Accuracy issues

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Complaint from Alan Markwart, Senior Executive Director, Provincial Services, British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development

I am writing with regard to your August 10, 2010, complaint and September 27, 2010, request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning the handling of accuracy issues arising from certain articles on CBC.ca.

Thank you for your patience. The Office is a small one with a large volume of work and, as I assume the role of Ombudsman in the next few weeks, I am helping incumbent Vince Carlin deal with the backlog.

Your complaint arose from stories on CBC.ca between July 29 and August 5, 2010. Those stories concerned the release of information by two organizations, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the social action group Justice for Girls, on testing and research on sex offenders in B.C. and the subsequent cancellation by the B.C. government of that testing.

Your specific complaint about the stories was they said a “researcher” involved in the study had been charged with a sexual offence. In fact, the charge was against a medical technician who conducted tests on the offenders but had nothing to do with research of the study. You asserted the inaccuracy caused personal and professional anguish to the researchers, who are employees and contractors with the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development.

But the gist of your complaint was in how CBC News handled your initial contact to point out the mistake and how its response was inadequate in its scope and speed.

Specifically you noted that CBC News acted slowly to produce a correction and didn't fully withdraw, or arrange to withdraw, the offending content.

You complained that a second article containing errant information was left uncorrected for several days. Beyond that, other organizations CBC News supplies were left with an errant story. You also asserted that the Corrections and Clarifications posts are difficult to find online.

The News Director for CBC News in Vancouver, Wayne Williams, wrote back that CBC.ca never did identify the existence of a study or researchers by name. Rather, its focus was on calls by the civil liberties association and social action group for an end to the testing and the government's swift response in doing so.

Williams acknowledged that a mistake was made in writing that a “researcher” and not a “medical technician” had been charged with the sexual offence. A story later that same day clarified that a provincial minister said a technician had been charged and the program cancelled.

Williams also acknowledged, and apologized for, the delay in addressing the concerns. He acknowledged he wasn't aware of a second story at the time the first story was corrected and apologized for not changing its content sooner.

CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time of your complaint say CBC “will not hesitate to admit and correct a material error when it is established that one has been made.”

Its recently updated standards go further: “In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.”

Conclusion

The mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman only permits it to evaluate conduct against CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Mistakes are consequential to varying extents, but I am mindful in this instance that the original mistake neither identified the researcher nor named the specific report involved. Some media named the report and the researchers, but not CBC News.

Without going into details, my review of this episode identified a chain of events I acknowledge would be frustrating for anyone to encounter. But, for all the mishaps along the way, I am convinced that CBC News adhered to its standards and practices in this case. It acted promptly to correct an error in a story when it came to its attention. When the correction didn't happen speedily, it apologized for the delays.

I am further informed that local discussions subsequent to this complaint have strengthened the response procedure in this specific area. CBC has also investigated how the corrected story was not syndicated automatically to those it supplies news.

I take as sincere CBC's contrition for this episode and in no way believe the problems you encountered are emblematic of the organization or the seriousness with which it takes public complaints.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman