News judgment

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

News judgment in treatment of two stories

You wrote initially in July, 2009, to complain that the treatment given two stories reflected bias by CBC News. One story, on June 22, 2009, concerned statements by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. The other, first posted on CBC.ca on July 7, 2009, reported on the circumstances surrounding the murder of a pregnant Muslim woman in a court in Dresden, Germany. A second story on this matter appeared the following day.

At the heart of the complaint was what you perceived as the relative treatment of the two stories. The Sarkozy story, you said, was on “the front page” while the other story was “(buried)…in the back pages.” Mr. Sarkozy had made public comments to the effect that burkas “will not be welcome in our territory.” “It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement,” he said, “…we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

You wrote: “If ignorant remarks about ‘religious symbols' made by a President looking to distract his country from the faltering French economy can find a place on the front page for a substantial amount of time, I'm sure the murder of a hijab clad pregnant Muslim in court for wearing a ‘religious symbol' can warrant more attention than CBC had decided to give it.”

The Director of Digitial Media, Rachel Nixon, responded that “CBC News editors choose stories from here and around the world that they judge to be the most significant and interesting to Canadians. It is difficult to recreate accurately weeks or even days afterward the information that editors had at a particular moment when they decided which story was more important….I can assure you that the decisions CBC News editors made were on journalistic grounds, not on the basis of race or religion.”

She concluded that she “did not see anything in our handling of these stories that suggests the ‘bias' you see.” You thanked her for her response, but asked for a review.


“News judgment” is one of those concepts that is difficult to define absolutely. Both words summon up relative values. “News” can be seen as that which is of most immediate concern and interest to a given population. “Judgment” is just that: a decision based on a raft of values that include timing, relevance, impact and interest.

The Ombudsman generally does not deal with issues arising from day-to-day news judgments. My involvement would depend on whether news judgments lead to questions of bias—are editors deliberately making decisions to suppress certain items or highlight others in a manner that distorts the issues involved?

In the case at hand, we are dealing with stories that happened on different days. Mr. Sarkozy is the President of France, a notable figure on the world stage. His statements about accommodation—or in this case refusal to accommodate—are extremely noteworthy, whether one agrees with his position or not.

As Ms. Nixon explained, the Dresden case was not immediately picked up by the world's press. In fact, its low-key treatment within Germany actually provoked wider coverage when many Egyptians complained about the murder of its citizen, Marwa Al-Sherbini, and what they felt was a lack of response by Germans to the events.

CBCNews.ca carried a second story the next day from Germany. Subsequently, the service also carried a story on the conviction and sentencing of the murderer. Each story gave significant coverage to the concerns and statements of those who saw the attack as symbolic of the treatment of Muslims in Germany and other Western countries.

I note Ms. Nixon's explanation that even stories that begin on the “front page” of CBCNews.ca do not stay there for long, but are superceded by other stories. Given the volume of material that editors must deal with, very few stories reach the “top” of the queue, but are carried as headlines below.

It appears to me that, once seized of the Dresden story, editors handled it in an appropriate manner, insuring that appropriate background and space was given to those most upset by the events. They also insured that there was follow-up on the conviction and sentencing of the murderer.

It is a truism that the closer we are to the subject matter of a story, the more importance we give to it. You obviously and understandably feel deeply about the Dresden story—a truly horrific event. Had the editors ignored it, I, too, would find fault with their work. But, in fact, they treated it as they saw appropriate on the day it came to their—and most of the world's—attention.

The story about Mr. Sarkozy deserved attention as well. Ms. Nixon noted that it was particularly pertinent “at a time when European countries and, perhaps to a lesser degree, our own are debating the extent to which society should accommodate religious symbols…”

Conclusion

Editors exercised reasonable news judgment in the handling of the two stories and no bias is evident in their treatment.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman