The new journalism and the G20

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Complaint from Jesse Rosenfeld, who was featured in Ira Basen's column, The new journalism and the G20

I am writing with regard to your complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman, and your request for a review, concerning a CBC.ca posting July 6, 2010.

Your complaint arose from an online column from CBC.ca's Ira Basen, headlined The new journalism and the G20, which in part dealt with the emergence of new voices in journalism and the challenge to define in the digital age who is a journalist.

Your particular concern was that Basen's column implied you did not possess conventional journalistic credentials in writing about the G20 gathering in Toronto this year and that you were not subject to traditional ethical and legal practices in the craft. It focused on your contribution to the Comment Is Free microsite of staff and community commentators operated by the British news organization, The Guardian. Basen suggested you were not, strictly speaking, an actual contributor to The Guardian organization or subject to the same standards as someone contributing to its newspaper.

He wrote: “Rosenfeld has been widely identified in the press as someone who writes for the British paper The Guardian, one of the world's most respected newspapers. But, in fact, he doesn't actually write for The Guardian, which has some of the strictest editorial standards anywhere. He blogs for a Guardian site called Comment is Free. . .where just about anyone can say just about anything they want.”

It goes on to say that you have argued that your inability to gain journalist accreditation to the G20 event might have been as a result of an earlier Comment is Free post in which you criticized police. Basen wrote: “He doesn't offer any real proof for that charge, but on Comment is Free, unlike The Guardian, he didn't have to.”

Your complaint raises an interesting issue at a time journalism is undergoing great change through wider public participation as contributors and creators. Technology is permitting access to the means of gathering and distributing and the traditional definition of who is a journalist is being uprooted and debated. Academic and industry professionals are contending with the issue with a range of views in the debate, from the “everyone is a journalist” camp to those who believe journalism is a profession with particular credentials and responsibilities bordering on a licensed practice.

Of relevance in your matter is the growing contribution of the community to the conversation through so-called citizen or networked journalism on websites, blogs and social media. Several traditional news organizations and many fledgling ones have decided to integrate professionals (full-time journalists) and amateurs (part-time journalists with other specialties and expertise) in the community to provide content under their umbrella. They assume the same legal responsibilities for the content, even if in some cases there are ethical conflicts and self-interests in the contributions. In short, they are not free-for-all venues.

The Guardian is one such organization among many and its Comment is Free microsite comprises more than 700 staff and freelance contributors. On Comment is Free, it publishes the commentary found in the Guardian and Observer newspapers and websites and presents some web-only commentary from a range of contributors, some journalists and some not.

The Comment is Free site says its mandate is to “provide instant commentary on British and world current events, and a forum for debate for topics of interest to a liberal, progressive readership online.” Its site adheres to the Guardian's editorial principles. All of its content is either commissioned by an editor or accepted and copy-edited by one before publication.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices require a rigorous approach.

On accuracy, its information must conform to reality, be thoroughly researched and feature disciplined language. On integrity, its information must be truthful. On fairness, its information must reflect equitably the relevant facts and deal fairly with people and institutions.

In reviewing the column, I have concluded that it left some errant impressions. It wrongly suggested Comment is Free isn't as journalistically sound as The Guardian. This isn't so. Further, the column neglected your work for several other publications, in effect narrowing the reader's understanding of your journalism.

As a result, one of the premises of the column — that you were a good example of the ambiguity in the digital age of who is a journalist — was lacking.

One point was also left ambiguous. It noted that you had argued that your failure to gain media accreditation for the G20 gathering might have had something to do with an earlier blog in which you asserted “systemic racism” in the RCMP. Basen wrote: “He doesn't offer any real proof for that charge, but on Comment is Free, unlike The Guardian, he didn't have to.”

What is unclear to me is whether Basen is suggesting you had no proof of the charge of racism or of the charge that the earlier blog was the reason you didn't gain accreditation.

On the matter of charge of racism, it is clear in your Comment is Free post that you link out to stories involving well-publicized concerns about RCMP conduct, sufficient in my mind to comprise fair (if challengeable) comment about the police.

But there is nothing to suggest the RCMP declined accreditation because of that earlier statement. If Basen is suggesting you didn't offer proof of that, he would be correct.

Nevertheless, what wouldn't be correct in either instance is that “proof” wouldn't be needed on Comment is Free as it would in The Guardian newspaper because of differing standards. I think it is safely assumed the onus of one is the onus of the other. In editing and publishing the commentary, The Guardian is accepting responsibility on Comment is Free for its ramifications. (As an aside, public comments wouldn't necessarily fall into that category, although I do note that the Comment is Free policy is to moderate such comments post-publication.)

Basen has identified several important issues for the public in its relationship to media in the digital age, including the fact that the arrival of social media and enabling technology opened the door for many more voices.

To meet CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, I believe the record needs to be set straight on your work history and on the Comment is Free site. It would also help to establish in any updated column if his criticism of a lack of proof pertained to the charge of systemic police racism or the assertion that your G20 media credentials were denied because of your earlier charge of systemic police racism.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman