The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) has concluded that French-language all-news channel LCN breached the Radio Television Digital News Association’s (RTDNA) Code of Journalistic Ethics during its live coverage of an alleged hostage situation broadcast on Nov. 13, 2020.
The CBSC concluded in its decision that the station divulged critical information while the emergency response operation was in progress and failed to demonstrate sensitivity and restraint in information gathering.
The police operation in question took place in Montreal in response to a phone call alleging there was a hostage taking inside Ubisoft’s offices. The station broadcast images of the police tactical unit around the building, as well as of people gathered on the rooftop terrace with the doors barricaded, which were obtained by the station’s helicopter. A team of reporters on the scene tried to gather information from bystanders and reporter Yves Poirier even opened the door of an ambulance to question people inside. The coverage identified the possible location of people hiding inside the building and the location of a nearby daycare centre. Although the incident was later proven to be a hoax, at the time of LCN’s broadcast, the police were treating it as real.
The CBSC received numerous complaints from viewers who felt that the revelation of employees’ whereabouts, including the images of the group on the roof, had endangered lives. They also complained about the aggressive behaviour of the journalists when both questioning witnesses on the street and opening the ambulance door.
The CBSC’s French-Language Panel examined the complaints under Article 5.2 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics which requires sensitivity and restraint when reporting on potentially dangerous situations. The panel unanimously concluded that reporting the precise location of individuals barricaded inside the building, even though this was unconfirmed, breached the code because that type of information should not be divulged publicly during a dangerous police operation in progress. The majority of the panel also found a breach for the instance of the reporter opening the ambulance door. They recognized information-gathering during a live situation sometimes requires aggressive tactics, but felt this act crossed the line.
A majority of the adjudicators felt that showing the employees confined on the rooftop was acceptable because they were visible to anyone in neighbouring high rises and it informed viewers that these individuals were at the moment safe and sound. Similarly, a majority found that the mention of the daycare’s location was appropriate since it informed people that the centre was secure and that parents should not come at that time.
The CBSC acknowledged that live coverage of this type of dangerous situation is challenging and requires spontaneous decisions on the part of the journalists. Nevertheless, those decisions must take into account the requirements of broadcast codes. LCN will be required to announce the CBSC decision twice on air.
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