This complaint raised questions about the point at which perspective and analysis in journalism becomes opinion; and about potential conflict of interest when reporters are sought out as speakers at events.
At the beginning of April, 2013, CBC News broke a story about the use of foreign workers at one of Canada’s major banks, RBC. The story has had quite a lot of impact – both on the companies that use the foreign workers, and on the government, which administers the foreign worker programs.
On April 29, the government announced changes to the program, essentially making it more difficult and more expensive to hire foreign workers. A lively debate continues on the impact of these moves. CBC News has continued to cover and develop the story on all its platforms.
Your complaint is around Amanda Lang’s involvement in this story. Your initial complaint, filed through the President’s office, was not about anything that appeared on Ms Lang’s program, The Lang & O’Leary Exchange. You objected to an article entitled “Let’s Worry about Skills, not Outsourcing,” written by Ms Lang and published in the Globe and Mail. You wrote: “Ms. Lang claims that Canadian ITers are being outsourced because they lack the skills of Indian ITers.
This is blatantly false and potentially libelous.” You also felt that Ms Lang was in a conflict of interest because she was slated to be the keynote speaker at a conference on outsourcing, partly sponsored by a company that was associated with the RBC stories in the news.
After receiving a reply from the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, you asked for a review and added a concern that Ms Lang should not have interviewed Gordon Nixon, head of RBC, because of her conflict of interest in relation to the upcoming conference on outsourcing.
In her response, Ms McGuire informed you that Ms Lang had in fact withdrawn from the speaking engagement at the outsourcing conference. “Yes, there was the potential for at least a perceived conflict of interest and as a result Ms. Lang withdrew as the conference’s keynote speaker.” She explained that as the author of “The Power of Why, a popular book that looks at the relationship between innovation and success in business and life,” her publisher had arranged for her to speak at the Centre for Outsourcing Research and Education (CORE) Global Sourcing Forum on that subject. But once the story involving RBC Financial Group, a member of CORE, and iGate, one of the sponsors of the conference, was prominent news she withdrew from the event.
In response to your concern about the Globe and Mail article, she pointed out that while you may disagree with the views expressed, “under CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices experienced journalists are able to make assessments based on facts. That was the case here.”
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has very clear policies on its journalists expressing opinion: “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.” The concern is that by publicly taking a position, the perception of impartiality is eroded because it can “affect theopen and honest exploration of the issue.” The policy also does, as Ms McGuire pointed out in her response to you, allow for analysis, and drawing conclusions based on facts: “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” The challenge for the audience, and the journalists themselves, is to understand where analysis based on facts and expertise ends, and where it crosses over to opinion. There is no clear demarcation line. Journalists are not merely scribes, recorders of events; they are always interpreting the facts they discover. Tom Kent, the Standards Editor at Associated Press, has written about objectivity and its value in the age of social media and digital platforms providing almost endless choice and standards: “If a journalist has thoroughly studied a subject and understands it well, the tenets of objectivity do not require a ‘view from nowhere’ that ignores the journalist’s knowledge.” In fact readers and listeners expect reporters, especially senior ones, to provide some meaning and context. Ms Lang is a very knowledgeable and experienced business journalist. It is expected that she will bring a perspective and analysis to her work. Provided that in the course of her reporting she respectfully explores and presents other perspectives, there is no issue.
And knowing her body of work, I can say she ably fulfills that requirement.The point at which perspective and analysis becomes opinion is somewhat subjective, however.
The article in the Globe and Mail makes the argument that businesses need to outsource jobs to remain competitive. It also argues that the foreign IT workers are better qualified than Canadian ones: “Information technology workers displaced in Canada are being replaced not by cheap Indian workers but by better ones.” The article goes on to dismiss the concern about hiring temporary foreign workers as a “sideshow.” The piece does not reference other points of view, nor does it explicitly reference facts or evidence that led to the conclusions. It is an opinion piece and as such fails to live up to CBC’s policy.
On the second matter you raise, Ms Lang interviewed the President and CEO of RBC to get his response to the accusations that foreign workers were displacing Canadian employees. You felt this was a conflict of interest. I will reiterate that Ms Lang is a proven skilled journalist and professional. Her topic at the conference, as Ms McGuire explained, was to have been based on her book on innovation. She was invited to speak by the Centre for Outsourcing Research and Education, which RBC Financial Group belongs to. There are dozens of other members, including the Ontario Ministry of Finance. There was no conflict of interest in conducting the interview.
But as the story developed, the whole question of outsourcing and the use of foreign workers became a hot button topic, a matter of some controversy. And one of the sponsors of the conference was a company involved in recruiting foreign workers. Ms Lang wisely withdrew from the conference to avoid any perception of conflict, not necessarily a real one. CBC policy is clear that even the perception should be avoided.
All this does flag a delicate problem for news management. CBC has some very senior and respected journalists who are often sought out as speakers at various events. Journalists can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble. They need to find appropriate ways to engage with diverse communities, some of whom may represent particular interests. But there is always a risk of a perception of conflict in these situations. It requires careful consideration as to what is appropriate and what can lead to a perception of conflict, if not a real one. And because the news agenda is always changing, it is hard to predict what might become a matter of public controversy. News management does work with its journalists to provide guidance for them.
The efforts should continue.