Selection of stories; over-familiarity with guests

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Possible personal gain in selection of stories and interview subjects; and over- familiarity with guests

You wrote initially in February, 2010, raising a number of concerns with programming on the Vancouver service of CBC Radio, particularly Early Edition on Radio One.

Specifically, you expressed concern about interviews done on several occasions with people involved in real estate in Vancouver. You felt that the use of Mr. Bob Rennie as an interview subject should be questioned. He is, you said, “a private business operator who has never been elected to public office.” You said that “listeners can only conclude someone in the newsroom is also in partnership with Rennie.”

Mr. Rennie was interviewed on two occasions: one concerned the impending installation of the giant “W” on the top of the new Woodwards building; the other was in conjunction with a representative of the Chinatown Merchant's Association and concerned the restoration of the oldest building in Chinatown.

You also raised concerns about an item that discussed the emergence of Nordic pole- walking in Vancouver, again raising the prospect that “someone in the newsroom (has) a pal who offered a deal on the poles in return for the story.”

In addition, you found fault with the use of the familiar “Wally” when host Rick Cluff was interviewing the former Attorney General, Wally Oppal.

Finally, you again raised the prospect of some hidden personal gain in the way that items are selected for inclusion in a round-up of events and charities that is carried on the program.

Lorna Haeber, the Program Manager for CBC Radio Current Affairs in Vancouver, replied. She pointed out that Mr. Rennie's company was directly involved in both projects discussed and that, over time, various perspectives have been aired on real estate matters, including interviews with other real estate practitioners, politicians and other interested parties.

She said that the Nordic pole-walking segment came out of curiosity about an upcoming event and the number of pole-walking clinics that were being offered at community centres throughout the Lower Mainland.

She defended the use of “Wally” by Mr. Cluff as “how Rick refers to most guests who are not politicians or in positions of authority like a Chief of Police.”

On the subject of the weekly events calendar, Ms. Haeber said that Mr. Lee's weekly segment was only one vehicle that the CBC offers to community groups to publicize their events. She pointed to a page on the local station's website that is open to all community groups, as well as the coverage provided on various local programs.

You were not satisfied with Ms. Haeber's response and requested a review.


First off, it should be noted that Early Edition is not a “news” program. It is what the CBC calls a “current affairs” program that includes news, events of community concern and, sometimes, entertainment. It has a broad ambit that allows it to encompass a wide range of community happenings from the serious to the entertaining.

A crucial policy issue is whether there is a broad range of subject matter, and a broad range of views on matters of public controversy. Programs such as Early Edition must guard against being captive of individuals or groups that have specific interests, either intellectual or financial.

The happenstance of Mr. Rennie being interviewed twice in a relatively short period of time might raise some question if he were not directly involved in both stories. But, in fact, he was. As Ms. Haeber pointed out, other voices have been heard on the issues of development and real estate. Neither of the interviews I heard appeared to raise significant journalistic policy questions. The suggestion that Mr. Cluff or another staff member had been suborned by Mr. Rennie cannot be credited.

The Nordic pole-walking segment was a fairly light piece, not inappropriate given the apparent interest in the topic on the Lower Mainland. As I said at the beginning of this review, Early Edition is not, strictly speaking, a purely “news” program, so items on less serious matters are to be expected. On other local programs I have heard segments on ballroom dancing, ultra-marathoning and other activities that might not be at the top of a news agenda, but are of interest to the broader public.

Similarly, many programs try to provide windows for the mention and, sometimes, promotion of local activities. It is also not uncommon that a freelance contributor is used for the purpose. I note that CBC Vancouver provides various means and outlets for the highlighting of community activities.

On the question of names, I do find that I support your contention that hosts should avoid appearing overly familiar with their guests. While your repeated assertion of improper dealings is offensive, I think that on grounds of taste and style, programmers should avoid even the appearance of “chumminess” with story subjects.

I realize that it has become much more common across the CBC for hosts/interviewers to address subjects by their first names—sometimes even elected officials and Chiefs of Police—but I would strongly recommend that this tendency be avoided. The journalist represents the people who are not able to question those involved in matters of public interest. As such, the journalist should approach those people with the appropriate tone and distance.

Conclusion

Overall, there is no apparent violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices in the segments at issue. However, I would urge senior programmers to re-examine the style of interviewing that appears to be leading to an over-familiarity with interview subjects.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman