You would be forgiven for missing this story, curiously buried in the back pages of Saturday’s papers: a Vancouver talk radio station has been slapped on the wrist and forced to apologize by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for broadcasting the location of people inside Dawson College during the Sept. 13, 2006 shootings.
Here’s the story:
On the afternoon of Sept. 13, as media around the world began to clue in that a school shooting was in progress at Dawson, Vancouver’s CKNW News Talk 980 broke into its morning show (they’re three hours behind, remember) to pick up a live feed from Montreal’s 940 News. Both stations are owned by Corus.
Like every other media outlet in Montreal, 940 was desperately trying to get information on what was going on. The police didn’t know how many shooters there were or where they were or anything else. So the media filled their otherwise dead air with rampant speculation. There were four gunmen. They were shooting up Alexis Nihon. All sorts of stuff.
Fortunately in this age, everyone has a cellphone. And though the cell sites around Dawson were saturated, some calls got through. And among those were calls to the radio stations from students inside Dawson.
One of those was a girl named Sannah, who told 940 she was in a lab on the 7th floor with 30 other students. Then there was Dahlia, who 940 said was on the 3rd floor. After the interviews, host Michael Dean repeated their locations in a summary of what was going on.
There are a couple of ways of looking at this. On one hand, announcing (and repeating) the locations of people hiding from a gunman on the air can be seen as mind-numbingly stupid, allowing a loose gunman to find sitting ducks by listening to the radio. On the other hand (and this was the station’s argument) that same information would also be helpful to police to find them first.
Of course, a call to 911 would have had those advantages without the drawbacks. Whether they couldn’t get through to 911 or whether the police already knew of their locations isn’t clear.
And, we should also mention, all of this is sort of a moot point. By the time anyone was talking on the radio, Kimveer Gill was dead, and he wasn’t listening to the radio. So this is really just an academic argument.
Nevertheless, the British Columbia regional panel of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council concluded that the Vancouver station was in violation of a Radio Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics article which is surprisingly on point:
Reporting on criminal activities such as hostage-takings, prison uprisings or terrorist acts will be done in a fashion that does not knowingly endanger lives, offer comfort and support or provide vital information to the perpetrator(s). RTNDA members will contact neither victims nor perpetrators of a criminal activity during the course of the event for the purpose of conducting an interview that would interfere with a peaceful resolution.
Now, some logicians and common-sensers in the audience out there might be asking themselves: Why are we talking about a Vancouver radio station? Why isn’t this applying to 940 News?
Because nobody complained about 940 News.
Unfortunately for the CBSC, someone has to file a complaint against a station before they can act. Even if they find evidence of wrongdoing, they can’t take action. The ruling made mention of this:
[The panel] also observes that it would have been pertinent to apply its conclusions to CINW-AM [940 News], the Corus sister station in Montreal, as well as to any other Corus stations running the challenged portion of the live feed. The CBSC’s procedures do not, however, permit such a conclusion. In the circumstances, no complaint having been received from a Montreal listener, the Panel confines the requirements of its conclusions to the Corus Vancouver station, with respect to which it did receive the complaint with which this decision has dealt. Moreover, since all CBSC members are bound by the principles established in all CBSC decisions, the Panel recognizes that the reach of the conclusions will mandate the application of the principles established here in all Corus and other broadcaster newsrooms.
I’m at a loss to figure out what part of this story boggles the mind more.