Federal election campaign

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Lack of balance in Radio News coverage of federal election campaign

You initially wrote on October 13, 2008, to complain about what you considered blatantly biased and anti-conservative coverage during the federal election campaign. You offered one example: a 3:00 PM radio newscast on October 12 during which you said that the Conservative party was not even mentioned.

Jane Anido, the Director of CBC Radio News Programming, replied that, in fact, Mr. Harper was mentioned during the brief items carried on the final Sunday of the campaign, that there were lengthier items on other newscasts that day and that, over the run of the campaign, CBC Radio had provided balanced coverage of the major parties.

You rejected her explanation, saying, in effect, that each radio news report should be mathematically balanced. You asked for a review, although you included skeptical and disparaging comments about the Ombudsman's work and any possible conclusions I might come to. After a further exchange of correspondence, I agreed to undertake a review. I am sorry for the delay as there has been a backlog of material.

We should start with CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices and what it has to say on the subject of Balance:

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.

On the other hand, the CBC, as a journalistic organization, must ensure that its programming is fair and balanced. Program balance should be achieved, where appropriate, within a single program or otherwise within an identifiable series of programs. Balance is not to be confused with the concept of right of reply. The CBC must itself be responsible for determining when a significant imbalance has occurred, and what remedial action must be taken.

So the obligation is to be balanced over a reasonable period of time. If a program is dealing with a one-time issue, we would expect various opinions to be brought forward. With an on-going story such as an election campaign, it is understandable that from hour to hour certain stories will be highlighted when they are most current. It is also reasonable to assume that, at the end of the day, the major programs will provide, as far as possible, a balanced accounting of that day's activities. If, for instance, a party chose to not campaign publicly on a given day, it is unreasonable to suggest that some kind of mathematical balance be maintained. If there are multiple stories happening within the same time frame, and only brief newscasts available, editors must try to bring as much information as they can over the run of the newscasts.

As Ms. Anido mentioned, the CBC conducts monitoring during election campaigns. In addition, an outside group monitors coverage both for numerical balance and for fairness. (The report, “Balance in News Coverage of the 2008 Election Campaign can be found at www.cbc.ca/canada/ story/2008/10/22/f-vp-cruickshank.html, under “Related.”) On top of that, the Ombudsman commissions a number of panels to watch, listen to or read the major programs/websites during the campaign and judge them against the standards contained in the policy book.

All of those sources indicated that, overall, the various CBC services provided a numerically balanced coverage of the campaign and that the services met the tests of fairness.

Conclusion

CBC Radio met the standards set out in policy for balance and fairness in its newscasts on that day, and, indeed, throughout the campaign.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman