Middle East reports by Margaret Evans

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Complaint from Mike Fegelman, Executive Director, HonestReporting Canada, about reports by Margaret Evans concerning events in Israel and Gaza

You wrote initially to complain about a number of items by Margaret Evans on both radio and television concerning events in Israel and Gaza. The items were broadcast on CBC Radio's World Report on September 22 and November 18, 2009 and on CBC Television's The National on November 11, 2009.

You stated that the item of September 22 (not the 23rd), which was a feature on the efforts of some Palestinians to cross into Israel to attend at the Al Aqsa Mosque, failed “to at least minimally reference Israel's security concerns and easing of travel restrictions.”

The television item of November 11 (not the 13th) concerned the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Gaza. You said that the item, in referencing the Israeli assault on Gaza earlier in the year, “failed to acknowledge why Israel launched the assault…” You suggested that Ms. Evans should have added the sentence “Israel launched an assault on Gaza to prevent the firing of rockets by Hamas.” You also seemed concerned about whether this report was a “follow-up” to one a year earlier by correspondent Nahlah Ayed and whether the producers were aware of the earlier report.

As regards the radio report of November 18 (not the 24th) you said that the story, which concerned the construction of Israeli homes in areas that some international observers felt was still in dispute, and referenced the Israeli destruction of two Palestinian homes, should have pointed out that the two Palestinian homes in question were “illegally built.”

In your original correspondence you also made other complaints about these and other items.

Esther Enkin, Executive Editor of CBC News, responded. She addressed all the issues you raised and, on a number of counts, you professed yourself “fully satisfied.” However, on the remaining issues, referenced above, you were not satisfied.

Ms. Enkin argued that the focus of the September 22 story was very narrowly on the exploits of the people covered in the piece and was not a broader examination of the security issue. She pointed out that reference was made to the security barrier: “So while we assume listeners bring some basic knowledge to a report like this, the repetition of the adjective ‘security' in describing the barrier would leave little doubt about Israel's concerns.”

In reference to the November 11 story, Ms. Enkin said: “Of course context is important to help viewers understand the significance of a story, but explaining why Israel launched an assault on Gaza or why Hamas was firing rockets at Israel or, for that matter, why Hamas controls Gaza or why Gaza is under a blockade, is not necessary to understand the story.” Similarly, she argued that the nature of the story did not require a mention of an Egyptian blockade.

She also responded to the notion that The National had broadcast “the very same” report a year earlier, by Nahlah Ayed. She said the reports were not the same; that the Evans report updated the earlier one by including the damage incurred during the Israeli incursion into Gaza.

As regards the November 18 (not the 24th) report from Ms. Evans and your contention that the Palestinian homes demolished should have been termed “illegally built,” Ms. Enkin said “the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem over the years because they were said to have been built without a permit or because the occupants were said not to hold legal title is a complicated and highly contentious issue, one well beyond the scope of this story. That is not to suggest we have ignored it. As you will know, CBC News has carried stories on home demolitions in East Jerusalem, the reasons for them and the conflicting views about them, and I am sure we will again.”

In a subsequent note to me, you said you were unsatisfied with some of the aspects of Ms. Enkin's response and asked me to review those aspects that you felt remained at issue.


At the risk of redundancy, I will take the liberty of repeating here the core values that should guide the work of CBC journalists:

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.

We should also note the language on “Balance” as it applies to continuing programs like The National and The World at Six:

Continuing news and current affairs programs must present a balanced overall view of controversial matters, to avoid the appearance of promoting particular opinions or being manipulated into doing so by events. Journalists, editors and supervisors must be aware of the necessity for balance in their ongoing presentation of controversial matters. Such continuing news and current affairs programs, particularly magazine programs, are expected to present the general flow of ideas prevalent in our society. This will entail, at times, broadcasting the views of a single author, scientist, thinker, expert, artist or citizen, whose thoughts merit airing on their own account. In performing this role, those responsible for journalistic programming must avoid a cumulative bias or slant over a period of time and must be mindful of the CBC's responsibility to present the widest possible range of ideas.

One of the themes of your complaints is “context.” As you may know from previous reviews, this has been a particular concern of mine: that information be presented with enough background that stories are comprehensible on their merits; that listeners or viewers are not misled in some way as to what the story is about, or what it implies.

Of course, that does not mean that every story about any particular controversial topic must contain all views on the matter. Producers of continuing programs have the freedom to deal with specific aspects of a topic while knowing that they may (and should) return to the subject in time to deal with other aspects.

As to your specific complaints:

September 22 report (World at Six) on trying to evade the Qalandia checkpoint: a reasonable hearing of the item does not support the notion that it was “incomplete, misleading and one- sided,” at least not in a sense that does violence to CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. It might be considered “one-sided” since it narrowly focused on efforts to evade the checkpoint, but, as Ms. Enkin pointed out, Israel's security concerns have been covered before and since. As an insight into what some Palestinians might be feeling at a particular point in time, it was a useful piece of feature journalism.

She also addressed a couple of other issues that you initially raised, although you did not carry them on to me. One concerned the use of the term “elderly men” in reference to those who were allowed through the checkpoints. She said that it would have been clearer if Ms. Evans had specified the age for men (50) as she did for women (45). As someone well past 50 I can only heartily agree that it would have been much clearer to be specific.

You also took exception to Ms. Enkin's reference to highway 443 as being closed to Palestinians. You said in a reply that it was “now open,” citing a report in Haaretz. Of course, the report in Haaretz makes clear that the court decision ordering the opening of the highway to Palestinians came about a month and a half after Ms. Evans's story. It also implied that it would not be in effect for several months. Ms. Evans made no reference to the highway being barred to Palestinians and at the time that Ms. Enkin was writing (early January, less than 2 weeks after the court decision, it seems unlikely that the decision had taken effect).

November 11 report (The National) on the Commonwealth War Cemetery: Since the report was clearly about the cemetery on Remembrance Day, I can find no justification for the notion that the reporter had to outline the background for Israel's incursion. It would provide no real context to the report itself, any more than would reference to the number killed on each side of that incursion which, some might argue, would also be “context.”

Since there had been significant damage subsequent to the 2008 report, it is not absurd to have done a follow-up. You or I may question whether that was completely necessary, but such a judgment is one of relative news value and does not really summon up questions of ethical standards.

November 18 report (World at Six): My hearing of this item supports your notion that it would have been appropriate to offer as context some adjectival description for the Palestinian homes destroyed. However, I disagree that the reporter should have said “illegally built.” As Ms. Enkin has quite properly noted, that subject is complicated and contentious. Since one of the main thrusts of the report was the legality/morality of Israel's actions in allowing building to take place in certain areas, I submit it would have been useful to have said: “In another part of Jerusalem, two Palestinian homes were destroyed. Israel says they were illegally built.”

I think even the knowledgable listener needed the extra context to make the story understandable—that it was not a random act by Israelis.

Conclusion

Overall, the items meet the tests of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, with the exceptions noted. I have had occasion to review Ms. Evans's work done over significant periods of time and, for her, under significant pressure. She has shown herself to be a skilled and insightful correspondent and even the minor faults noted here should not detract from that conclusion. The notion that she has been biased in her coverage does not stand up to a fair- minded analysis.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman