How public complaints are handled

As the old television jingle said: Letters, we get letters, stacks and stacks of letters.

Mainly these days those letters arrive electronically, a few thousand each year to the inbox at ombudsman@cbc.ca. I'm surprised now when one arrives hand-delivered.

Every message (well, every message within civil bounds) gets a response, but there are different approaches that lead to different outcomes.

When someone is expressing a general view about an information program or segment, the letter is shared with those who create and manage those shows. Essentially, we're passing it along.

When someone has a particular concern or an example to dispute the accuracy, fairness or integrity of those programs, the letter takes on a different significance and is referred to the creators and managers for a response. Essentially, we're asking them to address those concerns.

That takes time. It might be necessary to double-check information, discuss the specific issues with staff or outside experts, or even conduct additional research before writing back. The customary practice is for CBC News to respond within 20 business days.

That time may seem like an undue delay, but it pays off. Typically I find the responses are detailed, respectful and earnest efforts to understand and address. Those responses satisfy the vast majority of concerns.

If someone isn't satisfied, though, I can be asked to review the matter.

The mandate of the Ombudsman permits reviews and other public comments that aren't prompted by complaints, but almost all are launched when the audience initiates.

The reviews themselves take several shapes. Interviews usually are conducted with programmers and journalists and sometimes with complainants and other parties. Expert advice is sought. Reference works are consulted.

The central document in all of this is the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy. Most reviews are conducted to assess if CBC abided that policy.

Earlier reviews are taken into account, but an ombudsman's work isn't like a judge's in scrutinizing precedents. Boundaries evolve, circumstances change. The context of a complaint can be very different from a similar complaint years earlier.

The simplest of the reviews often require one question to be answered about the performance of programming against stated policy. The most complex can require exhaustive and independent research on a subject. There is no predicting how long it will take.

To be fair, I try to deal with reviews on a first-come, first-served basis. To be honest, though, I have to rearrange the queue at times to deal with the more timely or pressing ones. I email complainants each week to let them know the status of their reviews.

At times complainants indicate they might pursue legal action about programming. I step aside if those matters are unresolved. The Office of the Ombudsman doesn't get involved in day-to-day programming matters, either.

When a review is completed, it is sent to the complainant and to programmers at the same time. Once I know it has been read, usually within a day, it is posted online. Like other ombudsmen before me, I amend reviews if there are factual corrections necessary.

The reviews are non-binding, but it is worth noting what my predecessor Vince Carlin said in the most recent annual report: "It has been heartening to note the respect with which the Ombudsman's work has been received and the thoughtfulness and care that has gone into the search for remedies when such are required."

There are hundreds of other letters. Many assume the CBC Ombudsman deals with all of the organization, but the mandate is confined to news and information content. Some letters involve sports or entertainment programming and are forwarded to those departments. Some seek basic CBC data or comment on CBC scheduling or strategy and are sent to CBC audience relations or senior managers. Some just want to talk about the wide world. All find an audience.

As one might expect, there are regular correspondents familiar with CBC News, its features and faces. Not surprisingly, many are well-versed in their issues. In future blog posts, with their permission, I hope to include some of their observations and perhaps some of your own. Suggestions welcomed.