Reporting on Probable Survivability of Victim of Fatal Car Crash not Problematic, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, January 5, 2011 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning a news report broadcast on CTV British Columbia (CIVT-TV) regarding a fatal highway crash.  The CBSC concluded that it was not problematic for the reporter to have stated that the one survivor of a four-person head-on collision would also “likely die”.

The report, entitled “Fatal Highway Crash”, aired during the 11:00 pm newscast on February 19, 2010.  The reporter, who was live at the scene, explained that a vehicle had traveled the wrong way down Highway 17 in Delta, BC and had collided with another in a fiery crash.  Three people had already been declared dead and the fourth was being airlifted to hospital.  She commented that “it’s not really looking good for him” and he “will most likely die.”

The CBSC received a complaint about the reporter’s choice of words.  The complainant was concerned that the reporter was inappropriately speculating on the crash victim’s condition without having any medical authority to do so and without revealing who her sources were.  He also suggested that it was insensitive towards the man’s loved ones who may have been watching the news report.  CTV explained in a letter to the complainant that its reporter had obtained her information from RCMP investigators at the scene.  The broadcaster also noted that, despite the initial bleak prognosis, the man had in fact survived.

The CBSC’s British Columbia Regional Panel examined the complaint under the relevant provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  The BC Panel found the report to be accurate, fair and proper because it had been based on information available at the time.  The Panel noted that the crash victim’s identity was not revealed and that the reporter was careful to use the word “likely” in suggesting the outcome rather than drawing a definitive conclusion.  The Panel also pointed out that the reporter was not obligated to mention who her source was, particularly as she did not reveal a source for any of the other crash details (type of vehicles, speed, status of other passengers).  The Panel explained its reasoning in the following terms:

While the Panel fully appreciates that the reporter was speculating as to the probable result, it does not consider that she in any way misled her audience.  First, she was on the scene and, in terms of the viewers, who were not, she was in the best position to provide them with useful information that would enable them to assess the severity of the event.  Second, […] she was careful to use the tempering conditional adverb “likely”.  In other words, she was not baselessly predicting the outcome, she was conditionally assessing the prospect for the sole survivor of the collision.  […] [T]he reporter’s words indicated that “it’s really not looking good for him” and that “the fourth person will most likely die.”  Likelihood, yes.  Certainty, no.  Of course she was speculating as to the likely, if not then apparent, outcome.  On occasion, that is precisely what a reporter needs to do to benefit the audience.

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