Inappropriate visuals

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Visuals accompanying interview with Saskatchewan Environment Minister

You wrote to complain about the presentation of an interview that ran on CBC News Network on December 16, 2009.

The interview was with Nancy Heppner, the Environment Minister of Saskatchewan. It followed up on issues raised at the UN Climate Change Conference that was taking place in Copenhagen.

You pointed out that the visuals accompanying the interview depicting oil sands mining and a polar bear on an arctic ice floe were, in your view, an attempt to “bend” the news. You added that “the CBC (is) continually pushing the global warming agenda when there's no global warming happening in Canada.”

Cynthia Kinch, then-Director of CBC News Network, responded. She said that the images shown were the same visuals used during an earlier interview with Canada's Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, who was speaking more broadly about climate change issues. She said that “to make otherwise static interviews more visually interesting for television we commonly add video. Images specific to the story can contribute additional information and a fresh perspective, but when they are not available, we often carry stock visuals that are related to the story. That was the case here.”

She also pointed out that “the science of global warming was not at issue at the conference where for ten days the discussion had focused on the consequences.”

You were unsatisfied with her response and asked for a review. I am truly sorry for the length of time it has taken. I had a backlog of material to deal with and your complaint was mistakenly buried with other material.

In CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices we find this under “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.

When I first got into television more than 35 years ago, one of the things I learned—and I have not seen disproven—is that when we, as television journalists, set up a conflict between the eye and the ear, the eye wins. As a viewer, I would have assumed that the pictures were tied to Ms. Heppner's concerns about matters in Saskatchewan. As Ms. Kinch pointed out, only at the end of the interview did she move to more general concerns. It is acknowledged that there are no oil sands in Saskatchewan, nor are there polar bears.

It may seem a relatively minor point, but as there seems to be a greater reliance on illustrative footage almost constantly on broadcasts, there rises an even greater responsibility to ensure the “disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.” I have noted other occasions where visuals either misled viewers or contradicted what was being said.

New times and new program formats call for careful thought and response. That being said, I can find no grounds for concluding that the visual in this case was an attempt to spread disinformation. It was an easy choice on a story that, in its broader context, did concern the issues illustrated. But it should serve as a warning that, in television, visuals have as much journalistic value as words. The same care should be exercised in the selection and slotting of illustrative material as is used in crafting the words.

You are free to believe that there is no global warming in Canada. However, since the substantial scientific consensus argues otherwise, it is not unreasonable for journalists to acknowledge that premise. Your notion that CBC journalists are deliberately propagating a “lie” cannot be credited.


As noted, this is not the first time that visuals have been used that contradict or confuse the nature of an interview or story in which they are included. For a visual medium it is important that the notion of “disciplined use” of production techniques not be lost to the imperative to make television “interesting”.

The use of inappropriate visuals is a violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman