Tuesday, August 09, 2005

CBC Strikes Back

Dear CBC Ombudsman,

I am disappointed in the inconsistency of the CBC when it comes to
political labelling.

I just read today in the National Post of a CBC memo describing their
policy on politically neutral language, particular when using the word

Further, I read a story on the CBC web site today
which violated CBC's principles when it came to political labelling.

Here are the facts:

The CBC memo regarding the policy on reporting involving bombings and
using the word terrorism contains the following guidelines:

"[Terrorism is] a highly controversial term that can leave journalists
taking sides in a conflict.

Avoid labelling any specific bombing or other assault as a "terrorist
act" unless it's attributed (in a TV or Radio clip, or in a direct
quote on the Web).

By restricting ourselves to neutral language, we aren't faced with the
problem of calling one incident a "terrorist act" (e.g., the
destruction of the World Trade Center) while classifying another as,
say, a mere "bombing" (e.g., the destruction of a crowded shopping
mall in the Middle East).

Use specific descriptions. Instead of reaching for a label
("terrorist" or "terrorism") when news breaks, try describing what

The guiding principle should be that we don't judge specific acts as
"terrorism" or people as "terrorists." Such labels must be

CBC News editor-in-chief Tony Burman has said: "Our preference is to
describe the act or individual, and let the viewer or listener or
political representatives make their own judgment."

TODAY, I read a CBC story ("Bush nominates Supreme Court candidate"
which contained politically charged labelling without attribution of
the source of such a label by using the word "conservative" when
describing US Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. I would regard
using the word "conservative" to describe someone that is not a) a
republican party member or b) not a self-confessed conservative to be
politically charged, a private judgment, and highly bias.

"Conservative" is a VERY loaded word to describe someone, especially
a judge. Note that the CBC did NOT use the word "conservative" or
"liberal" to describe the recent appointments by PM Paul Martin to the
Canadian Supreme Court (see "Charron, Abella to fill Supreme Court
vacancies" http://www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2004/08/24/cotlersupreme040824.html).

The CBC report did not source the term "conservative" to any one "TV
or Radio clip, or in a direct quote on the Web" like the
politically-neutral language memo had suggested. See the end of this
email for the full story and headline on the main CBC site.

1. The sub-headline on CBC.ca and the first line of the story was as
follows: "President George W. Bush has confirmed that his first
nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court will be a conservative judge
from Washington." Here, there is no attribution to a source that
describes him as conservative. Proper headlines which attribute
labels will say something like "will be a conservative judge from
Washington, say Globe and Mail reporters."

2. The second line says he will be a "controversial" choice. There is
two problems with this. a) There is no attribution to a source which
says that this is "controversial" b) How would a reporter appear to
justify this use when he was confirmed to the US appeals court by a
unanimous vote. The reporter judged Roberts to be a "controversial"
choice based on his own judgement. This is in direct conflict with
CBC News preference " to describe the act or individual, and let the
viewer or listener or political representatives make their own
judgment." Note that not only ACTS are covered by this policy, but
also INDIVIDUALS. Roberts has been judged controversial by the CBC
WITHOUT ANY attribution to a source which labels him so, and WITHOUT
ANY facts that supports that judgment.

It appears that by virtue of his nomination by a Republican President
that CBC reporters deem it a fair judgement to call him
"conservative." This logic is pure rubbish: The last nominee for
Supreme Court justice, David Souter, has often been called a very
"liberal" choice via attributed quotes (not in the news text) (see
http://www.cnn.com/2005/POLITICS/07/04/scotus.bush.options.ap/ "When
the right looks at Judge Gonzales, they have tended to worry they are
getting another David Souter," Brad Berenson, a White House lawyer
during Bush's first term, said about how conservatives were
disappointed when Justice Souter sides with the court's more liberal

3. The story says this: "Roberts has been described as a rock solid
conservative." By who? a) There is no attribution to a "TV or Radio
clip, or in a direct quote on the Web" of this description. b) The
reporter is not letting people make judgments about an individual
based on his actions, record, or facts. There are plenty of web
sources describing his qualities as a person, his record as a judge,
and job performance as a lawyer. But none referenced, quoted, or
linked in this story.

I request that CBC publicly retract the story in question in a
prominent notice on the main (cbc.ca) page, where it was first seen by
all people.



To Jonathan:

Thank you for your e-mail of July 20 addressed to David Bazay, CBC Ombudsman. As you know Mr. Bazay asked CBC News Online Chief Producer Mary Sheppard to reply. Mary is currently on leave so I am writing to you on her behalf in my capacity as acting Chief.

You wrote to draw our attention to a CBC NEWS: ONLINE story concerning a United States Supreme Court nominee that you feel contained "politically charged labeling without attribution."

With respect, I disagree with your assessment. Allow me to explain why.

The CBC story, posted on July 20 under the headline, "Bush nominates Supreme Court candidate" began this way: "President George W. Bush has confirmed that his first nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court will be a conservative judge from Washington." You wrote that using "conservative" to describe a judge is a "very loaded word * politically charged, and highly bias[d]."

By most accounts John Roberts, the President's choice for the bench, is likeable, well qualified, and has won almost universal admiration for his eloquence during 39 appearances before that country's highest court. But even though he has practiced law in prominent positions for years, he has revealed little about his personal views on the controversial subjects often at the center of confirmation battles. Certainly, there seems to be no evidence that he holds the right-wing extremist views left-wing activists were expecting in the President's nominee.

That said, there is no doubt that he is a conservative. The New York Times described him as having "impeccable Republican credentials." He began his public career in the Reagan administration in 1981as an aide to the Attorney General, he was named an associate Whitehouse council, then Deputy Solicitor General and was eventually appointed to the District of Columbia appeals court by George Bush's father. Through that time, he has been active in the Federalist Society, the conservative lawyers group. So, to describe him conservative, I think, is fair enough.

Under CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices journalists are free to make judgment calls. In other words, they are free to reach conclusions on their own based on facts. That was the case here. I should also point out that it was a judgment widely shared by other media.

You also drew our attention to the use of the word "controversial," pointing out that in the story he was judged to be controversial "without any attribution" of the word and "without any facts that support that judgment."

The second paragraph of the story said, "Appeals Court judge John G. Roberts is Bush's choice, a selection which will be a controversial choice." To be controversial, the choice would have to be debatable or disputatious. And in light of the Senate confirmation process there is little doubt it will be that. The two sides have been preparing for this battle for months, both setting up war rooms to spearhead their efforts. Within hours after the announcement, the Democratic Party had sent out three pages of talking points that described Judge Roberts as partisan and a friend to big business and the mining industry. Liberal groups have branded him a right wing ideologue, suggesting that he would "overturn" the ruling on abortion. So, again, there is ample reason to make the judgment that the choice is controversial, even though the reasons for reaching that judgment were not included in this story.

As I wrote to you in June last year following a very similar complaint the space available for stories in all news media is limited and as a result reporters have to telescope a lot of information into a few words. Even complex events and their significance must be conveyed quickly and clearly and, of course, fairly. Inevitably, some things are left out, but that does not mean the story is biased. Additional information might have been covered in previous stories or may well be picked up in future ones, but one story cannot reasonably be expected to encompass all the information available.

Finally, I want to assure you that the CBC prides itself on the excellence of its journalism. We take very seriously any assertion that our journalism is inaccurate, biased or unfair, or in any way fails to meet the rigorous criteria set out in the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. Where criticisms are justified, we take immediate corrective action.

Thank you again for your e-mail. I hope my reply has addressed your concerns.

Finally, it is my responsibility to inform you that if you are not satisfied with this response, you may wish to submit the matter for review by the CBC Ombudsman, Mr. David Bazay. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body reporting directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance with the CBC's journalistic policies. Mr. Bazay may be reached by mail at the address shown below, or by fax at (416) 205-2825, or by e-mail at ombudsman@cbc.ca

Yours sincerely,

Lisa Khoo,
Acting Chief Producer


Blair said...

I think that I would have to agree with Jonathan in this situation. Jonathan's complaint seemed specifically against the inconsistency of CBC journalism. The responding letter does much to dull the edge of Jonathan's blade, but, in my opinion, the dagger still splits skin.

In the letter to Jonathan Ms. Khoo said "Under CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices journalists are free to make judgment calls." Which makes me wonder why, as Jonathan observed, the CBC News editor-in-chief Tony Burman would say: "Our preference is to describe the act or individual, and let the viewer or listener or
political representatives make their own judgment."

Why would the CBC both secure the right to 'judge based on facts' and promote an image of objective reporting (allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions)? Simply because then they can avoid criticism from all sides if a story is reported poorly.

Jonathan's criticism of the CBC still stands. Perhaps it is debatable whether the terms 'conservative' and 'controversial' are terms that impose an unfair judgement, or whether they are terms that are universally understood to be objective and 'journalistic' in nature. But, I suppose it doesn't really matter what the case is; either way the CBC is standing by its principles as a journalistic institution seeking excellence in its art. It is easy to be excellent when, by definition, there is no such thing as failure. In this case, journalistic integrity should contain a sub-clause of consistency in perspective and acknowledged limitations in the field.

Ade said...

This is very weak reasoning on your part. "Terrorist" and "conservative" are not even remotely comparable in terms of controversy. At least one person who blogs here previously ran a blog called "The Canadian Conservative". In contrast, I think you would find it difficult to find a blog run by someone calling themselves "The Canadian Terrorist", except perhaps in an ironic or satirical way. Or perhaps you can point out a Canadian political party called "The Progressive Terrorist Party".

Jonathan said...

The issue is the underlying reasoning behind why the CBC refuses to use the word "terrorist." The same reasoning makes it hard to justify the term "conservative" without any facts to back it up. And if you read the article, there are no no no facts. It doesnt matter if subsequent findings give cause to calling him a "conservative." It is the mere instance of labelling him that by very virtue of the fact that he was nominated by Bush.

Otherwise, the reporter is free to make judgments about whatever he wants without limitation.