Juxtaposition of items about discrimination

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Juxtaposition of two items about discrimination on Information Morning, Halifax

You wrote to complain about an item on Information Morning in Halifax on January 14, 2009. You felt that the juxtaposition of a story about a complaint made to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission by a same sex couple against the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital with an interview with another couple was an example of bias against gays. The reason was that the brief and straightforward item on the complaint was followed by a 3 minutes 25 seconds interview in which the second couple said they had little problem living and working as a gay couple in Halifax.

After some confusion about procedure, you received one reply from Diane Paquette, the producer of the program, who said that they had not been searching for a couple who had little experience with discrimination and that “it was a coincidence that both of them felt a broad level of acceptance in Halifax.”

You were not satisfied with her response and asked for a review. Before that took place, the Managing Director for the Maritimes, Andrew Cochran, asked to review the matter himself. He concluded that the second item—the interview—was “in no way originated, presented or in any way meant to be, a rebuttal or criticism of the allegations…(although) your perception may differ from our intent.” He went on to say that the items themselves were not “biased, misleading, unbalanced, lacking in integrity or fairness.”

He also suggested that you and he discuss the matter further. You were unsatisfied with his response and again asked me to conduct a review.


The basic principles of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices are accuracy, integrity and fairness, as outlined in the policy book:

“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.”

Not only must individual items meet those tests, but programs as a whole are expected to meet them as well. Each individual item in a program might be fairly reported, accurate in its fact, and not distorted to reach a conclusion. However, that does not mean that no fault can be found.

It is a well established practice that a debate should not be falsely constructed. That is, one party is asked a series of questions while another party is asked other questions, but the answers are presented as if the same questions had been asked. By analogy, the same can be said for juxtaposition.

In this case, it is clear to me that the journalists involved did not set out to create a false debate, or use one item as a rebuttal of the other. However, I am constantly reminded of the quote attributed to Edward R. Murrow: “The only thing that counts is what comes over the loudspeaker.”

It is not up to the audience to determine the intent of the broadcasters—the items should speak for themselves. In the issue at hand, two perfectly appropriate items were, in effect, linked, leaving the listener with the impression that the person complaining of his treatment in the hospital was missing the forest for the trees.

It is also clear that the programmers involved have actually tried, over time, to shed light on the underlying issues. I noted in a cursory survey that a number of stories have been done in recent months about the difficulties faced by the LGTB community in Nova Scotia, including noteworthy reportage on another Human Rights complaint and an item about secondary school students facing challenges due to their sexual preferences. Clearly the intent was not to minimize the difficulties that some members of that community face every day.

Mr. Cochran's offer of further discussion seems also to underline the station's hope of shedding even more light on the issue.

That being said, what came over the “loudspeaker” on that particular day was a brief item on a Human Rights complaint followed by a substantial interview that appeared to rebut those concerns. I acknowledge that was not the intent, but, to these ears, that was the result.

Conclusion

The juxtaposition of those two items on that particular day did not meet the test of fairness. However, the obvious, on-going commitment of the station to explore aspects of the issue are well within the spirit and letter of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman