Left wing/right wing identification

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Identification of organizations as “left wing” or “right wing”

I have had the rather unique opportunity of having two complaints, worded quite similarly, on opposite sides of the same question.

You wrote originally to complain that the CBC frequently characterizes certain groups as “left-wing” while not doing the same for groups you suggest are on the right.

The then-Acting Editor in Chief of CBC News, Esther Enkin, responded that the example you cited notwithstanding, for some time it has been the News Department's internal policy not to use phrases like “right-wing” and “left wing.” She said she would remind editors of that policy.

You were unsatisfied with her response and asked for a review.

Interestingly, another correspondent wrote to make the opposite point: that the CBC constantly refers to the Fraser Institute as a “right wing” organization, but never characterizes groups such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) as “left- wing.”

I am sending an almost identical note to the other complainant without your identifying information.


This review turned out to be at once simpler and more complicated that one might have thought.

The simple part is that both complainants are incorrect. From a substantial sampling of material from CBC.ca and from National TV News, I have determined that journalists do not universally or consistently characterize “think-tanks” of any persuasion. For instance, over the 18 months, CBCNews.ca carried approximately 30 stories referencing the Fraser Institute. Twenty-one of those stories either did not characterize the group, or referred to it in a neutral way (for instance, “independent research group”).

I broadened the sampling by looking at references to the CCPA and the CD Howe Institute over a period of more than 2 years. I found more than 120 stories that referenced either or both organizations. On three occasions the writer characterized the CD Howe Institute in some way. The CCPA was characterized nine times (out of more than 60 stories) and seven of those references quoted the group's self characterization as “progressive.”

Although somewhat more difficult to do, I did a sampling of The National and found that neither group was regularly characterized as anything but a “think-tank” or similar expression.

So, it is reasonable to conclude that it is not true that the CBC habitually characterizes one side and not the other. However, in policy terms, the next question should be: is that right?

In CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices we find this language in the section on Range of Opinions:

A journalistic organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed. Almost any opinion may contain a grain of truth that helps to illuminate the whole truth. But proper account must also be taken of the weight of opinion which holds these views and its significance or potential significance. The challenging of accepted orthodoxies should be reported but so also should the established views be clearly put. Moreover, the range of views and the weight of opinion are changing and these dynamics of change must be reflected. Nor are range and breadth of presentation sufficient in journalistic programming: there must also be depth, the capturing of dimensions and nuances. Without these elements, the programming becomes too simplistic to permit adequate comprehension of issues put before the public.

In the sampling I did, it was evident that the editors and producers were attempting to reflect a range and balance of opinions. For instance, the number of stories featuring either of the two think-tanks was about even, although some contained mention of both. Similarly in the TV sampling.

However, we should take note of the admonition that there should be a consideration of “depth, the capturing of dimensions and nuances.” In simple terms, this means placing information in context and giving readers, listeners or viewers enough information to be able to judge the material.

Simply referring to “a study by” or “research from” could be quite misleading depending on the organization's origins and support. This does not mean that the research is necessarily skewed, but it could mean that it does not cover topics or areas that do not interest the organization or its backers.

For instance, the Fraser Institute has quite definite opinions on various topics that should factor into any assessment of the research that is done. One can glance at the “What We Think” section of their website and ponder whether “independent” research would ever contradict some of the group's basic principles.

Similarly, the CCPA calls itself “progressive,” indicating that it has an a priori view on certain topics.

There is a growing body of research on the impact that so-called “think tanks” have on public discussion in North America. The impact seems to have been greater in the United States, but is growing in Canada. (You might be interested in a book called “Do Think Tanks Matter?” by Prof. Donald Abelson of the University of Western Ontario which contains the best summary I have found on both the U.S. and Canadian experiences.)

It would seem clear, then, that some effort should be made to place the research paper and/or the organization in context. If not, we would be failing to capture the “dimensions and nuances” of the story.

An additional problem arises from CBC News style policy of avoiding “right-wing, left- wing” descriptives. I understand fully why this policy might have been adopted. Certainly it has been eloquently explained by previous Editors-in-Chief: right and left could be misleading and denote different things in different countries, particularly the U.S. and Canada.

That being said, I wonder if we are underselling the sophistication of our readers, listeners and viewers. The “right/left” division in Canada might be understood in a Canadian context and would not necessarily apply in a U.S. context. Unfortunately, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are not overly useful in this country since there are parties of that name here. (In the U.S. there are not, except for a few outliers at the state level). I should note, though, that at least one of the references to the Fraser Institute is to a “conservative think tank.”

Conclusion

The complaints are not founded: CBC journalism does not routinely characterize groups on only one side of the political spectrum. However, there is a general failure to provide useful context when reporting studies done by a range of organizations

I would suggest that CBC News revisit its internal “style” policies to see if some useful shorthand might be developed to characterize a think tank's location on the Canadian political compass perhaps through the nature of their funding, their stated purpose or general tone of their reports.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman