An RCMP Emergency Response Teams swarmed the University of B.C. campus on Wednesday, January 31. With bulletproof vests and dogs, they spent the better part of the afternoon in the biological sciences building.
Neither the public nor people inside the building were told what the police were doing. The RCMP taped off the building and surrounding area and dispatched a helicopter to monitor from above. Students in the building reacted, as suggested by police, by locking themselves in classrooms and offices. They were reportedly not allowed to go to the bathroom or do anything else. They were told these measures were for their safety, and that was all they were told. All over campus, shocked students and faculty watched, waited and wondered what could be happening.
Before long, clues and rumours abounded. Students became citizen journalists as they blogged reports from inside the biosciences building. The citizen journalism website Nowpublic.com published reports that a suicidal assailant was loose in the building, threatening people’s lives. One blogger said that, “According to an email released to faculty and graduate students working in the building, a suicidal student has been displaying threatening behavior.” As part of that same update, the blogger said a witness outside called him saying that the “assailant might have a gun.” That quickly turned the onlookers’ thoughts away from a bomb threat and toward a suicidal gunman. However, at that point the police had still confirmed nothing about the nature of the threat. The only verifiable story was the police presence. Attempts by JournalismEthics.ca to contact the blogger about the accuracy of the statements have yielded no response.
JORDAN CHITTLEY is in his second year of a master of journalism degree at UBC. He completed a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver where he was the editor of his school newspaper. He is now the sports editor and multimedia coordinator for the Ubyssey newspaper and freelances for various outlets in print, online and television. He helped shoot, produce and edit a piece for Dan Rather Reports and is currently helping with a piece for Business Nation on CNBC.
It was not until March 3 that the public got any substantial information about the crisis when police announced the arrest of 19-year-old UBC student Hwi Lee on charges of uttering threats and mischief. Police said the decision to stay mum was key to their investigation. But they’re still not saying anything about the nature of the threat because the case is now before the courts.
On January 31, local media outlets published stories on their websites that a police incident was occurring and a building had been locked down. All over campus – not just in the locked-down building – staff and students were told to stay where they were. Games of telephone tag yielded rumours that included a bomb threat, the aforementioned suicide gunman and even a drill.
Since I work for the student newspaper, students inside the building and outside were calling me with questions saying that media were reporting these rumours. My girlfriend received a call from her parents telling her that there was a bomb threat. Scared I was in danger, she called me while I was on the scene.
Parents from around the country frantically called their children, haunted by images from Virginia Tech and terrified of imminent violence. At about 4 p.m., mass emails circulated, stating the situation was ‘resolved’ for the rest of campus. Police began slowly releasing trapped students and faculty and by 8 p.m. the building was cleared. The actual danger wasn’t known at the end of the day, and is still not known. The police were tight-lipped. The less they said, the more rumors soared.
We often talk about how changes in technology are changing the way media operates. It is changing everything from the immediacy of spot news to citizen journalism. From Virginia Tech to the London bombings, ordinary people have begun documenting extraordinary events with the help of their cell phone cameras and blogs. However, the chaos at UBC last month is a perfect place to examine how these new tools can be used prematurely and mishandled.
Is citizen journalism really a benefit to citizens? Citizens were not informed by last month’s citizen journalism, they were merely terrified by it. And the rigid police silence fueled the fire.
There are many instances where citizen journalism adds to the available information and takes the gatekeeper element out of news. Recently, when a fast food restaurant was blown up overnight on a main street in Vancouver, the damage and location were quickly reported by citizen journalists. Viewers could see the damage and know to avoid that area during their rush hour commute. News agencies only have so many reporters and can only be in so many locations, but with sites like Nowpublic.com, reporters can be everywhere.
However, in an event like the UBC lockdown, citizen journalists were feeding the public unsubstantiated rumours. RCMP Cst. Annie Linteau and UBC spokesman Scott Macrae told me, along with a horde of other journalists, that nothing could be confirmed. All they said was that the building was being locked down for the student’s safety. We did not hear how the police received the threat, the nature of the threat or how many people were affected.
First and foremost, it was the lack of information and the complete silence out of the RCMP that were a root cause of the numerous rumours. This case serves to show that in our age of communication, police need to provide more information. They can no longer keep their mouths shut and expect people to think the best. They may claim that their silence was critical to their investigation, but from where I stood, their silence was not in the public interest: it led to public panic. Almost 30 officers, a helicopter, ERT and a K-9 unit can no longer just show up at a school without an explanation.
The police silence led to a situation where the press wanted and needed to report something, but had nothing to report other than that there was a threat made and there was a police presence. Members of the media looked to what students were saying and looked to citizen journalists and the Internet. Some mentioned what bloggers were saying. Technically, as long as media reports cited bloggers, they were accurate, but readers must remember to read such sources with extreme skepticism.
