Handling of erroneous remarks

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The handling of erroneous remarks on Power & Politics

I am writing with regard to your May 25, 2010, complaint and request July 26, 2010, for a review by this Office concerning remarks on the May 17, 2010, edition of Power & Politics on the CBC News Network.

I am deeply sorry this matter has taken so long to review. When I arrived in November I began to help incumbent Ombudsman Vince Carlin clear a substantial backlog. That work continues.

A new CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy was released in November, but this review will be conducted on the basis of policy at the time of your complaint.


CBC News Network's Power & Politics program carried an interview May 17, 2010, with Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, in promotion of his book. Three of his children had been killed in January, 2009, during the Israeli assault on Gaza when two shells fired from an Israeli tank hit a private residence.

On the program, host Evan Solomon said that there had not been justice for Abuelaish, that “even the Israelis didn't even investigate the incident.”

The complainant, Mike Fegelman of the Honest Reporting organization scrutinizing Middle East coverage, wrote that Solomon had erred, that there had been a preliminary and official Israeli investigation of the shelling, and asked what corrective measures CBC would take.

The investigation itself defended the decision to fire on the building, asserted that “suspicious forces” were on the upper level of the building directing sniper and mortar fire, and that it was “saddened by the harm caused” to the innocent family. It noted the occupants of the residence had been asked repeatedly in recent days to evacuate because of intense fighting in the area.

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote the complainant June 8, 2010. She acknowledged the error and said she expected over the next few days that Solomon would offer “a correction saying that, in fact, the Israeli government did conduct an investigation of the incident” concluding the shelling resulted in the deaths.

The complainant wrote June 21, 2010, wondering when the correction might be broadcast. Enkin wrote back July 15, 2010, noting that there had been an earlier on-air statement.

Indeed, Solomon said on June 22:

“We want to clarify something on the broadcast last month. During an interview with the Palestinian doctor named Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, whose daughters and niece were killed during an Israeli raid in Gaza back in January, we said that the Israeli Army did not investigate the incident. In fact, the Israeli Army did investigate and concluded that four women were actually killed by the Israeli tank fire. However, there are still some, both Israelis and Palestinians, who believe this incident requires a formal and — this is the critical part — an independent investigation. In fact, in Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish's book he said it says in the introduction that he included that there is still no formal and independent Israeli investigation going on and the text goes on to say what the Israeli authorities have come out with so far isn't sufficient. So you can see that the debate about this tragic incident continues in this book, I Shall Not Hate.”

The complainant said the clarification was much softer than the correction he anticipated from Enkin's correspondence, and that the statement “came off as being disingenuous and as one that was done with begrudging orchestration.” He asserted that the investigation had expressed remorse at the harm to Abuelaish's family, that it had been a formal process, and that CBC was suggesting it didn't find the process valid.

Enkin wrote back that it was fair comment that Solomon said an independent investigation had not been conducted. A formal investigation was not an independent one, she noted. She asserted that the interview was not about how the incident was investigated but about the war's impact on Abuelaish's family and on his views.

The complainant asked for a review July 26. He asked if the use of the word “clarify” (instead of “correct”) constituted an unfair mitigation of the error. He sought more information about why the statement took so long to be made. He wanted to know if the statement sufficed and whether the initial interview and the clarification violated CBC journalistic standards.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time of the complaint identified policy for corrections. It stated: “The CBC will not hesitate to admit and correct a material error when it is established that one has been made. To do otherwise or to defend a program exhibiting poor taste or unacceptable ethics or containing errors would lead inevitably to loss of credibility by the CBC.” It said a senior manager in CBC News should “determine the nature and time of any correction” and that it “may, in some circumstances involve a retraction or an apology and have legal implications” that involve consultations with CBC's legal department.

The policy called for journalistic principles of accuracy, integrity and fairness to be upheld. On the matter of accuracy, it said the information must conform “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.”

Conclusion

The complaint revives a longstanding debate in journalism on how to describe an error and present an accurate record.

In journalism, there is a difference between a correction and a clarification. Corrections set straight factual mistakes. Clarifications make a statement more clear or help address a misunderstanding or unfair assumption about information that had been factually correct.

In general and not journalistic terms, it was not wrong to set out to “clarify” the information, but it would have been preferable to be journalistic and “correct” the information. A very clear correction best helps the audience understand that inaccurate information is being replaced with accurate information. Put another way: it isn't helpful to the audience to soften the approach to setting the record straight. A correction should be straightforward.

Solomon errantly said “the Israelis didn't even investigate this incident.” They had. While the independence of the investigation might be debatable, the initial mistake wasn't.

When the mistake was raised, CBC News promptly agreed to straighten the record within its standards and practices policy. It would have been preferable to correct the record publicly with the next available airtime. There was room for improvement, but in my judgment I do not find the two weeks it took CBC to make its statement a violation of standards and practices.

The policy said CBC will not hesitate to admit and correct mistakes, and the policy permitted CBC to determine when it provided the correction. In this instance, it admitted the mistake rapidly to the complainant and corrected the mistake in an adequate timeframe to the public.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman