Global Television re Global National (Kidnapping Report)

NATIONAL CONVENTIONAL TELEVISION PANEL
(CBSC Decision 03/04-0324)
R. Cohen (Chair), H. Pawley (Vice-Chair), B. Culbert, P. Hebden, M. Hogarth

THE FACTS

On November 18, 2003, at 5:39 pm, during Global Television’s early evening news program, Global National, Wilf Dinnick reported on the case of Amanda Stamp, who had gone missing from her home in Toronto. Dinnick reported that the woman had allegedly been kidnapped by her estranged boyfriend, who had abducted their child a few months before. The report showed pictures and clips of Amanda Stamp as well as her mother’s emotional plea for Amanda’s safe return. The report then focused on the alleged kidnapper, Ricardo Lee, who apparently ought not to have been released from prison since there was a pending arrest warrant issued on the basis of a charge that he had made death threats against Stamp. After a brief interview with Ontario’s Corrections Services Minister Monte Kwinter, the reporter presented a new twist to the story, which was the sighting of Stamp at a convenience store. Accompanying that part of the report was a video clip showing police officers at the convenience store in question which was described as being in Brampton, Ontario. The reporter’s voice-over was as follows:

Just this morning, a woman walked into this convenience store, bought hygiene products, and on her way out tells the cashier she’s Amanda Stamp. She [the cashier] should call 911.

The broadcaster included shots of the store’s interior and exterior while the reporter commented that a surveillance video had also captured pictures of the vehicle. The report then went on to explain that Stamp had had a violent history with Lee, which included the above-mentioned abduction of their child. Clips of Stamp crying and handing out pictures of her child were shown, as well as a picture of Lee holding the child. The report concluded by raising the question of Lee’s release given the circumstances that surrounded the case. The following complaint was sent on the date of the broadcast to the CRTC, which forwarded it to the CBSC in due course (the full text of the complaint and other relevant correspondence can be found in the Appendix):

I am livid that Global National released information to the effect that Ms. Stamp contacted a drug store clerk giving her name and asked them to call 911.

I have contacted an investigator on this file with the York Regional Police, and he has expressed dismay at the release of this information as well.

I request you do not include this information in any further broadcasts.

Do you even think about the consequences of releasing such information? Did you contact the investigators before you released such information? Are you trying to get the poor woman killed to further the story for your own interests?

You have shown reckless endangering behaviour by reporting this information, possibly jeopardizing this woman's future chances of escape, and possibly her life at the hands of this maniac kidnapper.

The complainant raised additional concerns regarding the use of information obtained on police scanners, which do not fall within the jurisdiction of the CBSC and are not material to the present decision. The Managing Director at Global National News responded to the complainant’s letter on December 9.

We share your concerns regarding the reporting of certain details related to Amanda Stamp on Global National on November 18th. We included the information in our report in part because we thought other media outlets had already reported it. Following the broadcast York Police contacted us and asked that we not broadcast the information again. We agreed and subsequently withheld additional information regarding another attempt by Ms. Stamp to be rescued. It was a regrettable error on our part and was not repeated. Fortunately Ms. Stamp was rescued, unharmed, the following day.

In reference to your point regarding the use of information gleaned from a police scanner – I believe the statute is the Radiocommunications Act, sec. 9(2) – the information in question was confirmed by phone and it was that confirmation which allowed us to use it. But, as noted above, even though we did not violate the Act, the information should not have been broadcast.

We take great pains to ensure that our news coverage is fair, balanced, and accurate. Your letter, together with the concerns expressed by York Police, has been shared with our staff and is a valuable reminder that we must use the appropriate discretion necessary in coverage of hostage situations so as not to endanger those involved.

The complainant responded to the broadcaster the following day. He said in part:

[sic] saying that because you thought other media broadcast the details, you would too. […]

[sic] saying, drat [sic] the other media may have broadcast a detrimental fact to the safety of Ms. Stamp, and we have to do the same, so as not to lag behind the eight ball. Never once stopping to think about morals, ethics, personal safety. But seriously, I doubt that anyone in your organization even realized how detrimental those details could actually be.

