Report on Alleged Animal Abuse Unfair and an Invasion of Privacy, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, February 16, 2011 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning a news report about animal abuse aired on CHEK News at Five on July 19, 2010.  The lead story on that newscast dealt with the death of a family of raccoons in Esquimalt, British Columbia.  It was reported that an individual in the neighbourhood had killed a mother and a baby raccoon by beating them with a hockey stick, and that the SPCA was investigating the incident.  The report named the husband, who had allegedly beaten the animals, and his wife, who had not herself been connected to the incident, and provided their civic address.

The CBSC’s BC Regional Panel dealt with the complaints about the broadcast under the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA – the Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics.

The news report included no information regarding any judicial or police involvement or charges, nor any balancing interviews or perspective regarding the allegations.  The BC Panel was concerned about the issue of fairness, as well as the identification of the individuals by name and address.  On the first issue, the Panel concluded that the report was neither comprehensive nor fair and thus in violation of Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics:

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.

The reporter also included a prejudicial statement by a neighbour characterizing aspects of the targeted couple’s home life.  It had nothing to do with the story of animal abuse.  Accordingly, the Panel concluded 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.” It was thus in violation of Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of Ethics and Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

As to the second issue, the invasion of privacy, the Panel readily acknowledged the passing of the first of the two tests essential to any justification of a journalistic invasion of the privacy of individuals, namely, the public interest in the story about the killing of the raccoons; however, the Panel considered that the broadcaster failed the second test, namely, the reasonableness of the infringement.  In finding a breach of Article 4 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, the Panel concluded 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.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence 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 and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  Nearly 760 radio stations, satellite radio services, 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