Political characterization of organizations

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review concerns a complaint about the description of a think-tank as one that “leans sharply to the left.” CBC News acknowledged a violation of its journalistic practice and committed to remind its staff about its policy.

CBC Television's The National carried a report January 3, 2012 on a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the income gap in Canada. CBC.ca also reported on the matter and carried the television item and other links on its site.

The Centre concluded that the highest-paid chief executive officers in Canada were widening the gap with the average worker. It said the 100 highest-paid executives whose companies were listed on the S&P/TSX composite were earning 189 times what the average worker made: $8.38 million in 2010, a 27 per cent increase over a year earlier, compared to $44,366 for the average Canadian wage.

The National noted that the Centre “leans sharply to the left.” The CBC.ca report identified the Centre as “left-leaning.”

The complainant, Tom Anderson, wrote January 4 to note the television report characterized the Centre but did not characterize the Conference Board of Canada in the same report. He suggested there was a double standard at work.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back January 18. “There is no double standard. It is CBC News practice to avoid such labels altogether.”

Enkin noted that the report also endeavoured to show that the top 20 per cent of income earners had been earning roughly the same percentage of the national income in the last 20 years. To do so it presented information from the Conference Board demonstrating growth from about 37 per cent 20 years ago to more than 39 per cent currently.

“The use of such political characterizations – terms like, ‘left of centre' and ‘right of centre' or ‘right-wing' and ‘left-wing' or ‘right-leaning' and ‘left-leaning' – to describe organizations like this is counter to long-established CBC News practice because such terms may be inaccurate or misleading.”

She continued: “I have drawn our senior editors' attention to your e-mail, and directly reminded them that it is our practice not to use such characterizations.”

Anderson wrote again April 2 to seek a review and to say this was part of a pattern of characterizations indicative of journalism that had veered from objectivity to the political right.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for “clear and accessible” presentation of content. “Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism,” it notes. “Our language should be simple, clear and concrete .”

It adds: “The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.”

Conclusion

I note that the CBC.ca story that accompanies the video continues to refer to the Centre as “left-leaning.” As CBC itself notes, there could be better wording to describe the think-tank.

I did not share the complainant's view that the report was inaccurate in describing a “slow” rise in the proportion of national income earned by the top 20 per cent over the last 20 years. The report made efforts to show the steady but not marked climb.

I have some sympathy when journalists attempt to compress complex information into a short television report by simplifying labels and descriptions, but it is commendable that CBC News believes nuance can be added to provide a fuller understanding and that there should be such description widely.

When CBC News acknowledged a violation of policy in the correspondence with the complainant and said it had reminded programmers of the need to avoid such characterization as “left” and “right,” there was nothing further to review.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman