Federal prison chaplain cuts

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the accuracy of a quote attributed to a government representative in a CBC.ca story on cuts to prison chaplain services. CBC News acknowledged the error and corrected the quote, but there was a violation of policy.

On October 4, 2012, CBC Vancouver published a story online on federal cuts to prison chaplain services.

The story was headlined: “Non-Christian prison chaplains chopped by Ottawa.”

It started: “The federal government is cancelling the contracts of non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons, CBC News has learned.”

It added: “Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance, according to the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada's penitentiaries.”

In September, the minister cancelled a tender to contract a Wiccan priest for British Columbia prisons. Toews said he was not certain part-time chaplains from a range of religions were an appropriate use of tax dollars and that he would review the matter.

CBC News followed the story. In it, a representative for the minister was quoted from an email exchange with CBC News that Toews supported freedom of religion and “the government is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.”

CBC News reported that the representative said Toews' review of the matter “has concluded . . . [Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.” In the online story, CBC News placed the word “Christian” in square brackets, but there was no mention of the word in the email exchange.

The story said all but one of the 80 full-time chaplains serving the federal inmate population of 23,000 was Christian. It said there were 100 part-time chaplains, 20 of them non-Christian. All of the part-time chaplains would be cut and the remaining chaplains would provide interfaith service.

The representative for Toews is the complainant in this instance, Julie Carmichael, director of communications for the public security minister. She wrote CBC News October 5 to note that her email to CBC News a day earlier about the cuts had not been accurately reported.

Carmichael noted that in the email exchange CBC journalist Paisley Woodward sought confirmation of information about the chaplain employment situation. Carmichael's response: “The Minister has concluded his review and has decided that chaplains employed by CSC must provide services to inmates of all faiths.” CSC is the acronym for Correctional Services Canada, the department that operates federal prisons.

Carmichael said she never suggested that only Christian chaplains would be providing the services. She wrote that the change to her quote — an insertion of “Christian” in squared brackets — changed the meaning significantly and was an “unethical practice” by CBC News.

Carmichael also noted that, when she complained, CBC News agreed there had been a mistake and committed to fix the problem — but didn't immediately. She had to complain again before it was fixed.

The revision was published and a correction was added October 5 that said: “An earlier version of this story attributed part of a quote to a ministry spokesperson that said Christian chaplains must provide services to inmates of all faiths. The quote should have not included the word ‘Christian.'

Carmichael wrote this Office on October 11 and said the correction and apology were inadequate. She noted that since the story appeared, there had been “countless media reports” citing the initial story that all non-Christian chaplains were being cut.

Wayne Williams, CBC Vancouver news director, wrote Carmichael on October 15.

“The story did include inaccurate information. The error was inadvertent, as indeed was the delay in correcting it,” Williams wrote. “In both instances the responsibility is entirely ours, for which I offer my sincere apologies.”

Williams set out to explain how the word “Christian” made its way into the online story.

“In an effort to be clear about the changes here, our reporter added the word ‘Christian' in square brackets – clearly indicating that it was added by the reporter and was not part of the quotation – in the draft script for a television graphic to indicate that those chaplains currently under contract would provide services to inmates of all faiths.”

He continued: “At the time, we understood that all chaplains under contract were Christian. Later in the day, we were provided with new information. As a result, we removed the added word from the final version of the script because it was inaccurate and also because it would have altered the original meaning of the quote. That is part of the process of collecting information and preparing and editing news stories. The word did not appear in the graphic or in any of our broadcast stories.”

But: “Regrettably, the online writer prepared his story from the draft script and inadvertently included the information that had already been revised or removed from the final television script.”

Williams said the original journalist for the story, Paisley Woodward, noticed from home in the evening of October 4 that the word “Christian” had not been dropped from the online story. She asked an online editor to fix the story, but “much to her chagrin and ours,” discovered the next morning that the word had not been dropped. It was corrected on the morning of October 5.

Williams assured Carmichael there was no “unethical” approach involved in the handling of the content.

He added: “Since then, we have reviewed and strengthened our editorial procedures, especially the way stories are moved from one platform to another.”

Carmichael wrote this Office on October 23 to request a review. She said readers would not have known that the journalist, and not the minister, had inserted the word “Christian” in the quote. The correction did little to address the matter, because since the initial report several news organizations had followed the story with the original CBC information. She sought the broadcast of an apology and clarification.

CBC had followed its story in its Community Blog on October 5 and stated: “Our story on the federal government's plan to cancel the contracts of non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons was the most-viewed story on CBC.ca overnight.” CBC Nova Scotia carried a subsequent story October 9.

Carmichael wrote: “The reporter's unjustified insertion of the word ‘Christian' shaped the trajectory of the reporting of this policy initiative in a manner that betrayed CBC's willingness to see what it wants in stories rather than report the facts.”

She said: “Countless articles and television coverage said that the Minister had cut all non-Christian chaplains from the program. This is in fact not accurate.”

She continued: “Such practices undermine the ability of the public to trust CBC as a news organization. It also undermines the willingness of political actors to deal with the CBC. Why should an interview subject provide the CBC with a response when its reporters feel free to insert words into quotes which completely alter their sense and meaning?”

Carmichael said the error “has substantially affected the political discourse on this subject.”

She said: “An obscure correction box will not fix that. When CBC makes an error of this sort that affects the political coverage of an issue then the correction needs to occur within the same framework of political coverage. This is the only way that this fundamental breach of trust in the CBC as a reporter of political events can be rectified.”

Carmichael later corresponded that the number of cuts totaled 49 — including 31 Christian chaplains and 18 non-Christians. That leaves 71 Christian and two non- Christian full-time employee chaplains.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate presentation of information and prompt publication of any necessary correction “with due regard” of the original information's reach.

The policy permits CBC News to determine if an archived story should be overwritten with a fresh story or augmented with a simpler correction. The policy calls for “open and straightforward” presentation of statements in which “we make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees” so the audience can judge the “relevance and credibility of their statements.” CBC can take a different approach “in exceptional cases and for serious cause,” the policy says.

CONCLUSION

The CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy calls for accurate presentation of information and the clearest possible production of content.

The practice of inserting bracketed words into statements is typically performed to clarify the ambiguous, compress a long passage, or improve the reader's comprehension of a quote.

In this instance, I concluded the insertion of the square-bracketed word “Christian” did not accurately reflect the intent of the statement by the minister's representative.

I concluded that a reader would not reasonably infer the government representative uttered the word but might reasonably infer the representative meant for the word to be stated or included — and that CBC News believed it should be. Such was not the case and it was a violation of policy.

But I did not conclude that the insertion of the word “Christian” or the focus on the cuts of non-Christian chaplains somehow “betrayed CBC's willingness to see what it wants in stories rather than report the facts,” as the complainant wrote. Only weeks earlier the minister had suggested that employing chaplains from a range of religions might not be the best use of tax dollars. CBC and other media were pursuing that theme.

The more probable explanation for the error involves the process responsible for it.

Like many media organizations, CBC has integrated its newsrooms to produce content for broadcast and online media. But it is still refining processes to seamlessly handle multi-platform content. I accept that, in this instance, journalists serving different platforms were not apprised of each other's understanding or production. I concluded the mistake was a growing pain of fledgling multimedia journalism and that there was no violation of policy. I note the newsroom recognized there was a flaw in its multiplatform production process and has since enhanced its oversight of content to avoid a repeat episode.

The contracts for all non-Christian chaplains were among the cuts of part-time chaplains in the federal prison service.

That being said, information provided by the minister's representative during this review indicated that errant information remained in the story. According to the complainant, who is in a position of authority about the information, the cuts totaled 49 contractual part-time chaplains, including 31 Christian and 18 non-Christian chaplains. Of the full-time chaplains employed by CSC, 71 are Christian and two are non-Christian, she says. (CBC News, acting upon this new information, corrected the story.)

Journalistic policy deems that material believed to be true at the time of publication can be updated as CBC News sees fit. Given the variance of the complainant's information with what was published, a correction would serve the policy.

The effect of the cuts was to leave the remaining full-time federal chaplains — all but two of them Christian — to conduct interfaith services among a geographically spread population of 23,000. In that context, it should not be surprising that this move prompted concerns, debate and further coverage by CBC and others. I think this would have happened even had the government representative's quote not featured the bracketed word.

The complainant expressed concern about the placement of the correction and the lack of any apology. CBC journalistic policy leaves discretion on specific measures to correct content to CBC. In previous findings I have suggested that corrections be prominent and be delivered to the audience that first received the errant information.

But CBC is able to fulfill policy online by placing corrections and clarifications in a box at the end of stories and determine if a serious enough mistake was made to decide if a broadcast correction or clarification is required.

It is important to note that the day-to-day mandate of this Office as an appeal authority on public com plaints is to assess if policy was fulfilled — not to set policy or recommend through the complaint process that it be altered. (In the Office's annual report, such issues can be highlighted and recommendations can be made.) I concluded that in this respect there was no policy violation.

On a related matter: I am concerned about the presence of email interviews that yield statements from unidentified representatives. While this practice is at times the only way sources of information will disclose, journalistic policy compels CBC to make every effort to identify interview subjects.

The practice of publishing anonymous statements does not permit the public to understand who is making the statement — only that the government is doing so. The overall impact is a diminution of journalistic service and independence and a weakening of the public record.

While not a violation of journalistic policy that calls for clarity of information sources — readers at least knew the statement was coming from the federal department — I believe there is room for improvement in this practice to minimize anonymous provision of information that would not be considered sensitive, classified or the material of traditional anonymous sources.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman