Complaint from Ed Hennessey of Safety First - SFC Ltd. about a CBC report on a New Brunswick workplace
I am writing with regard to your complaint July 22, 2010, and request August 30, 2010, for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning a television report on CBC New Brunswick July 13. A radio report was also carried that day and an online report on CBC News.ca was carried the following day.
I deeply regret the time it has taken to deal with this matter. There were legitimate obstacles in discussing the matter locally during the summer holiday period, and it appears that some emails went missing between you and this Office that compounded delays. In joining the Office in November, I have been helping incumbent Ombudsman Vince Carlin deal with a backlog. But that is of little solace to your situation. It has taken far too long to review this file and I sincerely apologize.
The complaint involved CBC News reports (prompted by a Fredericton blog post) focused on a former highway construction safety worker who asserted he quit his job because he was not provided a break to use the bathroom. There were two television reports in connection with this story — one on the early edition of the newscast and one an hour later on the supper-hour show. (Details on the television reports are included here in the absence of archived video online.)
In the first report, journalist Catherine Harrop provided the account of Robert Sewell, a former employee of Safety First – SFC Ltd. Sewell asserted he was in the second hour of his shift as a flagman one day on a highway construction site and couldn't get a bathroom break. He told her he ended up urinating in his pants, that it was humiliating and degrading, that he walked off the job when a supervisor arrived, and that he later called his boss to say he was quitting. The CBC anchor, Harry Forrestall, indicated that a second report in an hour's time would provide the company's side of the story.
In the second report, Harrop spent the first minute and 20 seconds on Sewell's assertions. The next 25 seconds of the report included an observation from another Safety First employee (who had experience in city-based crews, but had never worked on a highway crew) about how it would be “rare” to not get a break for three hours.
Harrop then indicated that WorkSafeNB, the provincial workplace regulator, had no specific policies concerning workplace bathroom breaks except that they needed to be provided. She said WorkSafeNB was going to ask Safety First about the matter. She added: “Maybe Safety First will return its calls. It hasn't returned ours.”
At that point, the story's setting shifted to a CBC editing suite, from which Harrop noted that, in fact, she'd just finished talking to a representative of Safety First who had looked into the matter (presumably at her request).
Harrop quoted the Safety First representative as saying that, in 17 years of running crews, he had never seen anything like this. She said he had spoken with the crew supervisor and been assured that work breaks were adequate. Harrop then said the company representative told her that Sewell had been involved in a “power struggle” with the local supervisor and that Sewell had a cellular phone to use at the site if he'd wanted to complain at the time to a supervisor higher in the organization.
A CBCNews.ca report the following day repeated Sewell's assertions. Its story introduction: “A Fredericton road worker quit his job after he was forced to urinate in his pants while directing traffic because his company failed to provide a break.”
The online story's first six paragraphs provided Sewell's assertions. Two paragraphs dealt with the WorkSafeNB guideline on breaks. Then the story included three paragraphs about the company's version of events before adding three more from Sewell about how he couldn't just leave the scene. Two more paragraphs provided observation from the other safety worker quoted in the television report.
The complainant asserted that Harrop had only made contact in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, at about 3:30 p.m. on July 22, and had asked what he thought about an employee urinating on himself because proper breaks were not provided. The complainant said he told her this was not a matter about which he was aware and that time was needed to check into the details.
The complainant said Harrop told him she had been trying to reach him earlier and that she gave him very little time to find more information for her report. Regardless, he said he was told the story was to run that evening — it was about an hour and a half to airtime. He also asserted that, in her earlier phone messages, Harrop did not provide information about what she was seeking.
The complaint asserts that CBC News failed to provide balance in the story and didn't interview relevant parties other than Sewell. It expressed concern with the approach CBC took in pressing for a quick response and felt that it wasn't principled or reflective of its Journalistic Standards and Practices.
CBC News responded that it wasn't possible to talk to other employees involved on that site because the specific highway project was completed. It noted that another Safety First employee commented in the piece that bathroom breaks had never been a problem in her experience in the company.
CBC said it worked hard to reach the complainant on July 18 and 19. Since it had included the company's comments, CBC News asserted the story was fair and balanced.
In the course of this review, CBC News also said it checked with the company representative what company-provided information CBC would use in the second television report before it aired. It should be noted that Sewell's attempts to file complaints with WorkSafeNB and the provincial Department of Labour were never accepted.
CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time of the complaint held as core principles accuracy (“careful and thorough research” and a “disciplined use of language”), integrity (“truthful” information) and fairness (information that “reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view” and “deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.”)
In calling for the “equitable treatment” of points of view, it elaborated: “Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.”
It noted: “When an appropriate representative of one side of the story cannot be reached, the journalist or producer should make every effort to find someone who can represent the point of view and, if unable to do so, should announce the fact in a simple and direct manner.”
It added: “Fairness must be the guiding principle in presentation, so that the audience is enabled to make a judgment on the matter in question based on the facts.”
The Standards and Practices have since been updated, but the principles of accuracy, fairness, balance and integrity prevail in serving the public interest, reflecting diversity, protecting independence and acting responsibly and accountably. On the issue of fairness, for instance, it says of people and organizations: “We treat them even-handedly.”
The complaint illuminates important questions about the standards and practices of journalism in which it is challenging to verify claims or in which there is no due process to assess them. To be congruent with the journalistic principle of minimizing harm, a story is optimally even-handed in presenting assertions and rebuttals.
In this instance, CBC News had to weigh radically differing versions of events from a company and a former employee. A significant part of its journalism was its evaluation of the credibility of a former worker's complaint without any supporting formal claims, evidence or eyewitnesses. This evaluation was important because the complaint had the potential to affect the company's reputation.
In the absence of ready verification, its obligation was to gather the company's version of events before determining if the story was journalistically credible.
Its first television report was most problematic because it presented the former employee's version of events as fact and did not include the company's defence or an explanation of why it wasn't presenting one. In that regard, it challenged fairness provisions under the Journalistic Standards and Practices. Although it is clear there were production pressures, it was evident the company had responded to the reporter just before the story aired. It would have been better to tell viewers about the company's perspective than to say they would receive it an hour later.
In the second television report, CBC News presented the former employee's tale, then indicated the company wasn't answering questions. The reporter's remark: “Maybe Safety First will return its (WorkSafeNB's) calls. It hasn't returned ours.” The remark could be perceived as unreflective of CBC Standards and Practices that called for a simple, direct way to indicate the unavailability of an interested party for the report.
More importantly, the statement was accurate when she taped it, but not when it aired. Even before the first report aired, the company had responded to the reporter's questions. It would have been prudent in the second report to edit the reporter's statement about the company's unavailability. As viewers found seconds later, the company was indeed answering the allegations.
The he-said-versus-company-said approach in that second report wasn't ideal, mainly because it positioned the company in a defensive posture and didn't use its response as an opportunity to return to the former employee for further newsgathering. While inclusion of the company's side of the story ensured it didn't breach CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, there was room for improvement.
The online story accepted the former employee's story. Indeed it used stronger language and asserted he was “forced” to urinate in his pants because the company had failed to provide a break. This assertion couldn't be proven. It had not been put forward in any forum in which the former employee would be held accountable or the company would be permitted to mount a defence. Ideally, the assertions needed to be attributed to the person making them. This imprecision of language was not in keeping with CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.
CBC News made four attempts to reach Safety First (three calls to Saint John, one to company headquarters in Dartmouth) before reaching a representative in Dartmouth. This was a very reasonable effort. It is not customary for news organizations to disclose in detail what they're seeking when they leave messages, because their stories will often shift in focus as they gather information, so there was no breach of guidelines as they pertain to proper representation.
When it connected, it was closing in on broadcast time. Optimally it would have delayed the story to sufficiently assess the former employee's claims, in part by asking him about the company's version of events — particularly the assertion that he had a cellular phone and had other avenues for getting the break he wanted.
It can be very challenging to mount multiple newscasts in a smaller market in the summer period. Nevertheless, the former employee's version of events — in the company's view, a version clouded by disgruntlement — was treated favourably.
Link to online report: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/new-brunswick/story/2010/07/14/nb-roadworker-urination-637.html
Link to updated Journalistic Standards and Practices: http://cbc.radio-canada.ca/docs/policies/journalistic/xml/policies.asp