CBC ombudsman: No bias in headline about Justin Trudeau’s speaking fees

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Jon Melanson, thought the wording of a headline indicated CBC was taking the side of the Liberal party. The story involved a controversy over Justin Trudeau and his acceptance of speaking fees from not for profit organizations. The Conservative premier of Saskatchewan weighed in on the story, prompting a rebuttal from the Liberal Party of Canada. The headline in question focused on the rebuttal, not the criticism. While it may have not been the most elegant headline ever written, it was not inaccurate and the story was balanced.


In June of this year, a controversy emerged over Justin Trudeau and a speaking fee he accepted from a New Brunswick-based charity. The charity had asked for the money back because they had lost money on the event. But the story also involved questions about the Prime Minister’s office leaking the request, and how it was characterized. In fact the charity involved, the Grace Foundation, was quoted as saying it was “distressed” that the whole thing went public. For a few days, all sides sought to make political hay with accusations coming from both sides of the House.

While the story originated with a charity on the east coast, a Saskatchewan angle emerged. Not long after the story broke, the premier of Saskatchewan, Brad Wall, called on Trudeau to return the fee he had received a year before from a Saskatoon-based literacy group. It was around this turn of events you felt CBC had been biased in an online story. The headline did not focus on what Brad Wall had said, but rather on the response from a Liberal spokesman to the Wall statement. The headline was “Brad Wall accused of smearing Justin Trudeau.” You thought this showed that CBC News was siding with the Liberals: “With this headline, the CBC obviously sides with the Liberal Party by focusing on the ‘smearing’ rather than the original reason for Mr. Wall’s comments in the first place.” You felt the headline should have emphasized Mr. Wall’s position and his criticism of Mr. Trudeau.

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The Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, responded to your concerns. She explained that “in the speeded up news cycle these days, readers expect to find up-to-the-minute information on the stories they are interested in.” The Liberal response to the Wall statement was the latest news by the time writers in Saskatchewan got around to the story. The decision was to write the story when there was a further development. “CBCnews.ca regularly updates developing stories with new information as it becomes available,” she explained. She went on to explain the sequence of events, and the new material, including another conversation with Premier Wall, that went into the story:

By mid-afternoon, the Liberal Party responded by issuing a statement quoting Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc saying, ‘Premier Wall needs to immediately apologize for this smear’. The Trudeau campaign raised millions of dollars, he said, all personal donations, all disclosed and all in accordance with the elections law.

CBC News in Saskatchewan, which is where the story you wrote to us about was written, had not reported Mr. Wall’s earlier comments to Global News. But the Liberals’ strong reaction made the story more newsworthy. As a result, CBC News in Saskatchewan called the former premier and asked him for his views of parliamentarians charging fees to speak at events. And with the Liberal reaction in hand, our reporter also asked him about his response to the Liberal call for an apology. The story included his remarks on both matters.

CBCNews.ca in Saskatchewan posted the story at 5:51 PM CT (6:51 PM ET) that afternoon under the headline, ‘Brad Wall accused of smearing Justin Trudeau’. The former premier’s comments to Global News were now several hours old. The Liberal Party’s reaction was the more recent development in the story and the one that was what was put in the headline.

However, the story also included Mr. Wall’s response to the call for an apology: If Mr. Trudeau is saying that none of the money he raised aided his campaign ‘then I accept him at his word’. He added, ‘There is no apology’. That was the most up to date information in the story and in retrospect might well have been the basis for an up-dated headline. A new headline might have made the story more topical, but its absence is certainly not an indication of bias.”


The art of headline writing is challenging. It must be accurate and meet the test of journalistic standards. But it is also designed, in a very few words, to entice an audience member to continue to read the story. So there is a certain latitude in the language and tone.

To continue reading this review, please go to the CBC ombudsman's website where this was originally published.