"Batteries Not Included"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Complaint about Marketplace's “Batteries Not Included” program from Susan Antler of the Canadian Household Battery Association

You wrote in November, 2007, to complain about an episode of Marketplace dealing with battery recycling.

The item, “Batteries Not Included,” appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of the program. You felt that the program had “already made up its mind” before interviews were carried out; that it was “blatant bashing and biased story telling.” You also felt that insufficient attention was given to the industry position, that an interview with you “quickly escalated into confrontation” and that the program failed to focus on the “integrity” of an Environment Canada study about battery recycling.

You also suggested that the sound man used on one segment was “nervous” because he knew that he and the producer were “out to get specific words and statements to fill in their story.”

F.M. Morrison, the program's Executive Producer at the time, responded. She said that the focus of the story was that only a small fraction of batteries are recycled. The program suggested we should be able to do better than that with, she said, “a more effective recycling program.”

Ms. Morrison repeated some of the elements of the program that you did not challenge in your notes: that a random sampling of 36 stores listed as recycling depots showed that a dozen would not take the batteries, 24 did not have a visible RBRC (Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation) box and none had a poster telling shoppers that the store took used rechargeable batteries. She said that pointing out what she felt to be shortcomings of the program could not be termed “bashing.”

She also cited governmental actions that had preceded the “voluntary” work that the industry undertook; and noted that the item featured comments from you and others at the time the industry program was launched.

As for the “nervousness” of the sound person, Ms. Morrison said that he and the producer were concerned about technical issues of recording and lighting.

She also said that the program had tested one of the central premises of the Environment Canada report that highlighted the “hoarding” of batteries by householders. The Port Perry experiment, she said, appeared to back up that premise.

Ms. Morrison also pointed out that the CBC used the RBRC program to collect its used rechargeable batteries and that non-rechargeables are sent to a waste services operation to be “stabilized and then disposed of as hazardous waste.”

You wrote to me asking for a review, adding that the answer you received did not demonstrate that the program was “anything other than biased.” You cited as examples the program's “(failure) to acknowledge that it used the RBRC program…and that it sends their alkaline batteries to landfill instead of the process that was promoted in the TV segment”; that you were asked “the same question at least 5 times”; that “the tonality of Erica Johnson was mocking when she said ‘Susan Antler is still here'”; that the program did not use footage of you driving away from the store because you were driving a 1995 model car “versus something flashier and more expensive that would allow the story to relay that this program is being managed by rich budgets and salaries.” And you repeated your complaint about an alleged failure to question the integrity of the Environment Canada study, saying that there are other programs and these totals do not show up in the recycling calculations.”

You also pointed out that the response came on one-sided paper format and used a whole piece of paper for one line rather than squeezing it on to the previous page.

I am sorry for the unconscionable delay in this response. I am afraid I allowed your file to become buried under subsequent material.


To begin with, perhaps we should restate the basic principles underlying CBC journalism, from CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices:

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.

There is another section, under Investigative Reporting, that appears to apply to Marketplace. It says, in part:

This is a particularly sensitive type of journalism, which can have a powerful effect upon the public mind and, consequently, upon the livelihood and well- being of individuals and the viability of public institutions and private enterprises. It therefore calls for heightened skills and the maintenance of strict standards of accuracy. Investigative journalism should not be conducted without adequate resources and the time needed for exhaustive research.

Programs may lead the audience to conclusions on the subject being examined. These must be logical conclusions derived from the facts and not from expressions of editorial opinion or unfair methods of presentation. It is essential, therefore, that to conform with the principles of accuracy, integrity, fairness and comprehensiveness, the programs must be based on the most scrupulous and painstaking research. They should take into account all the relevant evidence available and should include recognition of the range of opinion on the matter in question.

In investigative programming, in the interest of fairness, opportunity should be given for all parties directly concerned to state their case. In circumstances where research reveals the necessity to conduct interviews in which individuals are to be held accountable for their actions or those of their organizations in a matter of public interest, while the purpose of the interview should be disclosed in broad terms in advance, information can be divulged and questions can be asked in ways that ensure candid and unrehearsed answers are obtained for the public.

I note that most of your complaints do not deal with specific factual error, but rather with emphasis and attitude.

Watching the item as a consumer as well as an ombudsman, it strikes me that it is interesting and important information that a national program, in place for a decade, appears to have made only a small dent in the problem of used rechargeable batteries— one of the main focuses of the piece. You appear to feel that due credit was not given for what has been accomplished, but it is not unreasonable to take a less rosy outlook in judging success.

While questioning the “integrity” of the Environment Canada study, you did not offer data that would allow me, or the program, to judge whether the totals from other centers would materially change the overall total.

I have no evidence to challenge your assumption of the reasons behind the soundperson's supposed nervousness, except Ms. Morrison's statement that he and the producer were concerned with technical matters. I would point out that, through long experience, the technical requirements of a feature program like Marketplace are different than those of newscasts. The producers usually require that as much material as possible matches the overall “look” and quality of the rest of the program—a requirement not felt by most producers of news items.

One of the basic requirements of “fairness” and “balance” is that people be given an appropriate amount of time to state their case. You appeared to have had the time to make your case. However, as the policy on investigative journalism states, a journalist is free to pursue lines of questioning that might produce “candid and unrehearsed answers” to questions of public interest. Returning to a question that the journalist feels has not been adequately addressed is consistent with the policies.

I cannot effectively deal with your notion that a shot of you leaving the store was not used for reasons of bias. As you well know, much more footage is shot for a program like Marketplace than is ever used. The most common reason is that the shot was not needed. That is what the producers argue and I have no evidence to contradict them.

I found Ms. Johnson's narrative of the story to have been done in a fairly “upbeat” tone and her “tonality” in saying that “Susan Antler is still here” did not strike me as mocking; merely that you have been a consistent thread in the then ten year old program.

How the CBC handles its waste is outside my purview, and such corporate matters should not influence programs like Marketplace in highlighting best practices. However, I do note that matters that are under the program's control, such as the correspondence it sends out, could reflect the standards that the program is showcasing.

It appeared to me, through the program, that while the creation of the RBRC program was praiseworthy, its implementation may have fallen short of unalloyed success. You did not present any solid information to overturn that conclusion.

Conclusion

Overall, the item “Batteries Not Included” was a useful insight into the topic of battery recycling and did not violate CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman