Before you ask

In the early going as CBC Ombudsman I'm finding one of the frustrations among people complaining is the time it takes to resolve disputes --- weeks, months, several months even.
Far be it from anyone to defend delays, but it might be helpful to explain more about the process and to outline how I hope to make it more transparent in the time ahead.

The CBC policy is to refer public complaints first to the programmers themselves for response. There are good reasons for this, of course. The journalists are closest to the issues raised and are in the best position to address them. Very often --- in fact, almost all of the time --- their responses sufficiently explain what happened and why.

But their responses often aren't instant. The urgency of assignments might collide with the request for a response. Holidays and absences might mean key people aren't available. Or it might be necessary to further research the complaint to gauge its validity.

The working rule within CBC over the years has been for programmers to answer within 20 business days, and they meet that standard almost always. They are obliged to tell complainants that, if they aren't satisfied, they can refer the matter to me.

It's a good system because the programmers are also in the only position to correct the record. Referring complaints to them can effect immediate change when it's warranted.
Now, once the complaint lands here, it also takes some time to review. It's not possible to make a snap judgment.

It's usually necessary to talk to the journalists themselves when there are some grey-area issues involving their decisions. It's at times necessary to talk to the complainants to understand their views. And it's often necessary to conduct some independent fact-finding when questions of accuracy are at issue.

The complaints are always framed by the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. It's very useful for all parties in the dispute to have such a reference point.

It isn't necessary for complainants to cite passages in the document to launch a review --- my role is to measure the work against the standards --- but it is necessary to understand why someone feels the journalism wasn't sound. Almost always that emerges in the initial correspondence between the complainant and the programmers, but on occasion I have to ask more.

To be most fair to complainants, there is a general first-come, first-served rule. But it's fair to say there are some matters of obvious significance that jump the queue. They're rare.

I'm balancing several files at once and the access or material I need isn't always readily available, so first in isn't always first out.

I've started to identify complainants to build more transparency for the public, and shortly I will start identifying reviews under way on this blog with a small description of the issue involved and links to the relevant journalism. I'm also intending to create a tracking system for complainants (but not the public) to know how their reviews are faring.

I'm also going to start surveying complainants after the process is done to learn more about what to improve. I'll write more on that later.

There are a few other measures I'm looking at to use technology to further open the process, and I'm very interested in your views on how to find the best mix of public and private. Either add a comment to the blog or write me, less transparently, at ombudsman@cbc.ca