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Moncton and the Media

Categories: Canada, Community, Journalism

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An RCMP officer rests his head at a roadblock in Moncton, N.B., on Thursday. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

By David Studer
Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, CBC News

A tragic event like the Moncton, N.B., shooting and murder of RCMP officers last week galvanizes the national attention and touches all human hearts.

It's also a time for journalists to take great care, right from the outset.

In this case, for instance, there was concern for the families of the victims. Journalism is often, quite properly, a race to break news first. But at CBC News we believe that the families of crime victims should hear the news from family, clergy or officials, not from the media, and we ensured that our journalists reflected this philosophy.

The accused shooter remained at large for some time after the shooting. A manhunt was underway in an urban area, police communications were crackling through the airwaves, and in some cases reporters and police were rubbing shoulders as they did their jobs. In a situation like this, journalists can sometimes overhear information about police operations. Again, we issued a note to staff reminding them that we don't publish or broadcast anything that might compromise the safety or success of a police operation.

The night of the shooting, home video of a family reacting in shock to what they'd seen during the shootings was aired by CBC News Network, with warnings about its troubling nature. But later we pulled it from broadcast. Some viewers believed that the images in the video showed an RCMP officer fall under fire. Although a frame-by-frame review by our editors determined that no such scene was included, we decided that the upset public reaction outweighed the value of the visuals.

There's understandably been a great deal of reaction to the Moncton shootings, and to media coverage of them, just as there was a week or so earlier after the shootings in Santa Barbara, California. Among other things, there is a feeling of great hostility to the person responsible.

Some individuals, and even some media organizations, are making the argument that in situations like these, the shooter's name should not be mentioned in news coverage. To name him, the argument goes, satisfies that person's desire for glorification; to omit the name thwarts the desire for fame that drove him to commit his murderous crimes. (We've used the masculine in this note for the obvious reason--almost all of these stories involve male perpetrators.)

At CBC News, we've given this suggestion serious thought but will continue to report the details of these news stories as we do all others.

That's our job, to report the news and the facts of what's happened, not to censor them. The suggested approach--to blot out the name of the killer--goes against that fundamental of news coverage. And it has two other failings.

First, it suggests that news coverage isn't about reporting what's happened, but rather about rewarding newsmakers or withholding rewards from them. Behave properly and your name appears. Behave in a way that shocks the public's conscience, and your name will be erased. Apart from being a slippery slope, it's a terribly flawed approach to journalism.

Second, it requires a psychoanalysis of the shooter. In this scenario, if journalists conclude a person was just angry, or crazy, or mean... then the name will be reported. But if they somehow guess that the motivation was fame... it won't. This calls for divinations of motive far beyond the skill set of even the most perceptive reporter.

CBC News will continue to report these names. This doesn't mean we're rigid and doctrinaire about reporting everything, no matter the consequence. Our Journalism Standards and Practices document provides for a number of situations in which names may be omitted--where children are concerned, for example, or in the case of some suicides.

In the end, it's a sad reality that killers' and villains' names sometimes live on and are far better known than those of their victims. But at the same time, most of the names of the perpetrators of infamous mass shootings eventually will fade away. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Dawson College. Most people will have forgotten all but the place-names by now, and not because of an emotional reaction by journalists to expunge facts from news coverage.

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