Statement on journalist's Twitter account

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involves a statement on a CBC journalist's Twitter account about gun ownership by Israelis. There was an inaccuracy in the statement, meaning a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On January 5, 2012, CBC News Senior Washington Correspondent Neil Macdonald posted on his Twitter account: “I lived in Israel, the most gun-owning population per capita on earth. Israelis seldom shoot one another. (Let's not go down the other path)”

Twitter distributes a message of up to 140 characters to followers of the message's creator through its website, via SMS, or through mobile applications. Those followers, in turn, can redistribute the Tweet to their followers. There are more than 140 million active users of the free service and they Tweet 340 million times daily.

The complainant, Jack Chivo, wrote February 22 and called the Tweet “a flagrant lie.” He considered the remark an affront to Israel and questioned how the statement could be published and why it was not corrected.

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back March 5 that Chivo had not attended to the context of the Tweet, a matter she acknowledged was challenging given “the short hand required in the exchange of ideas through 140-character Twitter messages.”

Enkin noted earlier posts by Macdonald reflected a discussion on “the relative value of restrictive gun laws” and how gun ownership does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with gun violence. Macdonald had pointed to a Virginia open-carry law and a reduction in gun violence before referring to Israel.

“Mr. Macdonald chose two examples with which he is familiar to make his point. Then realized, especially in light of the way he had phrased his Tweet, those following him might take this as an invitation to Tweet about Israel and the Middle East. So he wrote bluntly that he did not want to go down that path – that was not the issue at hand. He did not want to talk about who the Israelis do shoot or for that matter who shoots at the Israelis,” Enkin explained.

“Twitter's short, impromptu messages can be informative. We have seen recently how they can convey information quickly about breaking stories,” Enkin wrote. “But those Tweets are also unedited, unchecked and can be misinterpreted, it seems. With respect to gun ownership in Israel, Mr. Macdonald may have exaggerated in making his point in much the same way you have.”

She added: “Perhaps he meant ‘access' to firearms or wide familiarity with firearms. And given the time to reflect or the benefit of checking, he might have written that. More likely he would have dropped the reference to Israel altogether in favour of Switzerland or Finland, much clearer examples.”

Macdonald, a former Middle East correspondent for CBC, has since closed his Twitter account, although some sites have archived many of his Tweets. He wrote about his decision to depart Twitter in a CBC.ca column about its challenges.

In that post, he explained he was attempting to make the point that Israelis were disciplined in their use of firearms and was attempting to keep the conversation from veering into Middle East affairs. Still, he said: “It is a fact that Israelis, especially the heavily armed extremist settlers, have shot Palestinians. It is also true Palestinians, having managed to lay their hands on weapons forbidden to them by Israel, have shot Israelis.” The complainant objected to this passage.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices cover social media platforms no differently than they do television, radio and other online communications. The policy counsels caution in expressing personal opinions in that space.

“If we would not put the information on air or on our own website, we would not use social media to report that information,” the policy says.

Accuracy is important: “We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest.”

Impartiality is also essential: “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.”

Conclusion

This is the first finding for the CBC Office of the Ombudsman in the half-dozen-year history of the Twitter social network and microblogging service.

News organizations use Twitter in a variety of ways to solicit and distribute information and to engage an audience in conversation about content. Some are more permissive of their journalists on social media, but CBC News takes the view that standards are no different across its platforms — that is, journalists have to comport themselves and communicate accurately, fairly and impartially on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, MySpace and elsewhere, not only on CBC

That policy leaves little or no room for anything off base, even in the context of Twitter's conversational frame. Each Tweet is treated under CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices as a stand-alone piece of content, which means every Tweet arising from the click of the Send button is tested against policy as if it were on television or radio or published on the website.

The Tweet in question asserted Israel has the highest gun ownership per capita. A range of studies indicates the United States has the world's highest gun ownership per capita. Israel is ranked well down that list.

CBC News acknowledged in correspondence the statement was inaccurate and, in doing so, was acknowledging a violation of its standards and practices. I agree with CBC News that there were better examples to make the wider point.

The complaint was not frivolous, considering the strict journalistic policy that includes social media. But I did not share the complainant's view that the Tweet reflected a larger, negative characterization of Israel or Israelis. The correspondent has a track record of accomplished Middle East journalism.

If anything, the context of this and other Tweets suggested (albeit without ideal data) that high levels of gun ownership did not necessarily correlate with high levels of crime. (In later asserting online there had been violence against Palestinians by settlers, Macdonald was reflecting widely reported events.) I did not conclude the inaccurate Tweet was anything more.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman