An ethical dilemma?

March 12, 2010

It was my first day on the job.

Last March, I had a two-week internship at the Globe and Mail in Vancouver. My first assignment was to zip out to Burnaby to a data security firm.
Days before, 25-year-old Adam Smolcic had allegedly witnessed the shooting of a 58-year-old homeless man by two rookie Vancouver police officers. According to police, the officers shot the man after a confrontation escalated in downtown Vancouver. After being approached by the police, the man pulled out a box-cutting knife and began advancing. After repeated warnings, police had shot the man, who became unresponsive at the scene.

Smolcic claimed he had filmed the incident with his cellphone. His version of the story did not mesh with the official police account. He claimed:

  1. Multiple gunshots (police claimed one).
  2. That the victim “did not make any aggressive movements” towards the officers (police said he advanced).
  3. Shortly after the shooting, Smolcic was allegedly confronted by a police officer who asked to see his phone.
  4. The officer looked at the phone for a minute, pressed some buttons, handed it back and told Smolcic to get lost.
  5. The officer had allegedly erased four minutes of crucial video evidence.

With a lawyer from the BC Civil Liberties Association, Smolcic had arranged a news conference at the security firm to submit the phone to attempt data recovery.

It was a potentially huge story. On the heels of cellphone footage of the Robert Dziekanski incident, police brutality was firmly implanted in the public mind. The victim was an elderly man with history of alcohol abuse, but not violence. More disturbing than bad judgment, however, was the possibility an officer willfully covered evidence.

It also fell into a category of speculation. The footage was potentially incriminating, and only potentially recoverable, while the source was somewhat dubious.  Smolcic didn’t exactly fit the profile of an ideal witness (that’s him on the right. See his blog here). Although articulate, he was, by his own reckoning,  a “reverend” (no religious affiliation given) and “marijuana activist” whose main source of income “making t-shirts.”

It didn’t completely add up, either. As the Dziekanski case had shown, it might be easier to retain and withhold evidence of wrongdoing rather than damage it. Smolcic’s actions, meanwhile, weren’t in line with what you might expect after such a confrontation. For one, he had jeopardized any recoverable data by using the phone multiple times after the incident. Whether anything was recoverable was pure speculation. I had my doubts.

Shortly after the news conference ended and scrumming began, I found myself in the crossfire in an all-out scream-fest between two local television reporters. One had spoken to Smolcic before, promising to pay for any data recovery fees in exchange for exclusive rights to air the video. The second reporter cried foul over who should get the recovered video, saying they would pay part of the fees for an equal share. The two squawked at each other while leaving the room.

With all the made-for-TV ego and tension still wafting in the room, I deadpanned, “It’s my first day on the job.”

The remaining reporters laughed sympathetically.

The story ended up fizzling. The data recovery process was unsuccessful despite several attempts. Abbotsford Police cleared the officers and recommended public mischief charges against Smolcic. Finally, two samples of surveillance footage were released, contradicting Smolcic’s account and  vindicating the official account.

VPD chief Jim Chu later criticized some media outlets for their lack of “critical analysis” in repeating the accusation, needlessly jeopardizing the already tenuous relationship between the police and the DTES. Whether or not footage was erased will never be known, but Smolcic’s credibility was critically damaged.

It was my first day, but I knew key ethical issues had been raised. The first was news judgment. As Chu later argued, the story was questionable and potentially damaging to the officers and the force as a whole. Herd instinct was evident: most outlets went ahead and reported the explosive allegations.

A second issue was the credibility of the witness. Even if Smolcic’s allegations weren’t exactly beyond scrutiny, how would you indicate that to an audience without unfairly maligning him? I worried about presenting Smolcic as a stereotype. He may have been telling the truth.

In my own article, I tempered the allegations by bumping up counter evidence near the top of the story. I mentioned the dispute in the second paragraph, brought up the police version of events in the third, before finally telling Smolcic’s version as neutrally as possible.

While the police might have been upset, media outlets made the right choice to cover the story. The VPD is very careful to control its image, skilfully channeling information through its communications department. The possibility that excessive force may have been used in this confrontation was certainly worth repeating out of concern for public interest and for the truth (as it was available at the time), and the police were given the chance to respond to the allegations (they declined).

A more pressing ethical issue, however, was the willingness of the local TV stations to pay for exclusive footage. No one had earned an exclusive story and the story depended on public interest. Buying footage didn’t just set a dangerous precedent, it exposed the true motives of much news-gathering: to win viewers at the cost of the public.

This wasn’t your $100 “eyewitness” footage of an accident or a fire, it was potential footage of police wrongdoing. The dubiousness of the source made the issue of paying for news that much more troubling. The reporters weren’t just giving someone the benefit of the doubt without the discipline of verification, they were creating a scenario that encouraged and rewarded spurious allegations.

Thankfully, my second day on the job was uneventful.


One comment

  1. No Charges were ever laid because there was no evidence to charge me although the vpd’s smear artists did thyre job well.

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