Noting changes to content

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved a news agency story distributed and later augmented by CBC.ca. The story was not inaccurate, but I found a minor violation of journalistic policy when the audience was not alerted to clarifications in the content.

On July 30, 2012, CBC.ca carried a story from The Canadian Press on that day's U.S. political campaigning by Republican Mitt Romney, soon to be his party's nominee for the presidency.

The story focused on Romney's statements on the Middle East and a notable absence: “Romney made no mention in his speech that Israel has had control over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem since 1967.”

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, is the executive director of HonestReporting Canada, an organization that scrutinizes media Middle East coverage. He wrote August 2 and said the sentence was inaccurate.

“Contrary to this statement, in 2005 Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip removing its 8,500 settlers and combined armed forces,” Fegelman said. “Additionally, as a result of the Israeli- Palestinian agreements following the Oslo Accords of 1993 and subsequent unilateral Israeli withdrawals, the Palestinian Authority now governs the civil affairs of the 98 per cent of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank. In Area C of the West Bank, a sparsely populated land under Israeli control, just four per cent of Palestinians call this area home. As to Israel's settlements, they make up less than three per cent of the West Bank's overall territory.”

Fegelman pointed to an Associated Press report of that same day and how it described what wasn't said: ““Romney made no mention of the fact that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem since capturing them in the 1967 war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to control access, and has enforced a crippling border blockade since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory in 2007. In the West Bank, Israel retains overall control, and Palestinians only have limited self-rule. Israel controls all border crossings in and out of the West Bank.”

He sought a correction to the story CBC.ca was carrying from CP.

Marissa Nelson, acting director of digital media for CBC News, wrote back August 8 to say that the story was not inaccurate.

“The story did not refer to Israeli occupation, it said – accurately – that Israel has ‘control over' the two areas. To ensure that is clear to readers, we have added a paragraph to the story explaining the nature and extent of that control,” she wrote.

Fegelman wrote back August 10 to say that the addition clarified the story, but that CBC News should have been clearer in noting how it amended the article so the audience knew which information had been added.

Nelson subsequently asserted that the initial story was not inaccurate and did not require a correction or clarification notice when information was added.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices address the handling of errors. CBC does “not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred.” It adds: “When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.”

The policy alludes to the permanence of archived material and that “there may be times, in light of new information, that archived material is substantially wrong. In those cases we review the material and take appropriate action that could include revising the original material, including a correction box or writing a fresh story.”

t adds: “Any change to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.”

Conclusion

Upon receipt of the complaint, CBC News added information from the Associated Press story to the file from The Canadian Press and noted at the end of the story that it contained “files” from AP. This was a healthy response to a public concern.

I did not conclude that the initial story was inaccurate, but I believe CBC News had an opportunity to be more transparent about what it had added in the second version.

Digital journalism is often iterative and it is not always apparent how content has been changed along the way. Helping the reader involves not only improving content but also explaining how and why it was done.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for prompt, thorough correction to a “significant error.” It also states, “any change to the original material will be noted,” wording that I take to mean “any” changes and not just to “substantially wrong” content.

As a result, I concluded that it was a minor, technical violation of the correction policy not to note in a clarification that new material in the story was spelling out the nature of Israel's territorial control. I acknowledge that every change can't necessarily be identified along the way, but in this instance I concluded there was a significant enough addition to content to merit a notation of the change.

My conclusion is based in part on the timing and nature of the story: As election-related content, the story is likely not only to be read immediately but searched and referenced later. Noting the additional content does not suggest an initial fault and carries a larger purpose to help the public infer that a concern about content was acknowledged and addressed.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman