Changes made to headline

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant felt that changes made to a headline in a cbcnews.ca story should have been documented. This is not a requirement of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Throughout the course of the day on January 22, 2013, cbcnews.ca published many versions of a story reflecting the testimony given at the Ashley Smith inquiry into the death of the teenager while in custody. You [Trish Turliuk] felt that by changing the headline of the story from “Ashley Smith guard tells inquest he was following orders” to “Ashley Smith guard describes teen’s frequent self-choking” without documenting the change was a violation of journalistic integrity and practice. You suggest that any change to a web story should be documented in the name of transparency. As you mentioned in a subsequent e-mail, “To be clear and hopefully succinct, the significant issue is that of documentation.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

On February 27, 2013 acting Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, responded to your complaint: “...what you are describing is the routine up-dating of a developing story…” She explained that the story went through many rewrites that day, and that the change of headline reflected what was new at the time. As testimony was given, the Canadian Press filed new information and the story was updated. The first headline reflected testimony from a guard that he had orders not to intervene if Ms Smith attempted to choke herself. The second headline reflected testimony from later in the day, reflecting the second headline you cite. The body of the story still contained all the information.

In the age of social media, widespread access and the ability of just about anyone to bear witness and report about an event, journalists and journalistic organizations spend a lot of time thinking about transparency and openness. If the duty of journalists is to truth telling, then this is a welcome development. What an ideal level of transparency and openness is is very much open to interpretation. CBC journalists are bound by the Journalistic Standards and Practices, which does address some of the relevant issues.

Part of the CBC mission statement is a commitment to “act responsibly and be accountable.” The paragraph that pertains here is:

We are aware of the impact of our journalism and are honest with our audiences. We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.

There is also policy on corrections, which addresses the need to be open and transparent:

We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.

The fact that a situation has evolved so that information that was accurate at the time of its publication is no longer accurate does not mean that an error was committed, but we must consider the appropriateness of updating it, taking into account its importance and impact.

The form and timing of a correction will be agreed with the Director, in consultation with the Law Department where applicable.

And because there are issues particular to the world of digital publishing, there is a policy that guides practice on that platform as well. In part it says:

In the world of digital on demand, material may be accessible long after its original publication or broadcast. A dated story is not necessarily wrong. It is a reflection of the facts known at the time of publication. It can be an important part of the historical record.

But there may be times, in the light of new information, that archived material is substantially wrong. In those cases we review the material and take appropriate action that could include revising the original material, including a correction box or writing a fresh story.

Any changes to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.

The CBC story you inquired about had been modified, not because of any error, but because new information was becoming available. The older information was still in the body of the piece. While it doesn’t specify exactly what was changed, when a story is modified, there is a record of it. Below the headline on each story are two notations; when the story was first posted and when it was last updated. This time stamping is consistent with best practices. While you suggest that each change should be noted and logged, one has to ask what the journalistic purpose might be. If it was the result of a significant error, then it would be important to come clean.

It is also CBC practice, if a story changes significantly, that a new file would be started, which would be noted in the posting time, and a link would tie the two stories together. If a story develops over more than one day, a new file with a new posting time and date would appear, also linked to the previous one. As the acting Senior Director of Digital Media said to me, “We are not archivists, our focus is news.”

You put great value on an even deeper level of transparency. I am not convinced that it enables people to better understand the issues at hand, or be informed of the latest development in a story. You strongly believe that documentation of every change enhances the journalism. It is not a requirement of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. The story was entirely appropriate and met CBC standards.

Esther Enkin CBC Ombudsman