Personal connection to story

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant asserted the interviewer did not conform to CBC journalistic policy on conflicts of interest when she interviewed someone she knew. I did not find a violation of policy, but there was room for improvement.

CBC Television's The National featured an interview August 20, 2012 by senior business correspondent Amanda Lang with Michael Bryant, former attorney general of Ontario.

Bryant was promoting his book that, in part, dealt with a fatal 2009 traffic accident in which he was involved shortly after he left politics. A cyclist died in the incident. Shortly thereafter Bryant left his corporate role. The charges laid against him were later withdrawn when the prosecutor concluded there was no reasonable prospect of conviction.

Lang extensively questioned Bryant on the incident, on the challenges he faced in the police investigation and pursuit of his legal case, and on the personal and professional aftermath. The segment and discussion that followed with host Ian Hanomansing ran nearly 16 minutes. A full version of the nearly-hour-long interview and a transcript were posted online.

Late in the interview, Lang noted that she had known Bryant “for a long time.” She asked how the incident had changed him. After the interview ran, Hanomansing asked Lang if she found any surprises in the book, given she knew Bryant and Bryant's former wife.

The complainant, Jon Melanson, wrote August 27 to express concerns about what he termed Lang's “unprofessional behaviour” in not disclosing her personal connection to Bryant.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back August 31 to say she was “rather puzzled” by Melanson's assertion.

“Early in the interview, Ms. Lang prefaced a question about how the incident had changed Mr. Bryant by saying, ‘I have known you a long time'. During a conversation with Ms. Lang following the interview, program host Ian Hanomansing said, ‘You mentioned that you have known him. You have known his ex-wife, as well, for some time. Given that, any surprises as you read his book?' So I think that relationship would have been clear to anyone watching the interview,” Enkin wrote.

Melanson wrote back August 31 to say he was dissatisfied with the answer and to request a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices identify integrity as a principle in its work. “The trust of the public is our most valued asset. We avoid putting ourselves in real or potential conflict of interest. This is essential to our credibility.”

While there are provisions in the policy to deal with stories involving journalists' family members, there are no provisions to deal with stories involving their friends or acquaintances.

Conclusion

In certain instances familiarity by journalists with their subjects can give rise to concerns about public trust in the impartiality of CBC, whose policy is to avoid real or potential conflicts.

As an experienced and prominent national journalist with a background in the political, financial and legal spheres, Lang is bound to know some of the people about whom she reports. This cannot be avoided, and in this circumstance, Lang and the program were right to disclose the acquaintance with Bryant. (It bears noting that she was not originally chosen to conduct the interview, but was assigned when another journalist's schedule could not be arranged with Bryant's availability.)

I considered her interview fair and challenging. The line of questioning was professional and of a high standard. Even though Bryant's life-changing ordeal had the potential to be treated sympathetically, I could not detect a whiff of favourable or light-handed treatment. In other words, there was no journalistic trade on their familiarity.

I would argue that the journalistic policy of avoiding perceived conflict is served better by the practice of alerting the audience to any personal connection at an early juncture.

In this instance, the disclosure came quite late in the interview — not early, as CBC suggested in correspondence with the complainant, but near the 13-minute mark of a 15:47 segment. The disclosure satisfied the policy, but some would have heard it late and others who would have tuned out early might never have heard it.

In that respect there was no violation of policy, but room for improvement.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman