Correction of errors

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involves the correction of errors that the complainant brought to CBC’s attention. The first error took over a week to correct. Neither error was noted in a corrections and clarifications box on CBCNews.ca, violating CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

On March 4, 2013, Go Public, an investigative feature of CBC television based in Vancouver, ran a story about a family on vacation and the high roaming fees they incurred when their son accessed YouTube videos while in Mexico. The story was posted on the web, and a television version ran on the TV news supper hour show. The broadcast video was embedded in the web story along with an audio discussion about cellphone charges which ran on the morning radio show, The Early Edition.

The headline on the web story says: Dad gets $22,000 roaming ‘shock’ from Fido. This refers to a phone conversation he says he had with a Fido representative who told him his son had used $22,000 worth of data over a three day period. But he was not billed for that amount. Initially, the embedded video from the newscast had a different take in its introduction. It referred to a $22,000 phone bill. In your (Mark Goldberg) blog post about this story, you pointed out that there was no phone bill for that amount, and that the story was unclear about the amount of the phone bill sent to the customer.

Your concern was twofold: first, that the headline was wrong, and that the story took too long to explain that the bill was cut to a lesser figure of $2,200. You felt the higher figure was used to be sensational: “Just another sensational headline, under the banner of the national broadcaster, perhaps intended to influence CRTC members who are considering such matters as part of the Wireless Code of Conduct.” When the error was pointed out, no action was taken to correct it on the website or on the broadcast. You felt the errors should have been acknowledged on the site and dealt with in a more timely manner.

You pointed out the error, via Twitter on March 4, the same day the story was posted, and a day later via your blog, as well as in an e-mail to a program producer. When the headline to the web posting and the video story remained unchanged a week later, you contacted this office:

“The CBC Go Public web story continues to have the video in the site with the erroneous introduction. The headline and the impression left with the Canadian public, generating 1.5 million Google stories, is that there was a $22,000 phone bill. It is beyond my ability to comprehend that such an error can be so casually brushed off with a statement [from a Tweet from reporter Kathy Tomlinson] ‘That was intro to story not written by me which aired hours ago. Story clearly stated $2,200. I am done here.’”

You also objected to the tone of the tweet.

The introduction to the video piece was ultimately removed on March 13. You questioned why the change was not documented.

There was a second error in the body of the piece which you pointed out to Ms Tomlinson via Twitter. The initial posting had stated that “the only way for a customer to access data outside the country for less – though their carrier – is to buy a roaming package before leaving.” You pointed out that “Roaming packages are available at any time – even mid-trip – from all of the carriers.” Your knowledge is based on the fact that you are a telecommunications consultant. Your concern was about the error itself, and about the dismissive tone you felt Ms Tomlinson

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Alison Broddle, the Executive Producer responsible for the Go Public segments, responded to your concerns and apologized for the delay in doing so.

She acknowledged the error in stating, on the news broadcast, that the phone bill was $22,000. She said that when she became aware of the error, she had the introduction removed from the video posted on the CBC News web page. She explained she followed up with the writers and producers of the supper hour program to ensure they followed the vetting process for all introductions.

She also acknowledged the error in reference to the purchasing of roaming packages. “We revised the online story the next day (March 5) to include correct information. However, I can assure you, there was no effort, as you assert there was, to ‘resist’ correcting it.”

She also addressed your concern with the headline which refers to a “$22,000 roaming shock” and that the story was not clear that the actual bill was $2,200. She replied:

“Second, you wrote that the story was not clear that the ‘actual bill’ was $2,200. In fact, I believe the story was clear. The online story clearly says that Fido told Matt Buie that his 11-year-old son had used $22,000 worth of data charges. However, it went on to say: ‘Fido immediately said it would cut the bill to $2,200’, adding Mr. Buie said he hoped to get a better deal than that.

While, as you pointed out, referring to a $22,000 ‘bill’ is incorrect, using the figure in the stories is not. The company told Mr. Buie in a telephone call that his son had racked up $22,000 in charges for, it said, some 700 megabytes of data. Mr. Buie says he believes Fido did that as a tactic to shock customers into agreeing to pay a lower amount which they then perceive to be a “break” – a lower amount that is still, as you noted, a lot of money.”

She responded to your concerns about the timing of the piece, as a means to influence CRTC hearings, by noting the piece ran when it did as a “salutary warning” to audience members who might be heading off on an out of country spring break vacation.

She also addressed your complaint about the Twitter exchanges between you and Ms Tomlinson. You said you had not been treated with openness and respect. Ms Broddle wrote:

“I sincerely regret you feel that in your Twitter exchange Ms Tomlinson was less than open and respectful.” She explained Ms Tomlinson was feeling frustrated at the “seeming inability to convince you of the accuracy and fairness of the story” but that she meant no disrespect.

Ms Broddle observed:

“By offering both instant communication and little room for qualification or explanation, Twitter is especially prone to misunderstanding. In your criticism of the story, Ms. Tomlinson believed you had made some factual errors in your
characterization of the people and events involved. Especially, she felt you were wrong in your assertions that this was a ‘story about neglect’ by parents who had ‘abandoned’ their child, and that the ‘total bill was only $1,400’ – a figure you had based on a glimpse of one month’s bill seen in the television report.

She felt that without having all the facts, without talking to the family or seeing all the documentation, that your blog and tweets were not only making assumptions and statements that were not correct, but were questioning her integrity. She replied to your concerns, offered additional information – and at one point added to the story accurate information you brought to our attention – but felt that continuing to engage in a Twitter exchange with you was perpetuating those errors – ‘spreading misinformation’ was Ms. Tomlinson’s phrase. As a result she ultimately blocked you on the Go Public site “

REVIEW

Your complaint raises several issues that are covered by CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. The first deals with corrections. CBC is committed to correcting errors in a timely manner and acknowledging they have done so.

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.

You brought two errors to the attention of the Go Public Team, and ultimately they were both corrected. The first, having to do with the erroneous introduction referring to a $22,000 phone bill, was edited from the video on the web page. Ms Broddle tells me their first choice would have been to correct it, but the technical challenges of inserting new video precluded this option. It also took over a week to make the change. She tells me that unfortunately there was a communication breakdown and she was not alerted earlier.

This does not live up to the spirit of the CBC policy. There should be an acknowledgement of the edit of the video. It is not acceptable that it took a week to correct, given the effort you made to point it out. And as she tells me she did, CBC news management should continue to reinforce the importance of timely correction and ensure protocols to do so are well understood and used. The response to the second error was done in a timely fashion, but again, no correction box exists to acknowledge this. It is CBC practice to do so. Transparency and accountability are important news values, and have become an expectation of news audiences. This was a violation of policy.

You also raised issues of accuracy in using the $22,000 figure at all, and that it is not made clear in the article what that figure represents. Headlines frequently present a challenge. They are designed to get the reader’s or listener’s attention, but must also accurately reflect the facts of the story. In this case, I believe it does that. There is no reason to disbelieve the father quoted in the story was given the larger number over the phone. The cbcnews.ca story is quite clear about the meaning of the figure. I find no violation of CBC policy in the web version of the story.

With the knowledge you have as a professional telecommunications expert you were able to point out some errors in the story. And as noted, though CBC did not respond quickly enough, the errors were corrected. You also provided some alternative explanations and interpretations of the facts, including questions about a child being left alone in a hotel room unsupervised:

“It might have been interesting to hear if CBC asked the parents how they felt about leaving their child unattended in a Mexican hotel room for 3 days. Did CBC check the deleted messages folder to see if the warning text message was accidentally erased?”

While this may be fair comment, it does not make the CBC story inaccurate. In fact, the father put his case, with more background detail about his son’s online activity, on your blog as well, and it lines up with the CBC reporting of it. Reporters and producers have more information than is published in the story. While your questions on some of the background are certainly valid, the story stands up to balance, fairness and accuracy (with the corrections in place) in the telling of this family’s experience.

Finally, there are the tweets you and Ms Tomlinson used to communicate about the story. Twitter has revolutionized how news organizations work. It is excellent for instant communication. It also has a culture of pretty rough and tumble interaction. It is far less effective as a vehicle for meaningful dialogue. There is not much room for explanation or qualification in 140 characters. An off line conversation would likely have had a different outcome.

Reading the exchanges, one senses a growing frustration in both of you. While her response around the corrections questioned the seriousness of the error in the case of the roaming packages, the text was corrected the next day. The complaint about the introduction fell through the cracks and, as I already said, should have been corrected sooner. On several other points you raise in your tweets and in some re-tweets you sent, Ms Tomlinson did try to provide further background. I note that Ms Broddle apologized for any hostility or rudeness you may have experienced.

It is laudable that reporters engage with audience members who have questions or suggestions about their work. The most valuable lesson out of all of this is that Twitter should be used where appropriate, but for complex questions where there is a difference of opinion, another method of communication would be far more effective. Because Twitter is so instant, it’s hard to stop and apply sober second thought. News organizations face a range of challenges with social media. CBC News management may want to provide further guidance to news staff about when and how to engage in twitter exchanges so that they may be used effectively and enhance the openness and transparency its policies commit them to.