Yesterday’s observations on the mass murder at Virginia Tech included a postcript, in which I flagged an editorial by Tony Burman, Editor In Chief of CBC News, which includes news, current affairs and Newsworld. That item prompted an interview with Burman, who is in charge of editorial content on radio, television and the Internet.
In October of 2006, Burman wrote an editorial about the murder of five Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania. But the editorial could easily have been written yesterday about the tragic events in Blacksburg, Virginia. For the most part, Burton’s points were similar to those expressed by me in yesterday’s post.
In his editorial, Burman wrote that there were similarities between the Pennsylvania killings and other recent murderous deeds, enough to cause “considerable soul-searching in many newsrooms about what role the media are playing in these incidents.”
Burman quoted Prof. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and a specialist in personality theory, who believes that some people who commit these acts are seeking “post-crime notoriety.” Jordan told Burman that “idle speculation” by the media has no basis in fact and simply “glorifies” the act.
Peterson’s prescription is for “media to turn off the oxygen” by not naming the killers, or showing their photographs, and not reporting on their writings or motivations.
Interesting words indeed, coming from the most senior journalist in the CBC. After reading Burman’s column, I emailed him a note, asking for an interview. My key question: how have yesterday’s events affected his opinion – and CBC policy – on this issue? To my surprise, he called me the same afternoon.
“It’s such an awful event but one, as you pointed out in your piece, that is becoming so familiar in our culture,” Burman said “Like all news organizations, we’re trying to think through how we handle these things. In terms of your question, regarding what evolution there has been in that awful period since Dawson College and the Amish killings, there are certain things that are different for us at CBC now. Our focus is overwhelmingly on the victims… we’re trying to bring their stories to life in a way that I don’t think we have done in the past.”
So far, Burman said, CBC hasn’t included a picture of the killer on the web site and only “a couple of discrete mentions” have been made of his name.
“I think that was an issue. I know the argument, and you make it very compellingly as does Jordan Peterson and others. But I think that in the fullness of our coverage, we haven’t figured out a rationale for us to go throughout our comprehensive coverage without mentioning a name because I think a lot of people come to us to at least get a sense of who it might be. But I think we are incredibly conscious now of not doing anything inadvertently that tends to glorify him or his actions, or get into the realm of dime-store psychology about his motivation when all of us know so little about what actually went on.”
While I applauded Burman for the wisdom in CBC’s approach, I noted that the big networks in the United States are not about to change their policies anytime soon. It’s a highly competitive business and you can bet that hundreds of reporters are scrambling at this moment to come up with every shred of information they can about the killer.
“It’s interesting because in our daily meeting today I actually made that point,” Burman said. “I said we can’t be like the American networks because they are going to go to town on it, because that is… the competitive edge among all these fighting news channels. There is a lot of rumour out there, and so much stuff that gets circulated, but I think the so-called ‘established media’ has to separate the real from the unreal. I think history will judge us far from perfect on this one, but I think our coverage of this will be far more restrained and hopefully illuminating than perhaps it would have been a year ago.”
I asked Burman to speculate on the chances that his view and that of the CBC might someday gain traction south of the border. However, he is not optimistic on this point.
“I was having this discussion with somebody about gun control. The British coverage of this story has focused on the prevalence of guns, particularly in the Virginia area, and I think that’s a Canadian observation as well. But I am told that the so-called gun issue on a lot of the American networks is not that there should be more gun control, but why weren’t all the students and teachers armed to protect themselves? So I think there is no reason to expect that things are going to change there necessarily… I think this discussion is so incredibly valuable because it’s not the thing that everybody is going to focus on, but in some ways is one of the most important aspects of it.”
One final note: yesterday’s post drew a wave of interest from surfers the world over. It started when someone posted a link to this blog at www.reddit.com, a user driven site wherein visitors browse links and click those that interest them. Links are ranked by visitors and listed in descending order of popularity. For much of the day, the link to this blog held in the top 40, which is something of an achievement given that links are added to the site continuously. At last count, I had received more than 1,000 unique visitors, all originating from reddit.com.
It's safe to say, therefore, that Americans are very interested in this discussion.