Request to correct or unpublish allergen alert

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint questioned the fairness of a 2010 CBC.ca story about an allergy alert on baked goods and included a request to “unpublish” it. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On December 3, 2010, CBC.ca carried a story on a product allergy alert involving some of the fruitcake products made by Grandpa Jimmy's Scottish Bakery and sold in Hamilton and London, Ontario.

The story, headlined “Allergy alert for Grandpa Jimmy's baked goods,” noted in its first paragraph: “People with milk or sulphite allergies are being warned to avoid Grandpa Jimmy's Christmas baking, because it may contain allergens not listed on the label.”

The story quoted an unidentified employee of the company as saying there had been a labeling problem and that there was nothing wrong with the products.

The story went on to list the affected products and note there had been no reports of illness associated with their consumption.

But it cautioned: “Eating these products could result in serious or life-threatening reactions for people with milk or sulphite allergies.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) had issued the alert a day earlier in a news release and noted the bakery was complying by voluntarily recalling the products. (It subsequently updated the alert to extend the list of the affected products.)

The complainant, Bob Hosford, is the proprietor of the bakery. He wrote CBC on April 26, 2012, to say that the story's lingering online presence was an “impediment” for his firm. He complained: “We feel we have been punished enough already for what was in effect product label oversights.”

Hosford attached a press release the bakery issued a week after the alert.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back May 15.

“While I can readily appreciated your concern in these circumstances, it is CBC policy not to remove or alter archived stories other than in the most exceptional circumstances,” Enkin wrote. “If a story is inaccurate, we will correct it and advise readers that we have changed it. But once a story is published it is a matter of public record. To simply remove it from the archive would take us into rather treacherous waters. Selectively removing stories, however good the reason seems at the time, is in effect censoring them, altering the past.”

Hosford wrote again August 1. He said the story appeared prominently in search engine queries on his company and created a “very negative picture for customers” that was “like having the report pinned on the front door of my business for the past 20 months.”

Hosford said there had been 26 other milk allergen recalls before and since his and only one other CBC report on them. Hosford said he hadn't asked for the report to be removed, but he asserted it suggested that all of its products should be avoided. He wanted the report corrected.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accuracy: “We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.

On the issue of corrections, it notes: “In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred.”

As for correcting archived material: “In the world of digital on demand, material may be accessible long after its original publication or broadcast. A dated story is not necessarily wrong. It is a reflection of the facts known at the time of publication. It can be an important part of the historical record.”

It adds: “But there may be times, in the 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.”

It further states: “Any changes to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.”

There is a specific policy on requests for deletion. It reads, in part: “Our published content is a matter of public record. To change the content of previously published material alters that record. Altering the record could undermine our credibility and the public's trust in our journalism.

There can be exceptions to this position – where there are legal or personal safety considerations to the person named.”

Conclusion

I understood in the early correspondence that the complainant was seeking deletion of the story and in later correspondence seeking a correction, so I will deal with both issues.

I wrote in an earlier finding that I sympathized with newsmakers that felt the enduring impact of an online story. The arrival of the Internet, and particularly the development of sophisticated search engines, has etched a much more accessible permanent record with significant consequences.

The role of the Ombudsman is to interpret if policy was met. That being said, CBC's policy is not to “unpublish” online material unless there are personal safety considerations about the original story. Its policy does not extend to dealing with the impact on a business or organization, nor does it deal with the impact associated with search engine results. Like most other news organizations, CBC argues that deleting online content is the equivalent of erasing history.

I concluded it fulfilled policy in deciding not to delete the content as requested.

The story said people with milk or sulphite allergies were being warned to “avoid Grandpa Jimmy's Christmas baking.” The story itself said the products in question “may” contain allergens not listed on the label. The story phrasing was not unfair or inaccurate — certain people were being warned about the Christmas baking ultimately because of the ingredients, not just because the products hadn't been fully labeled.

I concluded there was sufficient precision in the story's phrasing to reasonably conclude not all of the bakery's products were part of the alert — just the Christmas-related ones.

Generally speaking, the Ombudsman's mandate does not extend into day-to-day editorial decision-making, a matter that respects the independence of the news organization. But in this instance the complainant said CBC's decision to cover the alert relating to his business (but not other similar alerts involving other businesses) could be construed as unfair.

I can understand why CBC found the allergen alert newsworthy, given that the baked goods were of particular relevance and public interest at that time of year. But I concluded that its choice to cover one alert did not compel it to cover other alerts in order to fulfill any journalistic policy consideration.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman