Robotics competition

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review concerns a complaint about inaccuracy and the narrow focus in a CBC Radio Ottawa item on a robotics competition. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, but there was room for improvement.

On November 12, 2011, CBC Radio Ottawa carried an item reporting that a national robotics competition in Toronto had been cancelled due to declining interest.

The introduction to the item ran: “Canada's national robotic competition this weekend has been called off. Organizers say children's interest in building robots is dying down.”

It also carried an item on CBC.ca on the matter. The online article began: “Canada's national robotic competition has been called off because of a dying interest in building robots, according to the event's president. Steve Jones said attendance to this weekend's competition, which was scheduled to take place in Toronto at the Ontario Science Centre, was going to be down to half its normal number.”

Both reports then focused on an Ottawa family that had been intending to participate in the competition. The reports included comment that young people were not as interested in robots as they had once been, but also featured an enthusiast with a different view.

The complainant, Tony Wohlfarth, wrote that day to note that a provincial competition was actually taking place later that month, an indication that it was premature to suggest the national contest was cancelled. A CBC producer wrote back to say the report would be checked.

On November 15, Wohlfarth wrote to say that the national competition in this case was only one small element of the event, the “sumo” robotic contest. He wrote again November 16 to note the Ontario Science Centre gathering, Robots Rule, had gone ahead and that one group had pulled out of the smaller event within the larger one. He noted how other media covered the gathering.

Wohlfarth and a CBC producer exchanged correspondence November 23. Wohlfarth encouraged coverage of the province-wide robotics competition in Toronto, while the producer made no commitment.

Wohlfarth wrote CBC November 29 to say he had attended the Toronto event and that it represented a much different perspective than the one left by the earlier story.

He then wrote this Office to outline his complaint that the “public has been left with a misleading view of youth participation in robotics competitions in Canada.”

Paula Waddell, the executive producer of CBC Ottawa Regional News, wrote back December 16 and apologized for the time it had taken to respond. She said CBC agreed “that the language used, especially in the introduction to the story, should have been more clear. Our story was about the cancellation of one individual competition at a larger robotics event being held in Toronto. That information was given in a confusing, incomplete manner in the introduction. The reporter was reminded to be more diligent about scripting introductions to news items. She is committed to improving her craft.”

Waddell said CBC did speak to an organizer of the competition, who noted a decline in registration and said it was the first time he'd cancelled a competition in a decade. The report also noted that an Ottawa robots enthusiast said the local industry was growing.

“Notwithstanding the lack of clarity in the introduction, I am satisfied that the story itself met the requirements of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices,” Waddell wrote.

Wohlfarth wrote back December 21 to note there was no commitment to correct, retract or clarify the item. On January 24, 2012, he said that he wanted a review of the matter.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices emphasize the need for accurate and fair reporting. Part of that commitment involves dealing with errors.

“We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly,” the policy states.

Conclusion

The reports were not wrong, but they could have left the impression in their first few words that the major national robotics competition had been cancelled. In fact, only a smaller contest at the larger gathering, and only one of several competitions at a national level, failed to take place.

CBC Ottawa acknowledged it could have been clearer and took responsibility by reviewing the matter with the reporter. There was room for improvement but no violation of journalistic policy.

Time has passed to make a radio report clarification less than effective, but online clarifications are generally useful because the permanent record might be used for reference purposes or for further reporting.

I note that, in discussion for the review, CBC Ottawa offered to clarify the wording in the story to create a clearer record. This is a very helpful, responsive approach to the complaint.

The reports quoted an Ottawa robot enthusiast on the continued strong support for robotics. I concluded the inclusion of the enthusiast's observations fulfilled policy on fairness and accuracy in providing an account of youth involvement in robotics.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman