Home > Comments, Ethics > Should newspapers use RCMP-supplied images and videos?

Should newspapers use RCMP-supplied images and videos?

March 25, 2011

I received the following email yesterday. I’ll post in full, then comment below. I’ve bolded certain portions.

There is a video currently live on the Burnaby Now’s website about the arrest by Burnaby RCMP of three suspects in a shooting earlier this week at Royal Oak SkyTrain station. It’s more than three minutes long, and lingers languidly on the blurred faces of the suspects, then follows right up until they’re brought into the cop shop for processing, access we would never get. The video is tagged with the usual driving.ca bumper ad at the beginning, but at no point during the video, or on the webpage presenting the video is it identified as being supplied by the Burnaby RCMP. In fact, the Now prominently links to the video on the front of their website, and tweeted incessantly about it Thursday morning, as if they were bequeathing their readers some sort of journalistic scoop.

An edited version of the same video also appears on the Province’s website, again with no attribution.
The other day, the Vancouver Sun’s website used still photo handouts from the RCMP of the same arrest going down. They were at least labelled as RCMP handouts, although that doesn’t absolve them.

It’s not the first time they’ve used photos identified as RCMP handout.

Of course, request RCMP-supplied photos or video of their officers shooting someone in South Surrey, and you’ll run into a stone wall.

Is this how bankrupt marginal staffing, reduced resources and diminished morale have made us, that we’re willing to accept handouts from the cops that amount to bumpf? Surely editors must see the peril of going down this road of abdicating our responsibility of being an impartial observer of police to ensure they remain accountable? We’re already struggling to cover them as it is, with more forces on digital radio systems that require expensive scanners or negotiations with the department to get access to a one-way radio that allows monitoring. The more we allow the police to control our access to observe and report their work, the more license they’ll take to further restrict our access; instead of keeping us one block from scenes, they’ll keep us back a kilometer and call our editors that they have photos and video they’ll gladly supply. And we wonder why journalists and the publications we work for are losing our audience.

We’re headed down a very dark path…

You can watch the video here, but be warned, it’s pretty boring.

There are a few issues at play here, and I’ll consider them separately.

1. First is the fact that the video isn’t identified as an RCMP video. It should be, for sure, but I have a hard time mustering that much outrage at the fact that it’s not. Indeed, I’m trying to remember if my own paper has identified RCMP-supplied footage as such. I can’t be sure. If we didn’t, we should have; it’s not hard to slide an attribution into the cutline so readers realize that the video was shot by, and for the purposes of, the RCMP.

2. The second issue is juicier.

Should media outlets stand up to the RCMP and declare that we’re not going to use their footage if we don’t get better access? Or should we simply not use footage, period?

That question revolves around whether The Province, Global and CTV get on board. They reach far more people than Burnaby Now or any other community paper. If The Province uses RCMP footage, then griping by a community newspaper journalist is going to fall on deaf ears.

I think the best argument is the one made at the end of the email ((FYI courtesy Kim Magi: email is now unhyphenated in the CP Stylebook); if we rely on RCMP footage, the cops have less reason to allow us near their scenes. Similarly, the better access we get, the less of a need for the RCMP video and images. So right now, they have very little motivation to not be so heavy-handed with photographers. Then there is the fact that, by outsourcing our coverage of breaking news, reporters and photographers become a little more expendable—which is not a good situation.

3. I’m not familiar with the difficulties the letter writer refers to as concerns the monitoring of emergency frequencies, so I’ll take his word for it.

4. There is one more issue: that of quality. The video is not extremely interesting. It certainly is less gripping than a single well-composed still photo would have been. A journalist would have done a better job. But a journalist, of course, would have been threatened with jail had he got that close.

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Categories: Comments, Ethics Tags: , , , ,
  1. Grumpy
    March 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    That appears to be “raw” pool-feed video that hasn’t been edited beyond arranging potentially useable clips together for recipients to re-cut (and presumably put a “courtesy RCMP” label when they do) so of course it’s boring.
    And it was shot widescreen but posted standard width which is why everybody looks skinny and squished.
    If we’re going to have a debate about using police-supplied video, we might also want to talk about processing it properly.

  2. Mile Hall
    March 27, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I have no problem posting RCMP video if we couldn’t be there. Also, access only seems to be an issue when guns are involved. Surely, though we must be aware of people trying to control the message.

  3. Anonymous
    March 25, 2011 at 11:29 am

    On top of all this, the faces of the suspects aren’t exactly blurred beyond recognition.

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