CTV Vancouver (CIVT-DT) re CTV News at 6 (Abbotsford school stabbing)

ENGLISH-LANGUAGE PANEL
CBSC Decision 16/17-0554
2017 CBSC 9
September 26, 2017
September 26, 2017
A. Noël (Chair), D. Braun, J. Doobay, E. Duffy-MacLean,
P. Gratton, J. Pungente, L. Todd

THE FACTS

On November 1, 2016 two female students at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School in British Columbia were stabbed in a school hallway.  Police were called to the school at 2:05 pm.  A male suspect was taken into custody.  CTV Vancouver (CIVT-DT) covered the situation as its top story on its CTV News at 6 newscast.

The report showed footage of emergency vehicles and personnel, as well as parents and students, outside the school.  A banner at the bottom of the screen read “Disturbing Video Appears to Show Stabbing”.  CTV Vancouver anchor Tamara Taggart and on-scene reporter Shannon Patterson had the following exchange:

Taggart:                A short time ago, CTV News obtained video that appears to show one of the stabbings as it happens.  CTV’s Shannon Patterson is live outside Abbotsford Secondary.  And, Shannon, this video – which we should warn people is very graphic – shows a frightening situation.

Patterson [outside school]:         It certainly does, Tamara.  It shows a violent attack in progress inside this school that has left students and parents stunned.

The cellphone video was then broadcast.  It is shown in slow motion.  Taken from a higher floor, it shows a lower floor of the school through a railing.  It shows what appears to be a young male pushing over a female who is already lying on the ground.  Another, older, male figure wearing a black apron approaches them.  The video zooms in somewhat, but is still at quite a distance from the people.  The first male holds his arm up as if to begin a stabbing motion.  At this point, the video stops.  It cuts and then resumes as something shiny falls to the ground and the male backs away from the female.  The female’s body, including her face, is blurred.  The male continues to back away.  There is a blurred red blotch beside the female.  A small caption to the bottom left reads “From YouTube”.

During the showing of the video, Patterson described the scene:

This video was posted on social media shortly after two people were stabbed at Abbotsford Secondary.  A young man stands over a young woman as she lies on the floor next to a red stain.  He appears to stab her in the mid-section.  A knife then falls away from his hand and he backs away.  He was taken into custody as news spread to parents arriving for school pick-up.

The report then continued with interviews of students and parents, who described how terrifying the situation was, particularly due to the lack of information flowing to parents while their children were on lockdown inside the school.  Some students were still in lockdown at the time of the broadcast.  Patterson reported that one of the victims had been taken away by air ambulance, but the conditions of the two girls were not known.  She noted that Abbotsford Police would be holding a press conference at 7:00 pm that evening to provide more details.  (A more detailed transcription and description of the report can be found in Appendix A.)  The public later learned that one of the victims, a 13-year-old girl, had died and that the suspect was a 21-year-old male who had no connection to either the girls or the school.  The police and school board also asked the media to cease circulating the cellphone video out of respect for the victims’ families and to prevent further trauma to students.

The CBSC received six complaints about CTV Vancouver’s coverage of the Abbotsford school stabbing, but only one complainant requested a CBSC ruling.  The viewer wrote that CTV Vancouver’s news team had “crossed the line” by showing the video.  He stated that “airing the potential murder of a child in a school is completely inappropriate and extremely disrespectful to the family of this child” and that CTV had violated students’ privacy.  He demanded both a public apology and a private apology to the families affected by the tragedy.

CTV Vancouver argued that it did not broadcast the actual attack and that there was public confusion over which broadcaster had aired which portions of the video.  CTV emphasized that it had warned viewers about the disturbing nature of the video before airing it, had not included the audio portion which included the victim’s screams, had edited out all images that showed the attacker actually striking his victim, and had blurred out the identity of the victim, thus protecting her privacy.  The station acknowledged that covering senseless violence is always a difficult task, but that it had chosen to include the video to help viewers understand what had happened.  CTV considered that it abided by all industry codes, guidelines and legislation.

The complainant wrote back to the CBSC, indicating his dissatisfaction with CTV’s response.  In his view, even if CTV had edited out some of the video, the portions that it did broadcast were nevertheless inappropriate and “a violation of a minor’s privacy during a grave experience.”  CTV wrote to the CBSC, stating its view that it had used sound editorial judgment in its limited presentation of the video.  (The full text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B.)

THE DECISION

The English-Language Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code and the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada’s (RTDNA) Code of Journalistic Ethics:

CAB Violence Code, Article 6.0 – News and Public Affairs

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.

[…]

6.7       Broadcasters shall refer to The Code of Ethics of the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) [renamed the Code of Journalistic Ethics of the Radio Television Digital News Association] for guidance regarding broadcast journalism in general.

RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, Article 5.0 – Respect

Our conduct will be respectful, always taking into account editorial relevance and the public interest.

5.1          We will endeavour to respect the dignity of everyone, especially when news involves children and the vulnerable.

5.2          We will act with sensitivity and restraint when reporting on potentially dangerous situations and when using violent or graphic images and descriptions.

5.3          We will treat people with decency, courtesy and consideration and we will strive not to distort the character or importance of events by our presence.

5.4          We will avoid sensationalism.

5.5          We will not infringe on a person’s privacy unless we believe there is overriding public interest.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed a recording of the challenged broadcast.  The Panel concludes that CTV Vancouver violated sub-articles 6.1 and 6.2 of the CAB Violence Code.  It did not violate 6.3 because it did air a warning.  The Panel concludes that CTV Vancouver also violated sub-articles 5.1, 5.2 and 5.4 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, but did not violate sub-article 5.5 of that code.

Broadcast of Violent Video Footage

The Panel began by questioning if appropriate editorial judgment was used in CTV’s decision to broadcast an edited version of the cellphone video as part of the news reports on November 1.  Was it essential to the story or was it sensationalism?  Was the fact that it was edited sufficient to legitimize the broadcast?  How does the fact that the police requested media outlets refrain from showing the video affect the situation?

The Panel unanimously concludes that including the video, even in its edited form, did not contribute to the story and therefore showed inappropriate editorial judgment on the part of the broadcaster.  The video’s inclusion in the news reports on the 6:00 pm news broadcast on November 1 constitute a breach of Article 6.1 of the CAB Violence Code.  The absence of audio and of the violent act in its entirety did not diminish the impact of the disturbing clip.  Although the video was aired only once, the Panel finds that CTV did not exercise the necessary caution in selecting to air this violent video therefore breaching Article 6.2 of the above-mentioned Code.[1]

The Panel notes that CTV did broadcast a warning to viewers before airing the video, therefore it met its requirement under Article 6.3 of the CAB Violence Code that requires broadcasters to advise viewers in advance of disturbing footage such as this video.

Respectful Conduct

This is the first opportunity[2] for a CBSC Panel to consider a file under the new RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics which came into effect on July 1, 2016.  There is sufficient similarity with the previous version of the RTDNA Code to allow the CBSC to apply the principles established in its precedent decisions taken under the former code.  At the same time, the Panel observes that certain articles, including Article 5.0, set out expectations in slightly different terms from the previous version.

Article 5.0 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics requires respectful conduct that takes into account editorial relevance and public interest.  As set out above, the Panel finds that the inclusion of the cellphone video in the broadcasts of November 1 did not constitute proper editorial judgment.  It follows that the broadcasts breached Article 5.0.  Article 5.1 requires that dignity be respected especially when news involves children.  The Panel concludes that the broadcast of the video that included a child failed to respect her dignity and is in breach of Article 5.1.  Article 5.2 requires sensitivity and restraint when using violent or graphic images.  The Panel concludes that the inclusion of the video in the broadcasts did not show sensitivity or restraint in what was a very disturbing and tragic situation and was therefore in breach of Article 5.2.  Article 5.4 requires broadcasters to avoid sensationalism.  Given the Panel’s finding that the video did not materially add to the story being told, the Panel finds that the inclusion of the violent video added an element of sensationalism to the broadcasts and constitutes a breach of Article 5.4.[3]

With respect to privacy, in the previous version of the RTDNA Code, dignity and privacy were included as two parts of a single article, and were often considered simultaneously.  In those decisions, the factors considered for each of dignity and privacy were different.[4]  In the 2016 version of the code, the two concepts have been separated into unique sub-articles.  In this instance, although the Panel has found the broadcast in breach of the dignity clause, it must consider privacy separately.  Because the video of the victim was blurred out and the identity of the person being attacked was not provided in this broadcast, the Panel finds that the inclusion of the edited and blurred video did not constitute a breach of sub-article 5.5.

Police Request Not to Air the Video

The Panel agrees that broadcasters are entitled to make their own editorial decisions.  In the absence of an actual court-ordered publication ban, a mere request by a police authority not to air certain material does not amount to a prohibition edict.  Broadcasters would be wise to give careful consideration to such requests, but should not be prevented from making their own decisions in light of the codes.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant.  The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, CTV Vancouver provided a lengthy reply to the complainant, providing its rationale for airing the footage of the attack.  That the complainant and the Panel had a different view of the broadcast does not take away from the thoughtfulness of the broadcaster’s reply.  The broadcaster fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and, subject to the announcement of this decision, nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.

Announcement of the Decision

CTV Vancouver 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 CTV News at 6 was broadcast, but not on the same day as the first mandated announcement; 2) within the 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 CTV Vancouver.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CTV Vancouver breached the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Violence Code and the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Code of Journalistic Ethics in its coverage of the Abbotsford school stabbing on November 1, 2016.  CTV showed parts of a cellphone video of the attack.  This was an unnecessary depiction of violence contrary to Article 6 of the Violence Code and was disrespectful to the young victims contrary to Article 5 of the Code of Journalistic Ethics.

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

[1] See the following decisions in which those same code provisions were applied:  CTV re Canada AM (Airborne Hazing) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0159, March 12, 1996); CTV re News Report (Police Shooting) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0213, March 26, 1996); CTV re a News Report on Charles Ng’s Sentencing (CBSC Decision 98/99-1120, March 22, 2000); CHAN-TV re a news item concerning a fatal accident (CBSC Decision 00/01-0839, January 23, 2002); CTV Newsnet re a News Item (Hostage Murder in Riyadh) (CBSC Decision 03/04-1817, December 15, 2004); CTV re coverage of the fatal luge accident at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games (CBSC Decision 09/10-0895+, November 12, 2010).

[2]Another file involving Global’s coverage of this same incident was adjudicated by the same CBSC Panel on the same day and the two decisions released on the same day.  See Global BC (CHAN-DT) re Global News Hour at 6 & Global News at 11 (Abbotsford school stabbing) (CBSC Decision 16/17-0553+ September 26, 2017).

[3] See the following relevant cases regarding respect and sensationalism:  CTV re News Report (Police Shooting) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0213, March 26, 1996); CTV re a News Report on Charles Ng’s Sentencing (CBSC Decision 98/99-1120, March 22, 2000).

[4] See the following decisions for examples of how the CBSC has assessed privacy violations in newscasts:  CTV re Canada AM (Airborne Hazing) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0159, March 12, 1996) & CHAN-TV (BCTV) re Newscast (Toronto Subway Death) (CBSC Decision 97/98-0383, May 20, 1998).


Appendix A

CTV Vancouver aired coverage of a stabbing incident at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School in Abbotsford, British Columbia as the top story of its CTV News at 6 newscast on November 1.  The anchors were Tamara Taggart and Mike Killeen.  A description of the report is as follows:

red banner across bottom of screen reads “Breaking News”

caption at bottom of screen:  “Two Girls Stabbed at Abbotsford Secondary”

male voice-over:     Breaking news.  Police rush to the scene after two girls are stabbed at a school in Abbotsford.  The school locked down this afternoon.  A terrifying situation for students and parents.

[scene of school exterior:  police cars driving or parked along side of road; paramedics wheeling a gurney with someone covered by a sheet; people standing around outside school with yellow police tape surrounding school property]

Killeen:           Good evening.  Abbotsford Police say one male suspect is in custody tonight.

caption changes to “Disturbing Video Appears to Show Stabbing”

Taggart:         A short time ago, CTV News obtained video that appears to show one of the stabbings as it happens.  CTV’s Shannon Patterson is live outside Abbotsford Secondary.  And, Shannon, this video – which we should warn people is very graphic – shows a frightening situation.

Patterson [outside school]:          It certainly does, Tamara.  It shows a violent attack in progress inside this school that has left students and parents stunned.

[cellphone video:  It is shown in slow motion.  Taken from a higher floor, it shows a lower floor of the school through a railing.  It shows what appears to be a male pushing over a female who is already lying on the ground.  Another male figure wearing a black apron approaches them.  The video zooms in somewhat, but is still at quite a distance from the people.  The first male holds his arm up as if to begin a stabbing motion.  At this point, the video stops.  It cuts and then resumes as something shiny falls to the ground and the male backs away from the female.  The female’s body, including her face, is blurred.  The male continues to back away.  There is a blurred red blotch beside the female.

A small caption to the bottom left reads “From YouTube”.]

During the showing of the video, Patterson describes the scene:

This video was posted on social media shortly after two people were stabbed at Abbotsford Secondary.  A young man stands over a young woman as she lies on the floor next to a red stain.  He appears to stab her in the mid-section.  A knife then falls away from his hand and he backs away.  He was taken into custody as news spread to parents arriving for school pick-up.

[scene of police van driving]

Patterson interviewing an unidentified man:  Somebody walked into the rotunda area, which is just in the front area of the school, and stabbed a girl.

[scenes of parents and young people standing around; paramedics standing by a gurney; police with weapons standing outside]

Patterson:    Stunned parents watched as one of the students was taken by stretcher to an air ambulance and police with long-guns patrolled outside.

Patterson interviewing male parent:     This is crazy.  It doesn’t happen in … yeah, no words, I guess.

Patterson:    You must be worried for your child.

male parent: Of course.

[people standing around outside school]

Patterson:    With the school in lockdown, parents were stuck behind police tape, frantically trying to get a hold of their children inside.

[close-up of woman talking on a cellphone]

interview with that woman:         Terrified, obviously.  It’d be nice to hear something.

Patterson:    Not a lot of information?

woman:         Nothing.

[scenes of other parents on cellphones & standing around; close-up of cellphone screen that reads “The swat police just walked in checking each and every classroom to make sure no one else was hurt”]

Patterson:    The only info coming from texts sent from students in lockdown.

interview with first man:   The latest thing is that the police are going through every classroom, the SWAT police, uh, making sure there’s nobody else hurt in any of the other rooms.

interview with female parent:     It’s terrifying for the parents because we have no idea.  Like, we know our children are in locked classrooms, but we have no idea what’s going on ʼcause nobody tells us.  And you see all these, massive amounts of police and ambulances and fire trucks.  And you just, it’s terrifying.

male district official addressing crowd of parents:    They’re going to stage at the Abby Arts Centre.

Patterson:    Parents crowded around a district official looking for any details.

district official:         I can let you know that there’s no threat in the school.  Everybody’s safe.  Um, and that’s all the information I have right now.

Patterson:    Abbotsford Senior Secondary who were inside the school when this attack happened remain on lockdown.  It’s been nearly four hours now.  Their parents have been told they can pick them up shortly at a nearby arts centre, but we don’t have an exact time on that yet.  The school behind me, Mike, remains a crime scene.

Killeen:           Still a tense situation there tonight, Shannon.  What do we know about the conditions of those two girls who were stabbed?

Patterson:    We don’t have their condition at this time other than the fact that they were injured.  We saw video of one of them very dramatically being injured inside the school.  We’re not sure what happened to the second girl.  We know at least one of them was airlifted to hospital.  We saw that helicopter leave the field shortly after the stabbing.  There is a press conference, Abbotsford Police, at 7 pm tonight where we expect to get more details, not only on those victims, but on the suspect who’s in custody.  Mike?

Killeen:           Obviously staying on this.  Thanks, Shannon.  Live tonight in Abbotsford.

Appendix B

The Complaint

The CBSC received six complaints about CTV’s coverage of the Abbotsford school stabbing.  Of those six, four provided enough information to proceed through the CBSC’s process.  Of those four, only one complainant requested a ruling.

His complaint was sent to the station on November 1, 2016, then to the CBSC on November 2, and reads as follows:

Good evening,

I am writing as it is imperative that CTV Vancouver issue a public apology on the 6 pm news for choosing to air the cell phone video shot by a minor showing another student being violently attacked inside a school.

I have watched your news broadcast for years and in a few short moments, you lost all credibility and respect from me.  I am shocked, angered, and appalled that the decision was made to air this video for so many reasons.  As CTV is aware, safety and protection of privacy of students within a school is incredibly important and this was violated.  In addition to this, airing the potential murder of a child in a school is completely inappropriate and extremely disrespectful to the family of this child.

Your news team crossed the line today and needs to be held to a higher standard.  A public apology for this choice is necessary as is a private apology to the families affected by this tragic crime.

Broadcaster Response

CTV Vancouver responded to the complainant on December 12:

Thank you for raising your concerns about CTV Vancouver’s decision to air on CTV News at 6 some of the video shot on a cell phone camera from inside Abbotsford Senior Secondary on November 1st, 2016.

As you correctly point out, the video that was shot that day shows a student being attacked inside the school.  But let me be very clear:  CTV Vancouver did not broadcast the actual image of this attack.  I’ll explain in detail what we did broadcast in a moment, but I think I should point out that there is a lot of confusion over the use of this video on local newscasts because another broadcaster in Vancouver decided to air it in its entirety including the audio of the victims’ screams.  CTV News, however, did not.

Telling the story of a senseless murder is a very difficult task.  We at CTV News understand that these are very sensitive topics to our viewers and during the telling of these terrible stories, we work very hard to report what has happened in a fair and responsible manner.

Most importantly, before our story aired, we warned our viewers that it contained images they might find disturbing in accordance with the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming (the CAB Violence Code).  This permitted our viewers to make the decision as to whether or not they wished to view the story.