The CBSC took this letter as the equivalent of a Ruling Request.

THE DECISION

The National Conventional Television Panel examined the broadcast under the following provision of the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics:

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics – Article 10 (Covering Violent Situations)

Reporting on criminal activities such as hostage takings, prison uprisings or terrorist acts will be done in a fashion that does not knowingly endanger lives, offer comfort and support or provide vital information to the perpetrator(s). RTNDA members will contact neither victims nor perpetrators of a criminal activity during the course of the event for the purpose of conducting an interview that would interfere with a peaceful resolution.

The National Conventional Television Panel reviewed all of the correspondence and screened a tape of the news report in question. For the reasons provided at greater length below, the Panel considers that the broadcast of the challenged news report was in breach of the foregoing provision of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

Reporting on Ongoing Violent Criminal Activities

This is the first occasion on which a CBSC Panel has been called upon to review the broadcast reporting of an ongoing criminal activity. It is, however, an issue that has been clearly anticipated in the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics and, the Panel finds it useful to add, in Section 5 of the British Programme Code, which is administered by Ofcom. While the principles established in the British code are similar to those in the RTNDA Code, its terminology is more precisely suited to the situation that this Panel is facing in the matter at hand. The British Code provides:

5.4 Hijacking and kidnapping reports

It is unacceptable to broadcast any information, whether derived from monitoring of communications or from any other source, that could endanger lives or prejudice the success of attempts to deal with a hijack or a kidnapping […].

The essential common ingredient of the Canadian and British provisions is the requirement that any broadcast in such circumstances ought not to endanger lives, provide vital information to the perpetrator(s) or potentially interfere with the successful resolution of the matter being reported.

In the matter at hand, the report that Amanda Stamp had been in a quite specific location and had advised a cashier at a store who she was and that the cashier should call 911 was, it seems clear to the Panel, an endangering bit of news. Had the abductor been watching television at the moment of the newscast and learned of what Stamp had said, he may well have taken retributive action. That would have been a tragic outcome, which is clearly what the Code article sought to avoid. It goes without saying it would be no defence to say that “other media outlets had already reported it.” It is surely the obligation of each news medium to determine what does, or does not, reflect their industry’s standards. It is clear that each broadcaster would have to arrive at such a determination for itself. In the present instance, Global Television has breached the codified standard established in Article 10 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

The responsibility of broadcasters extends beyond adherence to the standards established in each of the Codes administered by the CBSC. By their membership in the CBSC, they must also adhere to the principles established in the CBSC Manual, one of which is the obligation to respond to written complaints from members of the public who have seen (or heard, in the case of radio) potentially offensive broadcast matter. It is expected that their responses will be thoughtful and reflective of the substance of the complaint. It is also recognized by the Council that even compliant responses will not always satisfy complainants; indeed, in any matter that reaches the adjudication stage, that will be the case. In the matter at hand, there is no doubt that, although the complainant was not satisfied, the Managing Director at Global National News quite satisfied Global’s obligation of responsiveness in the present instance. He admitted that “the information should not have been broadcast”, that Global had made a “regrettable error” and that the incident was “a valuable reminder that we must use the appropriate discretion necessary in coverage of hostage situations so as not to endanger those involved.” The CBSC could not ask for more of an acknowledgment than that.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION,

Global Television is required to: 1) announce this 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 in the time period in which the Global National news report was broadcast; 2) within fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the announcements to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by Global Television.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that, in its broadcast on November 18, 2003 of a news story relating to a kidnapping in Ontario, Global Television’s Global National breached the terms of the article of the Radio-Television News Directors Association Code of (Journalistic) Ethics that requires that news reporting ought not to endanger lives, provide vital information to the perpetrators or potentially interfere with the successful resolution of the matter being reported. In revealing certain unpublicized details relating to the kidnap victim’s whereabouts and contact with a store clerk, the Council determined that Global Television had potentially endangered the life of the victim, contrary to the provisions of Article 10 of the Code.

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