Bias by Omission: Not everything needs to be in every story to achieve balance

The complainant, Chris Brown, was concerned that CBC radio coverage of the negotiations for a deal to limit Iran’s ability to create bomb grade uranium did not consistently mention that Israel has nuclear capability. He felt this showed bias in coverage. In a story as complex as those about the negotiations, and the impact on the region, it is not possible or necessary to include all details all the time. Balance is achieved over time, and what is required for balance in any given story depends on its focus. There was no bias by omission in this story.

COMPLAINT

There was a flurry of diplomatic activity this fall as Iranian negotiators worked with representatives of six countries to come to some agreement to monitor and to restrain Iran’s nuclear program and its ability to create bomb grade uranium. On Sunday November 24, a six month interim agreement was announced in Geneva. It was the result of secret negotiations between the United States and Iran. Iran has agreed to some restrictions to its nuclear program in exchange for some relief from sanctions imposed on the country.

CBC News devoted coverage on all its platforms as the diplomatic activity developed. It also provided news and analysis about the impact in the region, as well as reaction from the Canadian government and other major players in the region. CBC correspondents in Israel reported on the reaction of that government.

You felt that CBC news coverage was biased. You asked this question: “How can CBC repeatedly report concerns about potential Iranian possession of nuclear weapons, without, each time, mentioning equivalent concerns about actual Israeli possession of nuclear weapons?” Your first complaint predates the signing of the interim agreement. You wrote again since then saying that it was even more critical that news reports mention Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons while reporting on Israel’s reaction to the deal. You are concerned journalists “cower before the Zionist lobby.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of Radio and Television News programs, Paul Hambleton, responded to your concerns. He said he understood your desire for context in the coverage, but that it is not necessary to include it in every story on this subject. He pointed out that in such a complex ongoing story, it is impossible to touch all the major points in each news item. He explained that “we have included information on Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal in past stories and we will again in future stories.” He said the particular World Report item you referenced was “a brief update on a continuing story.”

He agreed that context and detail is desirable, but that your expectation that it form part of every news story is not realistic:

“What you are asking for is a kind of deep context that we inevitably must forgo in the telescoping demanded in short broadcast news stories. These are stories which are designed to give listeners the latest developments – the news – in an ongoing story. But we must assume those listeners bring with them some basic knowledge of the story. We simply don't have the time to include all relevant information in the few seconds available. Israel's position of deliberate ambiguity regarding its nuclear capability is one factor, there are many others, of course: other nations that possess nuclear weapons, the size of their respective arsenals, Saudi Arabia’s potential to obtain nuclear weapons, which Middle East countries have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Russia's influence in the area, and so on.”

REVIEW

There are times when bias can be expressed through omission. If a relevant point of view or perspective is systematically ignored, that might constitute bias. News is iterative. Your expectation that a fact or perspective be present in every single story is simply unrealistic, nor is it called for in CBC journalistic policy. The policy is clear that balance is to be achieved over a period of time. Another consideration is what the frame or the focus of the story is. Is it an extensive report designed to highlight the views of the major regional players in the Middle East? Is it an analysis of the military capability of the players, or does it deal with issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In a multi-dimensional story like this one, it is not necessary or desirable to repeat one fact or idea in every iteration. Not all stories are equal. News is not polemic or academic. It is designed to build up a picture of the truth over a period of time, from multiple perspectives. The World Report story in question was not even presented by a reporter, who might be more likely to provide context. It was a brief news update. This is it in its entirety:

(David Common) Iran and western nations may be on the verge of a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. In a surprising change of itinerary, the U.S. Secretary of State left the Middle East to join the talks in Geneva. But John Kerry said several issues remain unresolved.

Kerry: We hope to try to narrow those differences but I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.

(Common) The foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany are also taking part in negotiations but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t like what he is hearing about the agreement.

Netanyahu: So Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal. This is a very bad deal. And Israeli utterly rejects it and what I’m saying is shared by many in the region whether or not they express it publicly.

(Common) Netanyahu also says Israel is not bound by any agreement that is signed in Geneva.

Later in the morning, Nahlah Ayad reported from Geneva. Her report had a statement from the Iranian foreign minister. The broadcast achieved balance by providing statements from two of the protaganists.

A cursory examination of CBC News coverage on various platforms shows that context and analysis of this multi-faceted story has been provided. The night the interim agreement was announced, Derek Stoffel reported on the Israeli response on The National. He didn’t address Israel’s nuclear capability, because that was not the focus. He presented the Israeli prime minister’s view that this deal posed a grave danger to Israel, and balanced it with an analyst who said “that is not accurate,” that Israel was the super power in the region.

Nahlah Ayed has provided analysis about the impact on the balance of power and the impact on the major players in the region, notably Saudi Arabia.

And while you may not have heard reference to Israel’s nuclear capability on CBC Radio, Neil Macdonald mentioned it in a report on a recent segment on The National. The story is also about the negotiations and is framed around the positions of the various participants. In reference to Israel, he says: “But Israel, which has not admitted the existence of its nuclear arsenal, fears the emergence of a second nuclear power in the region.”

Sasa Petricic also references Israel’s assumed (but not acknowledged) nuclear capability in a recent analysis of the interim deal.

I cite these examples to make the point that CBC News has addressed an issue of importance to you. Its absence is not an indication of bias because you believe that it should be there.

CBC has a mission to “inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.”

Its commitment to balance is by contributing to “informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.”

They have done so in their ongoing coverage of this story. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman