Apartment rental discrimination

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Reports about a single mother who said she was refused an opportunity to rent an apartment because she had a baby

You wrote originally to complain about items that were carried on CBC Radio and Television in British Columbia in May, 2008. They concerned a complaint from a single mother who said that she was refused an opportunity to rent an apartment because she had a baby. As someone with direct knowledge of the building, you said that “the woman in this story was nowhere near the top of the list of people who had already applied for the apartment…There are two sides to every story and the root of journalistic integrity should be an unbiased approach to reporting on any subject.”

Liz Hughes, News Director for CBC British Columbia, responded that the reporter tried to contact the building manager directly, but could not, nor could she get more response from the building's owner, save a comment that “there was no discrimination.” In regard to the 12-person waiting list, Ms. Hughes said “that may be true, that was not what she was told.” The ostensible reason given was that an 8th floor apartment is too high up for someone with a baby.

You rejected Ms. Hughes' explanation and asked for a review. My apologies for the delay.

We should review the relevant CBC journalistic policies.

Under Journalistic Principles we find: Information programs must reflect established journalistic principles:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

Under Balance we find this: CBC programs dealing with matters of public interest on which differing views are held must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance. There are two sources of balance and fairness in information programming, one provided by the journalist and the other provided by the CBC as a journalistic organization. Journalists will have opinions of their own, but they must not yield to bias or prejudice. For journalists to be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them, so that their reporting is, and appears to be, judicious and fair. When an appropriate representative of one side of the story cannot be reached, the journalist or producer should make every effort to find someone who can represent that point of view and, if unable to do so, should announce the fact in a simple and direct manner. (emphasis mine)

Another factor that often comes into play, although not explicitly stated in the policy, is the laudable journalistic practice of giving voice to those without ready access to power. In fact, court decisions on journalistic issues have found that the press not only has the right, but the obligation to give less powerful individuals access to the media.

The story at issue is one of those that appears to fit in that category. Whether it actually does or not depends on further analysis and good journalistic judgement.

It appears that the central character in the story, Ani Zakova, contacted the CBC with her story. On the face of it—a possible case of discrimination—it appeared well worth pursuing. As can be noted from the policy statements above, it is the obligation of the CBC journalist to not only pursue other points of view in the story, but also to reflect significant positions fairly. The reporter attempted to get a reply from the building management and from the owner. Both are perfectly entitled not to reply if they choose. That does not totally lift the burden of fairness from the journalist. At the same time, choosing not to reply cannot be construed as a veto on the story. As she did, the journalist should try to get some coherent response from the main “actors” in the piece. In the end, she received a statement that no discrimination took place.

At this point, it appears that the reporter was aware of the claim that there was a waiting list, but Ms. Zakova insisted that she was told only that the baby was an issue. The reporter, of course, has only the word of the source rather than direct evidence. She did report, appropriately, that

Ms. Zakova “said” that the baby was the issue. After the radio report aired, the reporter received additional information indicating that there had been children in the building in the past and she included that in her television report. This indicates that she was not locked into one view, but was trying to reflect a broader reality. As journalists, we may not always like or agree with one person's views, but it is our obligation to report them on matters of public interest. Certainly, a possible case of discrimination against a single mother with a child fits that category, but we must always maintain our balance as we proceed. It would have been useful to have follow-up on the story with building residents. I should also note that the items end with the statement that Ms. Zakova was going to proceed with a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. That has not happened and the six-month deadline appears to have passed. I am told that Ms. Zakova says she was too upset by the incident to proceed.

Conclusion

It is important for CBC journalists to be on the look-out for stories that reflect the problems of individuals in society, especially those without ready access to the channels of communication. That being said, we are obliged to treat their complaints with the same skepticism and diligence with which we treat the claims of the powerful.

In this case, the story that the reporter told appears to be accurate as far as it went. She reported what Ms. Zakova claimed and she attempted to get responses from building management and ownership. She reflected their views as best she could. However, once it became clear that children had been in the building, it might have served as an alarm bell that all was not as clear as one might have thought and that further investigation might be appropriate.

The reporter appears to have tried to proceed in accordance with policy and her reports, as far as they went, meet the required tests. However, once information came to the fore showing that there may be other sides to the story, some follow-up should have been undertaken to meet the test of fairness.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman