Accuracy in a story about the departure of a parish priest

When there is ambiguity in a story, it’s important to choose your words carefully in order to most accurately reflect the facts that are known. In this story of the departure of a parish priest after a disagreement with the administration of his diocese, the initial reporting was not precise enough, but eventually a correction was made and noted on the web site. The complaint was from Jim Lynn, Chancery, Diocese of MacKenzie, N.W.T.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to complain that web and radio stories dealing with the departure of a local priest from Behchoko were inaccurate. The story stated that the priest was asked to leave by the diocese and you said this was completely false. In fact, you said, Father Clement Rockey had chosen to leave. “He was asked to address some issues, which he did not comply with at the time and personally chose to return home to India.” The stories ran on May 15, 2013.

You informed the managing editor of CBC North, Archie McLean, that in your own conversations with Fr. Rockey, he told you he was asked to stay but he chose to leave for a time. You also cited a pastoral letter from the Archbishop read out in local churches on Sunday, May 19th as further evidence that the priest had chosen, and was not asked, to leave his parish.

You believed the stories were a result of “sensation journalism rather than honest journalism and slamming the church whenever we get the chance.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Archie McLean responded to your concerns. He talked about the delicate nature of a story such as this, but explained that in the initial stories the focus was on dispelling rumors that the community itself asked the priest to leave.

“The online story you referred to – originally posted on May 15 under the headline, ‘Behchoko N.W.T. priest asked to leave by diocese’ – was based on an interview reporter Snookie Catholique conducted with Archbishop Murray Chatlain the day before.

During the interview, the archbishop repeated several times that nobody in the community asked Father Clement to leave. He explained how the decision was made this way: ‘Basically, I've asked him to work on some things and it’s become an irreconcilable difference between us.’ He continued: ‘And so it’s gotten to be a point where I asked him to do something and he wouldn't, so the option was, if he's not able to do that then to return back to India.’

It is difficult for us to assess what happened here. Although you imply that Father Clement left of his own volition, from the archbishop’s explanation to our reporter it is clear he was given a choice: Do an unspecified thing or go home to India. In other words, if he didn’t do that thing, he would no longer be in the position he held. In effect, he would lose his job. It could be seen as a kind of Hobson’s choice – a situation where there is only one choice – to do something or not. For that reason, our story indicated he was “asked to leave” by the diocese and that may be in effect what happened.”

Mr. McLean conceded the story headline would have been more accurate had it simply said Father Rockey left the diocese. “It has been changed accordingly. Similarly, we have changed the story’s first sentence to say Father Clement is going back to India ‘following a disagreement’ with the diocese’s administration.

He also explained that while he had no doubt you have been told by Fr. Rockey that he plans to return at some later time, he was not able to confirm that fact with him, and so he did not include that detail in the story.

While you agreed that the modifications made the story more accurate, you remained concerned that other reports on the matter “extended” the damage.

REVIEW

The primary issue raised in this complaint is one of accuracy. The policy states:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

The language used must be as precise as possible, to reflect the known facts of the situation. In the case of this story, the facts were somewhat unclear at the outset. The original headline in the story stated: “Behchoko, N.W.T. priest asked to leave by diocese.” There is no dispute that the Archbishop of the diocese explained that the priest departed because “it’s become an irreconcilable difference between us.” He also explained that he asked the priest to choose to do something or to leave: “…I asked him to do something and he wouldn’t so the option was, if he’s not able to do that then to return to India.”

It does not seem completely unreasonable to characterize this as the authorities wishing the priest to leave. When your supervisor, in this case the Archbishop acting in an administrative role because there is no bishop appointed in your diocese at the moment, describes the relationship as one of “irreconcilable differences,” it is not a stretch to read this as a prelude to dismissal. The impression is that the relationship was at a pretty serious impasse, and time and patience was running out. Reporters are permitted to synthesize the facts to come to some conclusion.

The story goes on to explain the circumstances. It’s true that ultimately Father Rockey made a choice by not complying with his Archbishop’s wishes, but I would not characterize it as you do, as a “total lie.” Nor do I think it would be fairly characterized, as you did, that it was simply a personal choice of Fr. Rockey. There is more complexity here, alluded to in Archbishop Chatlain’s letter to parishioners. In synthesizing the facts, the words used by CBC should have more precisely reflected the nuance of the situation. The story should have given more details and context, especially after the release of the letter, and let the audience make up its own mind.

In response to your complaint, news staff did correct the web story to capture the ambiguity. It now reads “Behchoko, N.W.T. priest released from duties by diocese.” CBC journalistic policy on corrections obligates news staff to ensure, once they have established there has been an inaccuracy, that the correction “is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.” The story was not modified until about a week after the complaint was received. In the spirit of the corrections policy, it should have happened sooner.

As for your concerns about the other coverage around this incident: I reviewed the other radio and web material. I find nothing inaccurate or unbalanced in the coverage. The tone is even handed and the details laid out. There is nothing I found that supports a view that the stories suggest the Archbishop and the diocese are to blame. They accurately reflect the information provided by Archbishop Chatlain and provide reaction from the community. While Fr. Rockey may have told you that he was leaving for a time, and hoped to return, nothing in the pastoral letter reflects that fact. It is appropriate that journalists used that primary source as the basis of the reporting.

The initial report should have reflected the complexity of the story better, and the correction should have been more timely. But the stories are not biased, and now that the web story is altered, they are not inaccurate.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman