The Ombud’s Inbox - February

Not a day goes by in my office where there isn’t a complaint from someone that the CBC - or the mainstream media in general - is biased. Sometimes people are upset about a detail in a story, sometimes it’s the framing of that story, and other times they’re upset that a story was done at all.

As with most news organizations, CBC has committed itself to be balanced in its coverage of controversial issues. Here’s how the network’s Journalistic Standards and Practices describes it:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

When someone in the audience is upset, it’s very often related to that last sentence. “Balance over time” makes sense for journalists; in most cases they are limited by time and space and are not able to include all of the voices, all of the nuance and all of the context that would be necessary to do full justice to the issue they cover. The concept of balance over time accepts that reality, but reminds programmers that, eventually, coverage should find a way to reflect those other relevant perspectives.

It’s not hard to understand why this approach can, at times, frustrate the audience. People invested in an issue see a story that doesn’t include their point of view and wonder what motivated the journalist to exclude them. It makes them all the more sensitive to details in the story they see, from the wording of headlines online to the choice of images used on television.

Questions about balance and bias were prominent in my February inbox, and there were two subjects that generated the most letters to my office. The first was coverage of Venezuela. A number of complainants wrote with the belief that CBC’s approach was biased against President Nicolas Maduro, and too easy on his rival, Juan Guaidó. The second subject was gun control. There was an organized campaign launched in late January by gun owners, who sent me a list of CBC stories they felt demonstrated a bias against them. It is probably worth noting that my website indicates that in the case of such campaigns, “the Ombudsperson may decide to handle only the initial complaint. However, all complaints received will be counted for statistical purposes.”

Naturally, there were plenty of other subjects covered in February, including CBC’s coverage of Justin Trudeau, Judy Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin. Something tells me that between now and the federal election in October, federal politics will become an even bigger part of my monthly report on the issues you ask about.