News “tease”

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant objected to the technique involved in promoting a story to come on CBC Television's The National. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On July 8, 2010, CBC Television's The National reported on the long-anticipated decision by LeBron James, a National Basketball Association star and free agent with several suitors, on where he would choose to play.

The speculation on his decision was a major sports story and even spurred a U.S. television sports network special in which James would announce his decision. Major media, including CBC News, covered the decision that night.

James announced his decision on live television just before The National's 10 p.m. eastern time broadcast — he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat — but CBC News chose to hold back the outcome as it touted the story. In advance of its report, The National promoted the item twice in the newscast.

In the first promotion of the story just before a commercial break, host Heather Hiscox noted that James “had made his decision and that is just ahead.” In the second promotion, Hiscox said the outcome was known: “Stick around and we'll tell you.”

In the last quarter-hour of the hour-long newscast, Hiscox read a script on his decision and the program carried a clip of James' announcement from the ESPN special.

The complainant, Ken Laing, wrote February 7, 2012 to express dissatisfaction with the prolonged “tease” of viewers. Laing said the essence of journalism was to provide information as quickly as it was accurately available.

Moreover, he said the decision to withhold the information did not reflect well on CBC News because, by the time its report ran in the last quarter-hour of the newscast, other media had already reported James' decision.

He asked: “What is CBC policy on using the news as ‘tease'?”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Laing on April 26, 2012. She apologized for the time it had taken to address his correspondence. (The correspondence also dealt with two separate concerns Laing had raised.)

Enkin wrote: “Television is a sequential medium and no matter how difficult the task may be it compels our senior editors to place stories in order, to decide which one is the most significant, which one will be seen first. It can be an agonizingly difficult decision, and often one that is hotly contested.” Enkin continued: “At the same time, we also want to tell our viewers what stories they can expect to see later in the program. Of course, we hope they will be interested enough to continue watching.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices compel direct presentation: “The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

Conclusion

The production technique of a tease is ubiquitous in broadcast news. Programmers believe that the audience will stay tuned if they learn an attractive story is imminent, and they fear the audience will desert their shows if they give away a story's content before it is presented. There is audience research on both of these points, but it is difficult to assess the true impact of the industry practice — or for that matter, any absence of it.

The mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman is to evaluate practice against policy. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy is sufficiently broad to permit CBC News to distribute partial doses of information as it wishes.

The policy calling for “clear and accessible” presentation does not also require the swiftest or most coherent delivery of available information. Nor does it prevent CBC from indicating — without revealing — content to come. While some might have been annoyed with the approach, there was no violation in this instance.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman