On November 20, ABC television news ran a report from its Washington correspondent, Kathryn Diss, on the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, charged with the murder of two men in a street altercation. As is common with Ms Diss’s reports, her account was emotionally charged, stressing division and going to some lengths to imply, from her selection of street comment, that the jury got it wrong. There was much in her piece to object to, but I chose to complain only about the throwaway editorialising with which she concluded:
“The justice system continues to favour those holding the gun.”
ABC reporters increasingly begin and/or end their stories with summary comments which colour the story emotionally or politically, or both. This is in breach of Editorial Guidelines (as well as good journalistic practice). Overseas correspondents are especially prone to using this technique to colour their stories.
Some three weeks later – remarkably swiftly – came this response from Audience and Consumer Affairs. I give it in full because, undoubtedly unthinkingly, my ABC interlocutor, Kirstin McLeish, has revealed the duplicity of her “independent” section, dedicated to the defense of everything the ABC broadcasts no matter how wrong.
Your email has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content making areas within the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards. These standards are explained in the ABC Code of Practice which is available here – http://about.abc.net.au/reports-publications/code-of-practice/.
We have reviewed the story. It was introduced as follows:
‘The US President Joe Biden is calling for calm after a teenager was sensationally acquitted in a shooting case which has split America. The jury agreed that 18 year old Kyle Rittenhouse acted in self defence when he shot and killed two men during racial justice protests last year. He’s tonight a free man but there are some who believe the verdict could lead to more people taking the law into their own hands’.
It featured footage of the moment the jury’s decision was delivered and the reaction of Mr Rittenhouse and his legal team, as well as comments from Mr Rittenhouse’s lawyer and footage of Mr Rittenhouse speaking approvingly of the jury’s decision. It included footage of the protest at which the two men were killed and identified the event that immediately gave rise to it – the police shooting of black man Jacob Blake. It also presented the views of some people who objected to the jury’s finding and the way the case was run. The reporter said:
‘The case was divisive. By the law, the evidence shown in court demonstrated Karl Rittenhouse acted in self defence. What the verdict doesn’t do is satisfy demands that vigilante behaviour be held to account. And again sparks debate over who should be able to carry a gun on American streets’
The report then featured footage of the girlfriends of the two men killed. One said
‘He’s dead, and the system is telling me that nobody needs to answer for that’.
The other said
‘The victims’ lives don’t matter and I don’t think that that’s acceptable’.
Parents of one of the men killed had released a statement saying they were ‘heartbroken and angry’ and labelling the acquittal a miscarriage of justice. The report also included the reaction of Jacob Blake’s family who said that the trial wasn’t conducted fairly. Jacob Blake’s uncle said:
‘I’m not so surprised because in this city my nephew was shot seven times in the back and no charges were ever levelled. You have to understand from day one the judge had his hand on the scale’.
It included footage of President Biden who did not repeat his previous comments likening Karl Rittenhouse to white supremacists and who said:
‘I stand by what the jury has concluded. The jury system works and we have to abide by it’.
The report concluded with footage of people on the street reacting angrily to the verdict. The reporter said:
‘Emotions are running high on America’s streets as the country finds itself again questioning the inequities of the criminal justice system, and how it continues to favour those holding the gun’.
We are unable to agree with your view that the reporter’s closing statement advanced a personal view about guns or gun laws which contravened the ABC’s editorial standards. In context, viewers would have understood her statement to be reflecting the anger of those shown on screen at that moment – people on an American street reacting to the verdict. Those shown were clearly dissatisfied with this result from the criminal justice system. In the context of this story, those ‘holding the gun’ who the reporter described as favoured by the criminal justice system were Karl Rittenhouse – who the jury found had acted lawfully in self-defence – and police officers who had shot Jacob Blake several times in the back and faced no criminal charges.
The reporter’s statement conveyed that a perception that different people unfairly receive different treatment under the criminal justice system had not been quelled by the decision in this case. This conclusion was duly impartial, supported by the content of the story, and did not unduly favour one perspective over another. The report did not breach editorial standard 1.1.
To the extent that your complaint relates to compliance with the ABC’s impartiality standards, should you remain dissatisfied you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, www.acma.gov.au.
Audience and Consumer Affairs was unable to agree. So that was it! And its assumption that what people might have understood from the report justified Diss’s gratuitous and biased summary comment.
The Parliament must make another attempt to investigate the ABC complaints process; the defeat of Senator Bragg’s inquiry must not be left to history.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC reporter, foreign correspondent and news editor for twenty-six years