A new framework agreed to by Alberta’s police chiefs which could limit the frequency of naming homicide victims is raising questions from those who represent Canada’s broadcast and digital journalists.
“We believe the name should be released, whether it’s a homicide victim or a fatal accident victim, because it is in the public interest to release those names,” said Kym Geddes, vice president of membership and bylaws for the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) Canada. “We think for a police force to withhold them is unreasonable.”
On Wednesday, the Alberta Association of Police Chiefs released a new policy framework acknowledging the release of a homicide victim’s name is an infringement of the deceased’s privacy under current law. The chiefs issued the directive that in order for a name to be released going forward, a number of criteria must be met in order to ensure the violation of privacy is defendable.
“Some of the scenarios in this case-by-case basis, in Alberta, are already in play anyway,” Geddes said. “If the family ask that the name not be released, families already have that right and do that now and police respect that. We’ve had many occasions here in Toronto where the family has said, ‘Sorry, we are dealing with this awful scenario,’ and then the police tell us that and we back down.
“Broadcast journalists and any journalists follow a code of ethics in the work that we do. If a police force says to release the name of a homicide victim or any other kind of victim that will jeopardize our investigation presently, then that’s fair and we understand that.”
Geddes said police choosing to release a name can be a useful tool in diffusing speculation about whether the public is in danger, and providing clarity on details which might otherwise be erroneous, on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
“We had an example here early this week, where we had a murder-suicide (in Toronto),” Geddes said. “The victim was a six-year-old boy. Toronto police released the name of that six-year-old boy and his father. Why? Because it diffused the situation and it didn’t trigger more press questions.
This isn’t the first time RTDNA Canada has opposed police restrictions on naming victims. In 2015, the organization voiced its concern over an RCMP policy to not release names of homicide victims or the names of those involved in accidents.
“The policy to withhold names may foster misinformation and fetter journalists’ ability to gather credible and accurate details of a story that is in the public interest,” said Ian Koenigsfest, president of RTDNA Canada.
Geddes said the decision by Alberta police chiefs to work on a case-by-case basis to determine the release of names is equal to putting editorial control of the news in the hands of law enforcement.
“We work in tandem with each other on these stories,” she said. “But for the police to have full control in terms of them deciding that privacy trumps public interest, I think that’s dangerous.”
Global News and News Talk 770 are members of RTDNA Canada.