Credibility gap

As details emerge in the story of Allan Schoenborn, a suspect in the slaying of his three children in Merritt, B.C., the initial coverage of the case  looks more and more bizarre. Reporters from throughout Canada and internationally have converged on the small town  — as is usual with an emotional and hot story. But in this case, I think the abundance of errors, the readiness to quote sources who were later proved wrong, and the level of second-guessing the police, even by Canada’s “quality” media, amount to an embarrassment for our craft. If a researcher wanted to take it on, I think it would be an interesting academic case study.

Some off-the-cuff  examples:

The first reports said the children’s mother had popped out to a store, and found her children slaughtered when she returned. Neighbours were quoted as saying they’d seen her walking down the street and back. Later reports suggested the children had been left alone for the weekend with the father and, when found by police, may have been dead for much longer than the few minutes cited in early reports.

Many media outlets ran a story front page with screaming headlines, about how a woman in a story in an Okanagan town had seen Schoenborn, called the police, and the police failed to respond. There were several stories about the police reacting to this apparent failture; the implication was the RCMP screwed up and their man got away. Later reports showed that Schoenborn never left the immediate area.

The dramatic portrayal of Schoenborn’s capture by a local hunter was in my opinion the most egregious example of shoddy reporting. Early reports suggested that Kim Robinson, a local hunter portrayed in the media as a hero for the feat, tracked down a dangerous criminal after the RCMP proved to be incompetent. Reports said Robinson’s dog chewed off part of Schoenborn’s arm in the capture. Reports said Robinson had been tied to a tree at gunpoint. Contrast all that to the latest reports suggested that Schoenborn, after 10 days in the bush and suffering from cuts on his wrist, hunger and exposure, was a pathetic creature who stumbled out of the woods near a road. Pat McCoy, a local man walking his dog, spotted him, happened to mention it to the “hero hunter,” and the “hero hunter” eventually turned him over to the RCMP. Here’s an excerpt from an April 22 CP story about how McCoy found Schoenborn:

“Mr. McCoy saw a frail-looking man, curled up, trying to keep warm. He recognized him as Allan Schoenborn, 40, the prime suspect in the triple slayings of his three children in Merritt more than a week before.

“I saw him and I went to get help,” Mr. McCoy said.

He just happened to flag down Kim Robinson, a local hunter who had been out with a shotgun over one shoulder and his dog by his side, tracking Mr. Schoenborn on his own for more than a week.

“I found Robinson walking down the road and I showed him where [Schoenborn] was,” Mr. McCoy said.

Mr. Schoenborn hadn’t been seen after the bodies of his three children – Kaitlynne, 10, Max, 8, and Cordon, 5 – were found by their mother in the family home on April 6, 10 days earlier.

Mr. Robinson called police and kept an eye on Mr. Schoenborn until police arrived a few minutes later. He has said Mr. Schoenborn was in no shape to resist capture.”

The above description is a far cry from the dangerous criminal portrayed as a bogeyman on the loose potentially anywhere in Canada, or the dangerous outlaw tracked down by a hero hunter in the face of police incompetence.

I did not cover this story and I’ll readily admit that I don’t know if, in the heat of the moment and on hard deadlines, my reports would have been more accurate. I do know very well, from covering breaking major news, how difficult it is to get at the facts and how easy it is to be caught up in a pack mentality. Also, some of the errors in the breaking story are likely due to the use of community sources
quoted by reporters — people who were either misguided or so caught up
in the drama they would make bizarre, seemingly unfounded statements to reporters, such as (in a solid CP story that reported on earlier misinformation): “The bloodhounds got him, just about chewed his arm off.”  And there’s a question about whether the RCMP could have been more forthcoming; part of the problems with inaccurate information in many past police stories were caused by the police being unnecessarily tight-lipped or antagonistic to journalists (as in Cst. John Ward’s infamous comment, “The public doesn’t have a right to know anything,”) and the lack of trust between the police and journalists (as in the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski) or the RCMP censorship of its Taser report.)

But even with the above qualifiers, I wonder if in the Schoenborn/Merritt story journalists could
have been more professional. It matters, for reasons that include our credibility, and also our access to sources the next time a big story breaks. We journalists have only our integrity to argue our case when  challenged, as were reporters in this case by the mayor of Merritt.