On Watch

Look But Don't Touch

Posted: Dec 20, 2012 1:03 PM ET Last Updated: Dec 20, 2012 1:03 PM ET
As someone who got into this business at a time when typewriters and tape recorders were leading-edge technology, I rather like this whole social media thing.
Before Twitter, Facebook and the like, the closest I'd get to engaging the public would be the occasional "you suck" shouted by a passing motorist who spotted me in front of a TV camera. A valid commentary, perhaps, but not really a conversation.
Now I'm able to talk to people who might not otherwise approach me. My Tweets, email and even this blog have allowed me to join a conversation about what we do and why. In the short time I've been writing this blog I've talked about my stories with victims of crime, with people called for jury duty and members of the public.
But there are some conversations we can't have on-line. Or perhaps I should say, conversations we SHOULDN'T have on-line.
As you may have discovered to your own embarassment, things can live forever on-line.  Even things you think you've deleted can be cached somewhere. And that's why, when we talk about things like sexual abuse and sexual assault, we have to close our stories and blogs to comments from the general public.
Those subjects generate passionate, frequently angry responses. Most of those responses come from people with no connection to the story; people who just want to vent. That is their right.
But there are also people who are intimately acquainted with the story and who want to offer opinions that could get themselves - and us - into trouble.
Take the case of a youth charged with a serious crime.
Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the identity of offenders is protected unless they are sentenced as adults. We report on these cases all the time. If we opened our stories to public comment, we could end up posting a public comment something like: "Johnny's been a hellion since he was 12. I'm surprised it took him this long to get in this much trouble."  That may be a true and accurate reflection on little Johnny, but it's illegal for us to post.
Similarly, friends of people who are accused of sexual assault may want to weigh in, reflecting on the victim's character and behaviour. This is not only illegal, it's offensive. It re-victimizes the victim and it takes us down that nasty old path that suggests that, somehow, the victim "was asking for it."
The CBC moderates its website, which means there are people whose job it is to screen everything before it gets posted. Like any human endeavour, however, mistakes can happen and things can slip through. Which is why, when it comes to subjects like youth crime and sexual assault, we don't take any chances. We don't rely on moderation; we block comments altogether.
I thought I should point this out because, let's face it, I do a lot of stories in these subject areas. And while I welcome the conversations I've been having with people online, this is one conversation we cannot have in this forum.
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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