Amnesty International report on capital punishment

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review follows a public complaint about reports on CBC Radio and CBC.ca about an Amnesty International report on capital punishment worldwide. While there was a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, CBC corrected the online error.

On March 27, 2012, CBC Radio's World Report and CBC.ca carried accounts of the annual Amnesty International report on capital punishment worldwide.

The radio script and report from New York-based reporter David Common ran about 90 seconds. The scripted introduction said the number of countries administering capital punishment had declined, but the number of people put to death had actually risen because of higher numbers in China and some Middle East countries.

Common said the United States was the “only G8 country that still upholds capital punishment.” The initial CBC.ca report also asserted this but was later changed to reflect the fact that Japan was another G8 country able to sentence people to death.

Among other things, Common said the United Nations was expected soon to call for a moratorium on capital punishment.

The complainant, Adam Grant, wrote CBC News on April 2 and said that the U.S. was not the only G8 country with capital punishment.

Grant said that “this would appear at first blush to be anti-American bias, or possibly a mixture of bias and incompetence. Alternatively, it could be a form of racial bias, in that CBC assumes ONLY Western or European nations are members of the G8.”

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote Grant on April 16. She said there was no bias involved, but acknowledged the reports had erred in saying the U.S. was the only G8 country with capital punishment.

Enkin noted the report said Japan also could sentence people to death: “While Japan and the United States – both members of the G8 – carry out judicial executions, Japan did not execute anyone in 2011.”

The online report was corrected to reflect the fact that the death penalty existed in Japan, but the radio report was not corrected, she said.

Grant wrote back April 25 that he was not satisfied with the response and asked for a review. He said the online story did not indicate it had earlier featured incorrect material. He asserted that the reporter either held the view that only western and European countries were in the G8 or held an anti-American view.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for fair, accurate and even-handed treatment of subjects. The policy requires impartiality that does not “promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

On the matter of corrections: “We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.”

Further: “We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.

Conclusion

CBC News acknowledged the error before a review took place. When it errs, it is in effect violating its standards and practices policy. When it corrects the record, it is also exercising its discretion in fulfilling its policy.

It was true that in 2011 the United States was the only G8 country that administered the death penalty. Japan, which has capital punishment on its books, did not execute anyone in 2011 (it has done so in 2012, so it cannot be said that it has ceased executions).

CBC proceeds on a case-by-case basis to determine if the error is sufficiently “significant” to merit a correction or recent enough for such a correction to be timely. The policy leaves open the door for CBC to decide “when a correction is necessary.”

The complainant indicated it is not clear what criteria CBC News employ to determine when and how and to whom it corrects. News organizations argue it is difficult to be specific about such matters because cases and their contexts are unique. There are, at least, similar processes involved when a decision is made to correct.

When it corrects a broadcast error, CBC News generally does so on the same program. In most online instances, stories will contain a boxed correction or clarification. (In this instance, though, the material was overwritten with no such notice. The complainant noticed the change, but it may not have been evident to many others.)

In earlier reviews I've noted the importance of correcting the record for the audience, not just acknowledging an error to a complainant. A correction is most helpful when the audience understands what was corrected, even in many cases why it was.

I have some sympathy, though, for the challenge of correcting content earlier broadcast. It can impede the flow of a program and never reach the same people who heard or saw the initial mistake.

Online corrections also don't reach the people who read the original story, but they are far less intrusive as content and can ensure the record is accurate for posterity. That being said, I agree with the complainant that overwriting content without alerting readers to the initial mistake is less helpful than a clearly identified correction or clarification.

The complainant suggested the mistake reflected a bias — either anti-Americanism or a view that only western and European countries could be G8 members. I did not see any basis to support or explore this assertion. Journalist David Common's correspondence in New York has included an extensive and distinguished international reporting file covering the United Nations and the United States. The error was simply that.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman