High school bullying

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review involved a complaint about CBC Radio New Brunswick segments on high school bullying. There was room for improvement on a minor issue, but no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices on the major issues.

On February 15, 16 and 17, 2012, CBC Radio New Brunswick's Fredericton-based Information Morning program aired three segments on high school bullying.

The first two February 15 and 16 featured an interview with a woman whose identity was shielded. She asserted one of her daughters had been bullied three years earlier and provided extensive details of the incidents and her perspective on how Fredericton High School responded.

Online stories were created from these segments. One noted the mother hired a bodyguard to protect her daughter. Another indicated her daughter had a “suicide box” of notes in case her despondence deepened. The second part of the interview was transcribed. The daughter eventually transferred to another school, the mother said.

Radio host Terry Seguin noted several times in the extensive interview over two mornings that the incidents occurred three years earlier under a different school administration. Both segments featured only the mother, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect the safety of the daughter she said had been bullied and her other daughters still in school.

A third segment February 17 featured Shane Thomas, the principal of the Fredericton High School; Kevin Pottle, the principal of cross-town Leo Hayes High School; and Heather Smith, president of the New Brunswick Teachers Federation. They summarized efforts that had been made in recent years to deal with bullying. An online story was produced from that segment.

During this period CBC News also reported the New Brunswick education minister was promising tougher legislation to combat bullying. CBC New Brunswick committed resources before and since to coverage of the issue.

The complainant, principal Shane Thomas, wrote February 20 and described the reports February 15 and 16 as half-truths that were not verifiable. He said his school had been unable to confirm the bullying incident, that CBC had led people to believe their children would not be safe at the school, and that CBC “made every teacher in the school appear to be uncaring, unprofessional and less-than-human.”

Andrew Cochran, the CBC managing director for the Maritimes, wrote back March 20. He said CBC considered the story important and had subjected it to the typically diligent process of verification before broadcast.

“I regret that your investigation shows your staff ‘have no recollection of this incident.' We know as a fact that there are people who do remember,” Cochran wrote.

Thomas subsequently discussed the matter with Cochran and Dan Goodyear, CBC New Brunswick's executive producer. Thomas indicated CBC was not able to prove the episode occurred.

Thomas asserted that, despite discussions with Cochran and Goodyear, several issues remained involving verification. He identified some:

  • CBC said it had documents about the girl's transfer to another school; Thomas said there were several reasons for such transfers and that didn't necessarily suggest bullying.
  •  CBC said it had invoices from psychologists and counselors; Thomas said that didn't mean incidents had occurred at the high school.
  • CBC said there had been mediation of the matter; Thomas said two mothers dealt with the matter, but that did not constitute the school board's definition of mediation.
  •  CBC said it had emails about the matter; Thomas said CBC was not able to produce them at his meeting.
  •  CBC had an email from a former student who said he thinks he was one of the bullies in question; Thomas said the former student's description of a particular incident did not match what the mother described.

Thomas said CBC was shielding any information about its journalism behind provisions in information law that created exclusions for journalistic endeavours. He asked for a review and an apology to the school.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices counsel even-handed, respectful treatment of groups and individuals. It calls for seeking out “the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

The policy observes a right of privacy and says it works “in the public interest when we reveal information that helps our audience make decisions about matters of public debate and when we expose illegal activity, anti-social behaviour, corruption, abuse of trust, negligence and incompetence, or a situation that poses a risk to the health and safety of others.”

The policy permits CBC to shield identities of interview subjects “in exceptional cases and for serious cause” and with an explanation to the audience “without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.”

On the issue of sources, the policy calls for care in disclosing the publication of documents to not inadvertently leak the source of them. It notes the importance of anonymous sources in exposing matters of public interest. But it adds: “We must make every effort to establish the source's credibility and find means to corroborate the information.”

Additionally, the policy notes the importance of sensitivity when children are involved in stories and the general respect for the judgment of parents in those stories.

Conclusion

Even three years later, the story had strong public interest and CBC had to take measures to tell the story while protecting privacy.

On the basis of my review, I am satisfied CBC News sufficiently verified the bullying episodes with several sources of information, including someone close to the mother who essentially experienced the impact of the incidents in real time three years earlier. CBC described multiple sources in sufficient detail to satisfy me it had properly verified the mother's and daughter's identities and stories.

But verification gave rise to a dilemma: The same documents and discussions that satisfied CBC would — if shared with school authorities — have alerted them to the identities of the mother, daughter, and officials who dealt with the matter. In other words, CBC could not disclose to the complainant what it had because that would have revealed to the complainant what CBC appropriately needed to shield.

On those main points of the journalistic process, there were no violations of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Two other matters weighed in this review.

First, the program host mentioned a few times that the incidents took place three years ago under a different school administration — to my mind, this couldn't be mentioned enough, particularly in light of the third segment in which the complainant and others noted several programs to fight bullying. That being said, the host reminded listeners often enough to keep the segment sufficiently in context and to be fair to the existing administration.

This fulfilled policy.

Second, the program presented the first and second segments of the interview with the mother with no accompanying response from the school or any indication there would be one at a later date.

In the course of the review, CBC News indicated there had been plans for a third segment to discuss the wider issues of bullying. In that segment it hoped to feature the school principal, but CBC was not initially assured of his appearance. It then planned for a teachers' representative and an academic education expert to participate.

Only on the evening before the third segment did it gain agreement of the two principals to appear. It kept the teachers' representative and cancelled the appearance of the academic expert. There were no opportunities to promote this extensively, but it was better to stage the segment than wait any longer.

No matter how vague were its initial plans, CBC would have helped the audience understand its commitment to fairness much earlier if it had signaled its intention to discuss the wider issue in a third segment the next day or the day after that.

Further, in the absence of presenting a representative of the school or the board adjoining the first segment, it could have provided a general understanding of those perspectives. By the end of the second segment, it could have provided the response from the school or the board to the first or both segments or signaled its effort to gain one.

While this was not a violation of policy — the next day would feature an ample discussion of the school's perspectives — there was some room for improvement.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman