The Edmonton hostage taking and the lessons learned

Esther Enkin, the CBC's executive editor, explains our stance on hostage taking.

We have just lived through an experience that is the stuff of classic journalism textbooks.

The hostage taking in Edmonton on Wednesday raised a host of issues and taught us a great deal.

In tense situations like this, there are always competing values at work. As journalists, it is in our DNA to seek out information and to get it out there.

But there is another important value present — and that is to minimize harm.

Clearly, the overriding concern in this case was to keep everyone safe and not to undermine or interfere in the police process.

Edmonton police tactical squad discuss strategy during a hostage incident at the Workers Compensation Board on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009. (Jimmy Jeong/Canadian Press)

So, as the day unfolded, and as our crack reporters and chasers began to make contacts and get the facts, the question became: Under what circumstances do we as a journalistic organization withhold information?

How do we make those decisions?

I don't want to minimize the countervailing pressures. We are broadcasting and streaming live, we are competing against other networks, and our adrenalin is pumping.

At the same time, it is so critically important to step back and think things through. At the end of the day, that's what will distinguish us.

New competitors

The task is complicated further by the sheer volume of communication. Facebook and Twitter were working overtime.   At one point, there was a  rumour that someone holed up in the building was updating the situation on Facebook.

The level of speculation and misinformation on Twitter was an object lesson on the need to verify and sift the facts.

Late in the day, someone from CBC tweeted that some hostages had contacted us. We weren't reporting the fact that we had become involved for a bunch of reasons.

But here is a really important principle. We should not tweet what we wouldn't put on the air.

One reason we didn't let on is because we didn't want every other news organization jumping in. Not for competitive reasons, but because the chaos could be dangerous.

The immediate questions facing us were: What could we say, what could we show and how much of it could be live?

Reporting live

Of course, the primary danger of live reporting and detailed descriptions of what is going on outside in a situation like this is that the hostage taker can be listening, watching and logging on.

That means the live shots had to avoid showing police movement.

It also meant that we had to be very careful about talking to people who were hiding in the building. The interviewers had to be careful not to let them say anything that could give away their location.

Same thing when reporters would be debriefed by the hosts. We always had to ask ourselves how might the perpetrator hear or use this information.

So at the point when we actually knew his name and his history, which was only a couple of hours into the standoff, we made the decision to hold back reporting that information.

Our Journalistic Standards and Practices provided the road map.

It gives good advice. Particularly that we do not contact hostage takers.

And we do not broadcast demands live. And we would think long and hard about broadcasting demands at all.

The policy is not entirely black and white though. It does say that contact with hostages or hostage takers can take place after approval at the most senior level.

Ditto for broadcasting demands. It doesn't, however, cover what to do if the hostages call us.

A hostage on the phone

Which brings us to Wednesday afternoon and a big thank you to Judy Piercey and our Edmonton team for their incredible grace under pressure. (Gareth Hampshire, who is News Coordinator in Edmonton, did an excellent job of deconstructing the episode on The Current Thursday morning.)

Here, in a nutshell, is what happened: Around 1:30 p.m. Edmonton time, one of the hostages called the CBC. One of the first questions we had was: Are we tying up the police negotiating line?

When the answer was no, the conversation continued. But that itself raised many concerns.

What could we say about this that wouldn't inflame the gunman? Are we putting the hostages more at risk if we report this conversation or anything we learn from it?

In this case, listening to the tape of the conversation and the general description, and discovering that some hostages simply went to the washroom and then left the building, the situation felt reasonably calm, all things being equal.

But — and it's a big but — many people who take hostages have mental illnesses. They are certainly feeling desperate. As journalists, we haven't the psychological training to handle these situations.

Not second-guessing

This discussion is not about second-guessing our colleagues, it is about learning for next time.

Cecil Rosner, the CBC's Managing Editor in Winnipeg, has suggested we develop a protocol for when hostages or hostage takers call us.

I think that is a good idea, and we will. We will consult experts and other media organizations, and come up with some recommendations.

On Wednesday, we felt the hostages were sending a clear message that if the person at the centre of this could only tell his story, it would all end.

The man himself, when he got on the line, said he wanted to go live.

He was firmly told that wasn't going to happen.

We all agreed here that none of this could go on air while the incident was ongoing.

We agreed the important message was to send him to the police negotiator — that was how this could be resolved.

We also let the Edmonton police know what was going on.

The phone calls continued. I made the decision that we would no longer answer the phone because the gunman had to focus on negotiating and not on us.

There was also concern that something we said or did might set him off.

Thankfully, around 6:30 p.m. Edmonton time, there was a peaceful resolution.

We decided to lift the curtain and tell the story of our day.

Asking more questions

And that telling, too, has raised legitimate and important ethical questions: Have we given this incident too much attention? By leading The National, were we sensationalizing the incident because of our own role?

We gave Patrick Clayton exactly what he wanted? His story is told.

But are we encouraging copycats by glorifying him in any way?

After all, we are very clear and very strict about our treatment of gunmen who kill people. We focus on the victims and we are very cautious about the images and information we share about perpetrators.

In this incident, I can, frankly, make the case either way.

The Current this morning raised and explored all these issues. Tonally, it provided understanding and perspective.

In this case, the value of telling the story trumped minimizing harm. And Patrick Clayton will face due process.

For the next few days we will examine the issue he highlighted — the Workers' Compensation system, particularly in Alberta.

We will do it by looking at the issues dispassionately and not through the lens of one man who took matters into his own hands.

In the process, we may need to ask ourselves when might we have gotten around to these worker compensation stories if this incident hadn't happened.

Because if we don't keep asking those questions, and answering them honestly — if we don't involve Canadians and ask them directly what they want us to explore — we will run the risk of manipulation.