Bias in headline

The complainant, Jon Melanson, thought the wording of a headline indicated CBC was taking the side of the Liberal party. The story involved a controversy over Justin Trudeau and his acceptance of speaking fees from not for profit organizations. The Conservative premier of Saskatchewan weighed in on the story, prompting a rebuttal from the Liberal Party of Canada. The headline in question focused on the rebuttal, not the criticism. While it may have not been the most elegant headline ever written, it was not inaccurate and the story was balanced.

COMPLAINT

In June of this year, a controversy emerged over Justin Trudeau and a speaking fee he accepted from a New Brunswick-based charity. The charity had asked for the money back because they had lost money on the event. But the story also involved questions about the Prime Minister’s office leaking the request, and how it was characterized. In fact the charity involved, the Grace Foundation, was quoted as saying it was “distressed” that the whole thing went public. For a few days, all sides sought to make political hay with accusations coming from both sides of the House.

While the story originated with a charity on the east coast, a Saskatchewan angle emerged. Not long after the story broke, the premier of Saskatchewan, Brad Wall, called on Trudeau to return the fee he had received a year before from a Saskatoon-based literacy group. It was around this turn of events you felt CBC had been biased in an online story. The headline did not focus on what Brad Wall had said, but rather on the response from a Liberal spokesman to the Wall statement. The headline was “Brad Wall accused of smearing Justin Trudeau.” You thought this showed that CBC News was siding with the Liberals: “With this headline, the CBC obviously sides with the Liberal Party by focusing on the ‘smearing’ rather than the original reason for Mr. Wall’s comments in the first place.” You felt the headline should have emphasized Mr. Wall’s position and his criticism of Mr. Trudeau.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, responded to your concerns. She explained that “in the speeded up news cycle these days, readers expect to find up-to-the-minute information on the stories they are interested in.” The Liberal response to the Wall statement was the latest news by the time writers in Saskatchewan got around to the story. The decision was to write the story when there was a further development. “CBCnews.ca regularly updates developing stories with new information as it becomes available,” she explained. She went on to explain the sequence of events, and the new material, including another conversation with Premier Wall, that went into the story:

By mid-afternoon, the Liberal Party responded by issuing a statement quoting Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc saying, ‘Premier Wall needs to immediately apologize for this smear’. The Trudeau campaign raised millions of dollars, he said, all personal donations, all disclosed and all in accordance with the elections law.

CBC News in Saskatchewan, which is where the story you wrote to us about was written, had not reported Mr. Wall’s earlier comments to Global News. But the Liberals’ strong reaction made the story more newsworthy. As a result, CBC News in Saskatchewan called the former premier and asked him for his views of parliamentarians charging fees to speak at events. And with the Liberal reaction in hand, our reporter also asked him about his response to the Liberal call for an apology. The story included his remarks on both matters.

CBCNews.ca in Saskatchewan posted the story at 5:51 PM CT (6:51 PM ET) that afternoon under the headline, ‘Brad Wall accused of smearing Justin Trudeau’. The former premier’s comments to Global News were now several hours old. The Liberal Party’s reaction was the more recent development in the story and the one that was what was put in the headline.

However, the story also included Mr. Wall’s response to the call for an apology: If Mr. Trudeau is saying that none of the money he raised aided his campaign ‘then I accept him at his word’. He added, ‘There is no apology’. That was the most up to date information in the story and in retrospect might well have been the basis for an up-dated headline. A new headline might have made the story more topical, but its absence is certainly not an indication of bias.”

REVIEW

The art of headline writing is challenging. It must be accurate and meet the test of journalistic standards. But it is also designed, in a very few words, to entice an audience member to continue to read the story. So there is a certain latitude in the language and tone. It can do that by being cheeky and provocative, or by promoting the story by providing the newest information in the story. Ms. Nelson explained that was the aim in this case. The headline is not inaccurate. It represented a new development in the story.

This may have not been the most elegant headline written, and there were other options: a second line may have been helpful. On reflecting on your complaint, the managing editor of news in Saskatchewan, Paul Dederick, said while the story is sound, the headline could have been better. He suggested that adding the attribution “Liberals accuse Brad Wall of smearing Justin Trudeau” would have been better. I agree with him. But I do not believe there is evidence of bias. If you look at the range of treatments, stories and perspectives that appeared on CBC platforms as this story developed, the coverage fulfilled its obligation to be balanced and fair over time. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for balance over a reasonable period of time. Generally speaking, no one story or headline has to do it all.

We contribute 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.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

Within the story you questioned, the Premier’s position is clearly and prominently stated. He is asked for reaction to the Liberal response to his initial pronouncement. Those comments are part of the story:

In a news release issued Friday, an official from the Liberals characterized Wall's comments as a smear against Trudeau.

‘Premier Wall needs to immediately apologize for this smear,’ the release said, and suggested Wall was keen to enter federal politics as a Conservative. ‘It looks like the race for Mr. Harper's job is on.’

Wall responded to that, saying he was only seeking accountability.

‘If Mr. Trudeau is saying that none of the thousands of dollars he charged to charities like the literacy conference in Saskatoon indirectly or directly aided his campaign for the Liberal leadership, then I accept him at his word,’ Wall said.

‘There is no apology,’ he added. ‘I asked questions on accountability and stated my opinion that these fees shouldn't be charged by elected officials.’”

It is common journalistic practice to seek reaction back and forth from protagonists in a story. It is, as Ms. Nelson explained, a way of advancing the story. In this case, it may have been a way to make the story CBC’s. Rightly or wrongly, news organizations don’t like writing stories based on other outlet’s work. In this case, Global News got the first quotes from Wall. CBC News chose to jump into the story with his reaction to the Liberal response. It is fair to ask why it wasn’t reported sooner, but it does not necessarily mean bias or malice was at play. When, a few days after the Wall statement, the Saskatoon charity in question said it would not ask but would be open to getting its fee back, CBC News covered that development in the story. It also had several other reports over the time this story played out. They certainly included criticism of his actions.

In its overall coverage of this incident, there was no evidence of bias. There was no violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman