Triennial gathering of United Church of Canada

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report about resolutions discussed at the triennial gathering of the United Church of Canada

You wrote in August to complain about an item carried on The National of August 12, 2009. The item concerned resolutions being discussed at the “triennial” gathering of the United Church of Canada.

The resolutions, and accompany background material, had become controversial as they used what some saw as inflammatory language in describing Israel's relationship to Palestinians and, at another juncture, condemned several Canadian politicians for traveling to Israel. One of the resolutions in question called for a boycott of the State of Israel.

You wrote that, in fact, the delegates “did not actually vote on any of those resolutions…as reported in Chris Brown's piece, deciding instead to defer debate and decision-making on those resolutions until Thursday afternoon…”

“What the third of delegates tasked with dealing with the Palestine/Israel resolutions did vote on was a motion to repudiate language used in some of the background materials. This, too, was not ‘unanimous' (but I can understand how tempting it might be to use the word in a news story), although one might have said that these delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of repudiating language used in some of the background material. There were delegates who did not vote in favour of rejecting the language used.”

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, replied, saying that “the report did, accurately, report that the vote on the proposals had been deferred.” However, he added, “I agree with you in so far as it might have been a little clearer.” He explained the background of the debate on the resolutions, and the intervention of representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He added: “Television requires reporters to telescope a lot of information into a few seconds or at most minutes available in a news report…Inevitably, some things are left out, but that does not mean the story is inaccurate. We expect reporters to include enough basic information about a story to make it clear, but they cannot reasonably be expected to include all the information available in every story.” He repeated that the story could have “made a clearer distinction between the background information and the proposals.”

About a month later, you wrote to say that you were not satisfied with Mr. Harrison's response and asked me to conduct a review of the matter.


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Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

There is also language concerning the problem that Mr. Harrison raised—the necessity of editing material to meet time constraints:

Editing, the abbreviation of recorded visual, audio or written material, is an essential technique and one of the most demanding in journalism because of the time limitations imposed by radio and television production and the need to be concise and clear. It would be impractical to expect the whole of reality in an edited program. What in fact results from selection and editing is a compression of reality — a slice of reality — which must nonetheless reflect the essential truth without distortion.

Taken together, we find the basis for journalistic decision making, even for relatively brief news items.

In the case at issue, it is obvious that the issues, or their treatment, are not simple. It appears that some of those present supported one or more the controversial resolutions, without supporting some of the more inflammatory background material. Others supported neither. In addition, those speaking for the Canadian Jewish Congress appeared to target their criticism at the supporting material, while still expressing general opposition to the resolutions.

Mr. Brown, perhaps understandably, centred his report mainly on the opposition of the CJC, although there were voices from the United Church delegates.

For the record, I will quote the crucial part of Mr. Brown's report:

“CHRIS BROWN (REPORTER):
The resolutions, though not the part about the members of Parliament, are supported by Church Minister Vicki Obedkoff who recently led a delegation of young people to the region. VICKI OBEDKOFF (UNITED CHURCH MINISTER): The occupation is increasingly brutal, and there has to be a justice-seeking resolution

SHERYL JOHNSON (UNITED CHURCH DELEGATE):
You know, this is not about Jewish people. This is about the Israeli state.

CHRIS BROWN (REPORTER):
As the resolution came to a vote, there were more impassioned pleas.

RABBI REUVEN BULKA (CANADIAN JEWISH CONGRESS):
But the fairness dictates of saying, you know, we're going to boycott Israel, Israel academic institutions or whatever they may be is basically point a finger and say, “Israel, you're at fault.”

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:
Why would we pass a resolution or use words that would diminish dialogue and communications with our partners?

CHRIS BROWN (REPORTER):
In the end, the Church decided to drop the inflammatory references to apartheid and Canadian MPs but keep the boycott issue and vote on it on Thursday, which did not satisfy the Canadian Jewish Congress one bit. It says the United Church's reputation as a fair-minded institution is at risk.”

In fact, of course, “the resolution” that would be clearly understood in the context of the story, never came to a vote. As you pointed out, the delegates voted to repudiate the inflammatory language of the background material and put off a vote on the “resolution.”

While one can be sympathetic to a reporter struggling to digest and make sense of the cross- currents of discussion, it seems clear that the language used was, as Mr. Harrison put it delicately, less than clear. While it would not have taken much more time to rephrase the report with more precise language, it also seems clear that Mr. Brown was not attempting to mislead viewers as to what was going on. Also, I can find no reference to a “unanimous” vote.

As Mr. Harrison pointed out, The National of August 13th carried a brief item noting that the conference had voted down the controversial resolutions.

Conclusion

You are correct, and Mr. Harrison has acknowledged, that there was a fault in the report. However, I am not sure that the general viewer would have been misled as to the result of the discussion: references in the background material dropped, vote on the substantive resolutions put off for two days. I am sure that the discussion of this item has made the point to the reporter, and his editors, of the need for precision in the use of language.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman