G20 demonstrations

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Coverage of demonstrations in Toronto at the G20 gathering of world leaders

I am writing with regard to your complaint and request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman involving the June 17 CBC News coverage of the demonstrations in Toronto at the G20 gathering of world leaders.

Your complaint raises several important questions about the journalistic treatment of protests and the impression such coverage can leave in suggesting editorial bias. Your correspondence also implies the demonstration coverage feeds a perception of bias at CBC against the government.

In reviewing your complaint, I had to determine if the CBC News coverage of the demonstrations violated its Journalistic Standards and Practices as it pertains to principles of accuracy, integrity and fairness. In doing so, I wanted to examine if the coverage contributed to any concerns about editorial bias.

I acknowledge that, in many instances, excessive journalistic focus on protest can contribute to a distorted understanding of public opinion or of the issues of the day. The “heat” of the protest can take away from the “light” of the issue. The challenge for a news organization is to balance the coverage to permit a broad understanding of events and issues and not a narrow spectacle of emotion and public activism.

Still, the democratic place of protest in society not only deserves respect as a principle but as a matter of newsworthiness, particularly in the context of large events. Anarchistic events that hijack the message of legitimate demonstrations also are often newsworthy.

In this instance, world leaders were arriving and hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent for the security of the leaders and the public. It was expected, even telegraphed, that demonstrations would accompany the leaders' gathering.

CBC News set aside considerable resources to chronicle the events day and night across its programs and platforms. Given its commitment to hours of coverage daily concerning the G20 gathering, I concluded it was appropriate to chronicle the demonstrations (peaceful and otherwise) within the body of journalism. The coverage of confrontations between security forces and the demonstrators was relevant in understanding the event and its impact on the city.

Had CBC simply chosen to cover the demonstrations and the views of the protesters, one could hypothesize a link between coverage and editorial stance. But CBC provided extensive coverage of the G20 gathering's agenda, several briefings from officials, and news conferences from many of the leaders.

Journalism is by its nature a craft that seeks institutional accountability and demonstrates skepticism, but not cynicism. In the absence of a specific concern, I can only point out that supporters of successive governments of different parties have expressed similar general concerns of journalistic bias.

I cannot determine, in the context of CBC's coverage of the gathering, a violation of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook calling for accuracy, integrity and fairness. Significant points of view were included in the extensive coverage on television, radio and online. In your complaint you expressed general concerns about the range of commentators online. I note the continuing efforts made by CBC.ca to diversify the blend of online commentary to ensure the public feels well-served by a range of opinion.

If you can point to specific instances in which you believe they violated standards and practices, CBC News would be willing to review the matter. Please note that the Office of the Ombudsman only reviews the particular activities of CBC employees, not contracted contributors, but the overall ambition for fairness in programming applies.

Your complaint also involved a recollected question from a CBC host concerning the Prime Minister's attitudes to women. We could find no such statement in the records.

On your other point involving online comments, it is out of the purview of the Office to examine comments generated by online users unless they are later employed in CBC content.

Thank you for writing.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman