CBC Ombudsman decision notes ‘growing pain’ of multimedia journalism, concern about use of anonymous statements

CBC’s Ombudsman ruled that a CBC story on the elimination of non-Christian prison chaplains violated its Journalistic Standards and Practices policy—specifically the section that “calls for accurate presentation of information and the clearest possible production of content”—in its quoting of a gov

CBC’s Ombudsman ruled that a CBC story on the elimination of non-Christian prison chaplains violated its Journalistic Standards and Practices policy—specifically the section that “calls for accurate presentation of information and the clearest possible production of content”—in its quoting of a government official. The story was posted on CBCnews.ca Oct. 4 and had the word “Christian” added to a quote in square brackets, and this “did not accurately reflect the intent of the statement,” wrote Kirk LaPointe in the review of the story.

It was later removed and Lapointe ruled that CBC satisfied the online policy for corrections and clarifications since information “believed to be true at the time of publication can be updated as CBC News sees fit.” As well, he said in the review that the effect of the story, in itself, would have prompted further media coverage even if the word “Christian” was not added to the official’s quote in square brackets. (The ensuing coverage was a factor in the complaint to the ombudsman.)

In addition, LaPointe concluded the mistake was a “growing pain of fledgling multimedia journalism,” due to the fact it likely occurred because of the process involved.

In short: The reporter prepared a draft script for a television graphic that included the word Christian in square brackets, based on information CBC had at the time. Later in the day, CBC received new information and the word was removed from the final version of the script. However, the online writer had prepared the story based on the draft script. The story, published Oct. 4, was corrected Oct. 5 (Lapointe’s review describes the process in greater detail).

On quoting spokespeople anonymously

Though it wasn’t an issue directly related to the story, LaPointe concluded the review by stating his concern about email interviews that become anonymous sources, citing “journalistic policy compels CBC to make every effort to identify interview subjects.” He said the impact of anonymous statements from the government “is a diminution of journalistic service and independence and a weakening of the public record.” LaPointe said it was not a violation of journalistic policy since it was made clear it was a statement from the public safety minister’s department, but that “there is room for improvement in this practice to minimize anonymous provision of information that would not be considered sensitive, classified or the material of traditional anonymous sources.”

There had been discussion about spokespeople being quoted anonymously over the summer when New York Times writer David Seagal tried to contact a company for comment, but the public relations representative wanted to be known simply as “a spokesperson.” Seagal’s response was that a “spokesperson — a person who speaks for a living — who wants to be anonymous” sounds ridiculous.

Steve Buttry, an editor at Digital First Media, agreed that spokespeople should be named, and the bar should be set high for confidentiality. Buttry went on to list reasons why he cares about the issue—mainly because trust is lost when spokespeople aren’t named—and also listed criteria for granting anonymity to sources.

Andrew Beaujon wrote in Poynter that “often spokespeople demand to be off the record even when you’re calling about nuts-and-bolts, utterly mind-numbing factual matters.” That appears to be the case for at least some of the government official’s comments in the CBC article.

The article, Non-Christian prison chaplains chopped by Ottawa, originally quoted anonymous source Julie Carmicheal—director of communications for public safety minister Vic Toews’—as follows:

The minister has concluded . . . [Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”

Lapointe provided the actual quote from Carmichael’s email to CBC News:

“The Minister has concluded his review and has decided that chaplains employed by CSC must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”

As LaPointe noted, the word “Christian” was not mentioned at all in the email exchange.

Timeline of the case

October 5: Carmichael followed up with an email complaint to CBC News stating that the report was not accurate, and that the addition of the word “Christian” significantly changed the meaning of her quote, and constituted an unethical practice by CBC News.

CBC did not immediately fix the problem, and only did so after Carmicheal complained again, Lapointe said in his report. This correction was added to the end of the article:

October 9: CBC Nova Scotia ran a follow-up story on the chaplain cuts, which had the following sentence: But a spokesperson for Toews [Carmichael] called the original report on the cuts to chaplains misleading.

October 11: Carmicheal wrote to the CBC’s Office of the Ombudsman stating that the correction to the original article was not sufficient, adding that “countless” other media outlets also reported that all non-Christian chaplains were being cut, using the CBC article as a source.

October 15: CBC Vancouver news director Wayne Williams writes to Carmichael, apologizing for the “inaccurate information” in the story, and the “delay in correcting it.” He explained that the story was originally written as a draft for broadcast—the final version did not have the word “Christian” in it—and the online writer sourced information from the draft version.

October 23: Carmichael requests a review from the CBC ombudsman, stating, “Such  practices undermine the ability of the public to trust CBC as a news organization,” and that “an obscure correction box will not fix” how the story affected political discourse. She states the need for a correction to have the same weight as political coverage. 

The corrections, as they appear on the article on Nov 9: