab