Changes to Tim Horton's

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review involves concerns that stories on CBC.ca of changes to the menu and ambience of the Tim Horton's restaurant chain in Canada were advertisements posing as news. I found no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On October 17, 2011, a story from The Financial Post was posted on CBC.ca about the addition of lasagna to the menu of the Tim Horton's restaurant chain in Canada in an effort to grab a larger share of the dining market. CBC.ca then posted an online survey, asking if people thought they might try the lasagna.

On November 12, it carried a story from The Canadian Press about the chain's plans to change the ambience of its restaurants.

The complainant, Ian King, wrote November 14 and said the coverage constituted “free advertising” and that certain phrases “read as if they are directly from a press release, but with no attribution.”

He noted two such phrases: that the menu changes were added to “traditional offerings Canadians know and love Tim's for” and that the changes were being made “while maintaining the low cost and fast service it's known for.”

He asked: “Please address this worrying trend of press releases being reworked, sometimes with very few changes, as ‘news stories.' Also, please explain why menu changes at one particular restaurant chain warrant coverage by Canada's public broadcaster.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote King on January 5, 2012, to say that the definition of news is wide enough to constitute “events that are likely to be significant or interesting to Canadians, among them business stories.” She noted the chain is Canada's largest and that editors thought the restaurant changes would interest Canadians, including shareholders

The online survey on the menu change was “a way of encouraging reader involvement — something readers tell us they enjoy.” While the topic is popular, it is not and is not intended to be advertising.

Enkin also said she could not determine if the phrases King cited were from the press releases on the topics but that she had drawn his concerns to the attention of The Canadian Press.

King wrote back January 6 to say he was dissatisfied with the explanation about the attribution of the phrases. He asked for a review

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices require CBC to be independent of all “economic influence.” It calls for CBC to “avoid putting ourselves in real or perceived conflict of interest.”

The policy does not specifically address issues of copying content from press releases. A core principle of journalism everywhere is never to plagiarize.

Conclusion

The line between editorial and advertising content can seem quite faint at times. Journalism regularly feasts at a table staged for public relations. The presence of promotional activities in news space is not a new phenomenon. The challenge for every news organization is to weigh who benefits most — the audience or the entity being covered

Even when the right choice is made, many people will decry the allocation of resources to publicity seekers instead of more solemn pursuits. News organizations have to realize that publicity seekers come in all shapes and sizes in sports, arts, politics, lifestyle and business and be wary of how such staged content can infiltrate and dominate its offerings. But it is also fair to say that the traditional model of news is evolving and accommodating more such material.

There are legitimate instances in which a well-advertised service or good fits the boundary of newsworthiness, in that they have sufficient relevance to the public to warrant attention or coverage.

In this instance, I concluded CBC News was trying to hit a populist chord in carrying news about the restaurant chain, a significant Canadian-based enterprise with revenues of more than $2.5 billion annually. Millions in the CBC audience would have found the content relevant to some degree. While the stories concerned a large advertiser, they legitimately fit the modern definition of newsworthiness.

(The complainant cited two stories, but it should be noted there was a third similar one on November 2, when CBC.ca noted Tim Horton's would soon add espressos, lattes and cappuccinos to its coffee menu to further compete with the coffee chains. It updated the story November 8 after the McDonald's chain announced its own line of designer coffees.)

I note that the online survey about whether people might try the new dish was careful to point out that this was not a scientific poll but a sampling of reader responses.

I agreed with the complainant that two phrasings in the CP story — one about the menu items that Canadians “know and love” and one about low price and fast service Tim Hortons is “known for” — would have benefited from editing by CBC News. I could find no evidence that the descriptions originated in press releases. But they were not violations of policy, just elements that could have been improved.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman