"How Not to Buy a Puppy"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Complaint from John Jules, President & CEO of PJ's Pets, about Marketplace's report, “How Not to Buy a Puppy”

You wrote to complain about an episode of Marketplace, “How Not to Buy a Puppy,” that you felt unfairly targeted PJ's Pets. The episode in question examined the history of some of the pets sold in various stores in Canada.

You raised a number of specific concerns, including the claim that you and your company were not given sufficient information and time to prepare for a requested interview. You also claimed that some of the information provided came from sources “that were less than credible.”

There were seven specific points raised:

1. That Marketplace neglected to report the full details of a court settlement between your company and Michelle Dean concerning the treatment of her puppy for a pre-existing condition.

2. That the use of the phrase “gag order” was unfair.

3. That footage of the Hunte Corporation, a major breeder, was taken by “activists” and was used to “solicit horrified responses” from interview subjects.

4. That an anonymous source interviewed by Marketplace who said he saw sick puppies at PJ's Pets was a disgruntled ex-employee who had been fired by the company.

5. That PJ's Pets was portrayed as uncooperative and unwilling to comment even though the company had provided several statements to the program and that the suggested interview opportunity was refused because of the “short time frame given and the lack of information as to what the interview would cover.”

6. That the allegation that another pet owner had been “paid off” and was therefore unable to appear on the program was impossible to verify since PJ's Pets did not know the identity of the subject.

7. That a repetition of the “gag order” claim was, again, an “unfair and inaccurate assessment of the situation.”

You also raised an issue of possible harassment of PJ's Pets because a CBC vehicle was observed near one of your locations.

Tassie Notar, the Executive Producer of Marketplace, responded to these points. She said:

1. Marketplace did report the compensation received by Ms. Dean, but what happened after the sale of the puppy was secondary to the main point of the story—whether the puppies were “healthy, well-bred puppies” in the first place.

2. The phrase “gag order” was “both accurate and...a fair characterization of part of the settlement with Ms. Dean. Ms. Notar noted that a separate letter of “Agreement and Release” specifically cited Ms. Dean as agreeing “to not make any disparaging or harmful remarks to the public through the media...regarding PJ's Pet Centres Ltd...” Ms. Notar argues that in informal speech “gag order” is an appropriate description.

3. Marketplace was in touch with the Hunte Corporation by phone and the Corporation subsequently answered three of six questions asked by e-mail. Ms. Notar says that neither the president nor anyone else from Hunte Corporation invited the program to tour the facilities. Ms. Notar went on to note that while the program did interview an animal rights activist about Hunte Corporation, it also carried positive comments about the Corporation by Louis McCann of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, as well as video footage from the company's website. Ms. Notar admitted that the footage shot by the Companion Animal Protection Society was “of poor quality,” but she believed it was “an accurate depiction of the facilities at the time it was shot.”

4. Marketplace believes that the ex-employee the program interviewed is not the same person described by you. The program's research indicates that there was no evidence the person they spoke with had been fired.

5. The program tried over a period of two weeks to arrange an on-camera interview, providing as much information as was permissible under normal journalistic guidelines.

6. A program producer met with the woman who would not be interviewed on camera and reviewed the documents she provided. It appeared that she signed the same “Agreement and Release” as Ms. Dean so that talking publicly would jeopardize the compensation she received from PJ's Pets.

7. The use of the term “gag order” was an appropriate “colloquial expression” and even an animal activist noted that “they're pretty common. It makes really good business sense from their point of view to muzzle people from talking about it.”

You wrote to say that you were not satisfied with Ms. Notar's response and requested a review. You did not deal with the specific points that Ms. Notar raised in rebuttal to your original complaint. However, you did say that people “will simply assume the report is factual, since it was so artfully presented as truth.” You repeated that you “were not given sufficient time or information to prepare for an interview.” You also noted that you spoke with Louis McCann who said that his longer interview had been, in your words, “cut down to a few unflattering moments in order to further the attack agenda.”

Journalistic Principles (from CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices)

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.

This complaint raises a number of persistent issues pertaining to the research and production of investigative programs.

After a review of the item and the supporting material held by Marketplace, it appears that the fact base is solid. The program appears to have reported accurately on the underlying facts of the cases and attempted to provide some opportunity for countervailing interpretations from your company and others. But as the above quoted policy implies, even accurate facts have to be presented in a fair way and the opportunity to respond has to be sufficient for a person or company to answer coherently.

You complained that you were not allowed sufficient time or information to prepare for an on-camera interview. Two weeks is generally considered a reasonable time-frame. One wonders how much time a CEO of a company would need to prepare to talk about his company. My review of the correspondence indicates that Marketplace provided a reasonable framework for an interview. The decision not to appear was yours. The piece would have been stronger with your presence.

The use of outside video is always a contentious aspect. In a section of CBC's journalistic policies under Production Standards there is provision for “Recorded Material From Non- Journalistic Sources.” It says:

“Recordings of actual events are available from a wide variety of non-journalistic sources. These include recordings by amateurs, police forces, businesses, political organizations, governments and many other entities.

Occasionally, recordings from such alternate sources may be useful in information programs…

In determining the use of such material in information programming, these considerations should be followed:

* The authenticity of the material should be verified. Other witnesses of the event depicted should be asked for independent corroboration and for information that can be used to establish the context in which the event occurred. The reputation, motives and reliability of the source of the tape should also be taken into consideration.

* The source of material that was not recorded by the CBC should be clearly identified when broadcast.”

In the case at issue, the video was not of an event, but a location, specifically a portion of the Hunte Corporation facility that houses puppies for a period of time. You are correct that the video was not expertly done. However, beyond the “graininess” of the footage, I cannot say that the images shown were unrepresentative of how puppies are housed. There may, indeed, be other aspects of Hunte's operation that would summon up other images, but the story in question was about buying puppies in Canada, with some reference to how they get here.

There is no evidence that the Hunte Corporation invited Marketplace to visit and record. That being said, the program obviously made an editorial—and, presumably, financial— decision not to travel to the Hunte Corporation H.Q. The producers felt that they had sufficient footage from the outside source, which they identified, that accurately illustrated that aspect of the Hunte operation at the time it was shot.

There is no evidence to support the notion that Marketplace was attempting to intimidate PJ's Pets by placing a CBC vehicle near one of your locations. As Ms. Notar has said, there are some 80 CBC vehicles at the Toronto location. Whatever vehicle you saw, it clearly was not dispatched by Marketplace

The use of the phrase “gag order” presents other problems. Ms. Notar argues that it is an appropriate colloquial phrase. CBC's policies and the Canadian Press Style Book are silent on the usage, but I find some careful thought in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. It says: “gag order, gag rule. Though lawyers consider the terms merely factual, their effect in news columns is pejorative. Except in direct quotations or texts, paraphrase them…”

I find good sense there. I would also point out that the agreement to avoid making negative comments is just that, an agreement. One party could refuse to agree. And such agreements are not uncommon in civil litigation. The program could have paraphrased the agreement, and still pointed out that the effect was beneficial to the company. I don't think that the colloquial use rose to the level of a violation of policy, but I would strongly recommend that, even in an era of colloquial language, CBC programs should try to be as clear and correct as possible.

Conclusion

The segment of Marketplace, “How Not to Buy a Pet,” was soundly based on factual situations. Adequate time was allowed for someone to prepare for an on-camera interview and the program noted alternate opinions. I would have preferred an alternate usage to “gag order,” but its use in context did not rise to a violation of policy.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman