CBC Ombudsman: The wrong place at the wrong time: Reporting on crime
By Esther Enkin, for the CBC
The complainant, Suzanne Maloney, thought this was an inappropriate turn of phrase to use when referring to the stabbing of a woman on the streets of Montreal. She thought it implied that the victim was to blame. I disagreed, because both in common usage and in the context of the story it was clear the reference was to the completely random nature of the crime.
You were concerned that the report of a crime in Montreal made it sound as if the victim, a woman, was to blame for the incident. The piece, “Police say Monkland Ave. stabbing was random act of violence”, was published on the Montreal CBC News website in late January. The report was about a young woman who had been attacked while walking home late at night from the Metro. You were disgusted by the fact that the police used the phrase “in the wrong place at the wrong time” in describing the crime, and you explained why:
Such a mindless and useless choice of words suggests that it is her fault that she got stabbed. So if that is the way the police see this incident and CBC regards it as worth reporting in this way, then maybe the CBC can inform the women of Montreal as to where and when the police of Montreal think women can circulate where they are in the right place at the right time.
You questioned the police using this phrase, asking, “Why was she ‘at the wrong place at the wrong time’? Is that place forbidden to women at that time of day?” You suggested the reporter should have challenged the police officer to clarify what he meant by that phrase. You thought the officer was implying that this was a dangerous part of town and that women should avoid the area.
You pointed out that stabbings that had been reported a few days earlier in a different part of the city were not reported in the same fashion:
What I see is that only a day or so earlier CBC reported that there were stabbings in the Montreal district of Villeray and it appears that no one there was in the “wrong place at the wrong time”, nor does it appear that any of them were women. So we can therefore conclude that men can be anywhere and get stabbed because they are members of “street gangs”. But, if it’s a woman who is stabbed she is simply “at the wrong place at the wrong time”.
The Managing Editor of CBC News in Quebec, Helen Evans, responded to your complaint. She explained the context of the story. She said that any time there is a stabbing in Montreal it is a news story, as it is a “rare event” and raises fears until a perpetrator is caught. People want to know why a crime happened so they might understand if they are at risk. She explained there was another element to this particular incident:
But this was a very big story not only for those reasons, but because it took place in NDG and community religious leaders quickly identified the victim as Jewish, which raised the question of whether the attack was planned and anti-Semitic.
Perhaps to allay those fears, Montreal police were quick to assure the city that the woman was not attacked because of her religion. The story quoted police as saying “it appears to be a random act of violence”. And that was the way we began our story.
She explained the way the story was framed was to underline that this was a random act, that there was no apparent motive, and the perpetrator and victim did not know each other. It is in this context that the constable was quoted as saying “the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time”:
In saying the victim was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, Const. Leclerc was simply emphasizing the crime’s random nature. It’s a phrase commonly used by police to suggest the victim was just unlucky, not that she or he had done anything wrong or that it was the victim’s “fault”. Indeed, the phrase is used and widely understood to mean just the opposite.
Continue reading this story on the CBC website where it was first published.