Luckily nothing happened on January 31 and all the students and faculty inside the building were safe. But events like this will force people to reconsider any trust they may have had in bloggers. With the elimination of the gatekeeper function traditionally held by journalists and editors, people must spend more time deciphering the news to find what is accurate. While citizen journalism is oft-hailed – and rightly so – as a boon to freedom of expression and democratization of media, we can’t forget that it’s no replacement for good old fashioned accuracy.
Here’s a news flash: the wheels of justice turn slowly. If you’ve spent any time covering the courts, you’ve seen ample evidence of this fact. The result? Trials are drawn out, alleged criminals are tapped out (lawyers don’t come cheap, after all), and victims are out-and-out amazed that they’ve been drawn into a system that can intrude on their lives for years on end as a case makes its way from initial investigation to last avenue of appeal. This slow march to completion of a criminal case or civil dispute is one of the most criticized aspects of the legal system.
That’s not to say that a slow, methodical process is by definition a bad one–work refined over the course of years can benefit greatly as a result. Professor Dean Jobb’s text Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an example of instructive and engaging writing, borne and developed over time. The ideas and methodology that inform the book are drawn from Dean’s 15 years of teaching media law and justice system fundamentals to students in the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, and more than 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter.
Before the accolades, let me provide a necessary bit of disclosure: This text is required reading in the course I currently teach at King’s College – I picked up where Dean left off, teaching “The News Media & the Courts.” I’ve known Dean Jobb for more than a decade, back when we both covered the criminal courts.
I only wish I had this text back then–it’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight (and a law degree) that I realize how little I knew when I was first sent to court. I had no training, and had never even seen the inside of a courtroom prior to covering my first high-profile trial. My experience is not unique. Despite the complexity of legal proceedings and the potential for costly and damaging errors due to inaccurate reportage, the court beat is often thrust upon neophyte reporters. Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an invaluable reference for journalists who cover the courts and journalists who want to stay OUT of court – that is, not getting sued or cited for contempt.
Dean is particularly adept at figuring out how much detail his audience needs to understand a significant bit of case law or legal principle. But he resists the temptation to get bogged down in the abysmally arcane aspects of legal reasoning. After all, this is a text for journalists, not lawyers.
The text covers the basics of how the courts function, including the distinction between criminal and civil law, and the nature, scope and function of different types of publication bans; how to avoid getting sued for defamation or cited for contempt of court, as well how to gain access to hearings, documents and records.
When it comes to reporting on court proceedings, there’s little that’s intuitive, so Dean educates his readers through real-life examples, showing where reporters’ assumptions of what was happening and why caused them to miss the point entirely. Among the many common misapprehensions and mistakes laid bare by the text are the following:
- Reporting on the maximum sentence that may be imposed for a crime without ensuring that readers understand that the maximum is rarely imposed, since it is reserved for the most serious situations and worst offenders;
In a criminal trial, there’s nothing shocking, surprising, or even unusual about the fact that an accused person may not take the stand in their own defense. After all, it’s up to the Crown to prove the case against the accused. The accused does not have the responsibility of disproving the Crown’s case; and
When criminal charges against an accused person do not proceed because a court determines that evidence was obtained in a way that violated the accused’s Charter rights, reporters should not frame this as “a mere technicality.” Holding police to the standards set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is of benefit to us all.
If, at a minimum, all new crime and justice reporters were required to read the chapters that explain how the courts work, and how to cover the criminal courts, the most common blunders would be avoided.
One critical lesson the text brings home to my students is that they may well face legal challenges or problems from Day One on the job. These issues aren’t solely the concern of investigative journalists or highly-placed newsroom decision-makers. The most routine of assignments may give rise to an opportunity to challenge an existing law or policy or, conversely, to find oneself in contempt or facing a defamation action. One striking example Dean uses to make this point is that of a local newspaper reporter assigned to cover a police sergeant’s remarks at a conference, where the sergeant spoke of possible connections between Hells’ Angels and two small-town Nova Scotia motorcycle groups. The reporter diligently reported the officer’s comments–undoubtedly operating under the misapprehension that all was safe. I mean, the officer said it himself, didn’t he? And then, to make the story even sexier, the editor who reviewed the story (who was also apparently oblivious to the defamatory nature of the sergeant’s comments) set up the story with the following headline: “Watch Out For Big-Time Crime: Criminal Gangs Affect Us All, Police Warn.”
Dean effectively employs this example as a jumping-off point for an explanation of the murky area of defamation law that is as lucid and accessible as any I’ve ever read. This career journalist doesn’t let his years in the reporting trenches colour his assessment of defamation law. Many members of the media (as well as the lawyers who represent them) often fret about “libel chill,” a concept Jobb defines as one in which “important stories are toned down or ignored for fear of attracting an expensive defamation suit.” Let me be clear: Prof. Jobb has little time for these whiners; instead, he tells journalists to suck it up (OK, those are my words, not his) and to practice their craft more effectively. They should do so not by living in fear of lawsuits, but by using the integral intellectual tools of skepticism, restraint, and precision.
Maybe it’s because Dean is exercising the very restraint he preaches, or perhaps it’s that I’m more cynical than he, but I do believe the text is lacking a frank description of how some of the major players in the system tend to view the media. I know judges, lawyers, and court support staff who understand the role of media in a free and democratic society. I have observed and, in some cases, met and interviewed victims, plaintiffs and defendants in high-profile civil cases and even criminal accused who likewise understand their role in the public sphere.
But, during my time covering the courts, I have also had many negative interactions. I have been confronted gatekeepers who act capriciously, who are motivated by self-interest, who ignore the role of media as public surrogate, or who are simply irked that the media are intruding on THEIR turf. I’ve heard learned judges suggest that my work is solely about my self-interest in garnering more viewers, or crafting more inflammatory headlines–not about informing people and shining a bright light on a system that is of concern to us all. I have had to bite my tongue as I listen to yet another lawyer make yet another sweeping statement about the nature of media–observations based on a single experience with “some reporter” (there’s never a name–reporters are all alike to them) many years ago. I’ve been spit on (and yes, I mean that literally) by criminal defendants, and jostled and threatened by their supporters in court house foyers.
Covering the court beat is fascinating. The issues are challenging, and the stories are rife with human drama. For journalists who understand their role as educators, it can be a satisfying environment in which to learn, and to share. But it’s often not a pleasant environment. I’m not sure that Media Law for Canadian Journalists paints an appropriately accurate/bleak a picture of the environment many new legal affairs reporters will face. But, hey, they’ll sort that out on their own soon enough, won’t they?
When my students eventually face that reality, they will have the tools, and the understanding of how the system works, thanks to Dean’s efforts. I anticipate this text will sit on their desks, closely-guarded and well-thumbed, as they make their own way through the system.
Accuracy — to get the facts and context of a story right — is a fundamental norm of ethical journalism. Inaccurate reporting undermines important news stories and can mislead the public. Though accuracy is not the sole ingredient for truthful reporting, it is nevertheless indispensable.
Accurate reporting has never been easy, given journalism’s deadline-driven nature. But today, accuracy is further challenged, as news-making adopts the internet medium.
One of the greatest benefits of online journalism is its ability to reach millions of people almost instantaneously. But the pressure to keep news current – online within minutes of an event’s occurrence – can jeopardize the accurate reportingof even the most ethically-conscious journalist. Furthermore, the proliferation of news outlets – bloggers by the millions, of course, but also cable television, satellite television, web sites, and web broadcasts – has resulted in a multi-media race to get “the” story 24 hours a day. As the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners.
Adding to the pressure is the public’s increasing demand to see news as it happens. When a volcano erupts in Mexico, news will reach radio-listeners, web-news readers, and international bloggers within hours, if not minutes. Recently, Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States exemplified this situation. The whole world followed news-coverage of the disaster. Networks and newspapers competed to break the first and most heart-rending stories. In the race, however, many newsmakers incorporated unsubstantiated rumors into their reports. Rapes that never occurred were mourned on network news; accounts of mass deaths were aired, but the vividly-described corpses have not been found; one report claimed that a woman high-jacked a bus to rescue fellow New Orleans residents – she denied it three days later.
Laziness, lack of rigor, and other bad habits complicate the ethics of accuracy and speed. Journalists who, in the interest of time, report press releases as news do an ethical disservice to the populations they inform. Consider a July 25, 2005 story on Myanmar (Burma) by the Associated Press (AP). The article states that Shan State army leaders gave up their weapons in an arms-for-peace exchange. The story behind this event, however, is much more complex and interesting. For the five months prior to the “deal,” the Burmese military government had been pressuring Shan leaders to disarm, using means that included “confiscating” their cars to immobilize them in remore corners of the country (far from their public), imprisoning some, and instigating third-party militants to attack the Shan. The AP article was timely, and it accurately represented the NCLC (Burmese Government) press release, but it failed to inform readers of the surrounding events and circumstances.
How fast is too fast, when news must be more than mere glorified rumors? And how much accuracy is too much, when news must be current?
The same impatient public that wants speedy information also expects the news media to take pains to ensure their reports are as accurate and verified as possible. Almost every poll regarding news media credibility shows that the public expects accuracy from journalists, no matter how pressing their deadlines. See Report Card on Canadian News. This is neither surprising nor unreasonable, though it is certainly extremely – and increasingly – challenging. A balance is necessary between speed and accuracy. The public demands it, and so do journalistic codes of ethics. The consequences of disseminating falsehoods can be equally serious as the consequence of tardy news-dissemination.
JD Lasica’s interview/report on speed and accuracy in internet news, as well as his blog
The Poynter Institute.
Online resources, articles, and information