As well, we made significant edits to this video for our viewers.  We showed the suspect in the moments before he attacked, and we showed him in the moments after.  CTV Vancouver edited out all images that showed the attacker actually striking his victim.  In addition, we used a digital effect to fully obscure all images of the victim, thus protecting her privacy and focusing only on the suspect – a man, as you know, who had made his way into a public school to attack students.  And we went even further – removing all audio and making the parts of the video that we broadcast completely silent.

As a newsroom that afternoon, we were focused on trying our best to help answer a vitally important question:  What happened in the school?  It’s a question our reporters outside of the school were being asked repeatedly that afternoon by parents.  Indeed, many parents of students at the school complained to us about a lack of information as they waited outside.  We decided, as journalists, that parts of the video, carefully and sensitively edited in the way I’ve just described, could help provide answers.

As I hope you can now tell, we were very much aware that broadcasting this video unaltered would likely offend some of our viewers and wasn’t necessary in order to tell the story.  And let me just say to you personally that I completely understand how you’re feeling.  I have a 14-year-old son in high school and this story, as it is to so many of our viewers, is deeply upsetting to me.  It’s beyond tragic.  But it’s also a crime, and it raises serious questions about the safety of our children.

The CAB Violence Code recognizes the responsibility of broadcasters not to sanitize the news:

“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.”

The CBSC has acknowledged this principle in past decisions:  “The [Violence] Code recognizes that society has a right, if not an obligation, to have presented to it the reality of the news however unpleasant or even intolerable the news may be from time to time.

While we regret that you were offended by some of the video shown and that was certainly not our intent, we believe that this segment was in accordance with all applicable industry codes, guidelines and legislation.

We very much appreciate that you’ve taken the time to formally raise these concerns and that you have given CTV a chance to respond in detail.  Thank you.

CTV is a member of the CBSC in good standing and adheres to all its codes and guidelines.

Additional Correspondence

The complainant responded directly to CTV on December 14:

Thank you for your detailed response; however, I disagree with some of the statements and am not satisfied with this response.

As I mentioned in my previous communication, I have been a long-standing, loyal viewer of CTV Vancouver.  Your station is the only station I watched that night and I watched in horror as your station on the 6 pm news aired a man holding up a knife and made a stabbing motion towards a lifeless body.  I appreciate the news team may have edited the video and removed the audio.  Regardless, I cannot unsee that stabbing motion.  That was clearly inappropriate for TV and a violation of a minor’s privacy during a grave experience.

To resolve this issue, it is my expectation that a private apology be sent to the school and the family of the victims.  In addition, a public apology needs to be issued to the viewers. Please attach a copy of both to your reply to my email.

CTV’s Assistant News Director wrote back stating:  “The next step for you, if you aren’t satisfied, is to request a review from the CBSC.  Thanks again.”  The complainant then wrote to the CBSC indicating his dissatisfaction and asking what the next steps would be.  The CBSC responded with its customary message about its process and timeframe for examining files.

Once the Panel meeting had been scheduled, the CBSC provided CTV with the opportunity to add any additional comments to the file.  It did so on May 25, 2017.

Thank you for your note of May 23rd, informing us of the CBSC Adjudicating Panel’s intention to examine CBSC File # 1617-0554 “Abbotsford Stabbing.”

We would like to further clarify information about our decision to broadcast some of the cell phone video in question – pointing out again that CTV Vancouver did not broadcast any video of the actual attack, but instead focused on the period of time before and after the attack occurred.

Please allow me now to go further into our decision as it relates to Article 6 of the CAB Violence Code and Article 5 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, the provisions that the CBSC Panel will consider in their adjudication.  Both codes call for editorial judgment and careful consideration when using graphic images on the news.  They call for sensitivity, decency and respect, while at the same time requiring broadcasters to consider the public interest and warning news organizations against the sanitization of the news.  The CAB Code also requires that audiences be warned in advance of graphic images being displayed and the RTDNA warns against sensationalism.  CTV Vancouver believes that all the guidelines set out in both codes were carefully followed.  Great sensitivity and editorial judgment went into our treatment and use of this video, including making the key decision to warn our audience in advance, to not show the actual attack, to fully blur the image of the victim, to turn down all audio and to focus on the important questions that parents were asking us – namely what happened inside the school and could something have been done to stop it?

CTV Vancouver believes that the use of segments of this video, carefully treated in the ways we’ve described above and in our answer to the original complaint, could assist in the search for these answers and were clearly in the public interest and in compliance with all applicable industry Codes and guidelines.