Headline about bid to move UN aviation agency

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant objected to a headline about Qatar’s bid to move the International Civil Aviation Organization from Montreal to Doha. I found that the headline failed to capture the nuance.

Complaint from Mike Fegelman, Executive Director, HonestReporting Canada, about an As It Happens headline about Qatar’s bid to move the International Civil Aviation Organization from Montreal to Doha.

complaint

In early May, 2013, the Gulf state of Qatar launched a campaign to move the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) from Montreal to Doha. ICAO has been situated in Montreal since 1947. Other aviation related industries have also located there as a result. ICAO itself has a large work force, so losing the headquarters would have significant impact. There was quite a lot of speculation about the motivation for the Qatari bid. (As a footnote, on May 24, 2013, the proposal was withdrawn.)

You objected to an As It Happens headline, as well as part of the introduction to the interview on the subject aired later in the program. You felt it was wrong to present the stated reason for the campaign as fact, since it was not substantiated. The bolded phrases are the ones you are concerned about. In your original complaint, you quoted from both the headline and the introduction to the interview itself: The headline was heard at the start of the program; the introduction and the item ran about a half hour later, at the start of the second part of the program.

“Severe turbulence. The country of Qatar starts a campaign to have a U.N. aviation agency moved from its longtime home in Montreal -- and Canada's Middle East policy is the reason… And the campaign to move it to Doha is seen as an aggressive political tactic by Qatar against Canadian policy in the Middle East.

The headline stated: “Severe turbulence. The country of Qatar starts a campaign to have a UN aviation agency moved from its long-time home in Montreal – and Canada’s Middle Eastern2 policy is the reason.” The second sentence you added comes from a longer introduction to the interview itself.

This was the complete introductory script:

“Using planes as pawns. There’s a new campaign, led by the Arab state of Qatar, to move the UN aviation agency in Montreal to the Middle East by 2016. The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, has been based in Montreal since 1947. And the campaign to move it to Doha is seen as an aggressive political tactic by Qatar against Canadian policy in the Middle East.”

You wanted an on-air correction “to remedy unsubstantiated information stated as fact.” You wrote: “While Canada’s Mid-east foreign policy may have played some role in Qatar’s determinations, it may/may not have been ‘the (only) reason’ despite AIH saying so. It’s more likely that Qatar and other Arab nations may be exploiting the Palestinian cause to advance their own interests.” After receiving a reply from As It Happens executive producer Robin Smythe, you re-iterated your desire to have the headline corrected – both on air and on the website where the headline can still be read.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

In her response, Executive Producer Robin Smythe noted that your complaint linked two different references: “…they were in fact heard in two separate parts of the program, with other explanatory scripting included…” She did not agree that the program had treated as fact that anger at Canada’s mid-east policy was the reason for Qatar’s move. “In our introduction script, we state that ‘…the campaign is seen (sic) as an aggressive political tactic...’ which again is indeed true. There is more than one example of news articles and commentary which suggest this.”

She pointed out that throughout the interview the host phrased questions about motive with the phrase “seem to have,” thereby showing it is based on analysis of the facts. “The focus of our interview was to talk about the defence of Montreal as the location for ICAO, by air carriers. Our host’s first question to our guest was: what does having the international aviation organization based in Montreal mean for that city? We also followed up with: How might it change or be different if it were to move to Qatar? Our host also asked: ‘The offer from Qatar seems to have come out of a group of Arab ambassadors in the United Nations, who are angry with how Canada...the stand it’s taken on issues dealing with the Palestinians, and its relationship with Israel, and it feels Canada is no longer the appropriate place for this agency and they seem to have made this move to ask that the agency move to Qatar following the most recent visit of John Baird to Israel. Do you see ICAO being used as a political pawn?’ This is the critical question. It is our responsibility to put out ideas that are being discussed in the media, and ask our guests to comment. Then Carol confirms with the guest that this is a serious offer.”

She felt an on-air correction was not warranted.

REVIEW

In reviewing the overall media coverage of this story, it is reasonable to say that the positions Canada has taken on a variety of issues in the Middle East was a factor in Qatar’s bid for ICAO. It was raised as a factor by Opposition MPs during discussions in the House of Commons. One
news organization quoted diplomatic sources confirming a meeting of Arab ambassadors at the United Nations in late April, around the time the bid was launched. Part of the discussion apparently centred around their concern over Canada’s bias toward Israel.

Reports at the time also refer to a La Presse story citing other reasons the Qataris gave, citing high taxes, difficulty getting visas for delegates, long distances to Europe and Asia, as well as the cold Canadian winters.

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices holds up a set of values, among them, and most relevant here, those of accuracy and impartiality.

Accuracy:
We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

Impartiality:
We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

The role of Canada’s Middle East policy in the context of this story is a legitimate journalistic inquiry. It conforms to the standard that CBC journalists can provide judgment based on facts and expertise. In your original complaint, you combined the wording of the headline with a sentence from the introduction. In your subsequent correspondence, you clarified that the headline was your primary concern. For the purposes of this review, I have separated the two citations.

The headline presents a challenge. By their nature headlines are designed, in few words, to accurately reflect the facts, but also to quickly engage and intrigue the reader or listener. There is frequently a tension between those two goals. Declarative statements work better to hook
the audience, but are not always so great at achieving nuance. The headline in this case is not completely inaccurate, but fails to capture the nuance. While there is an argument to be made that this was a significant factor, it is not clear enough to state it so unequivocally. Had it been phrased as an interrogative, or had it said Canada’s Middle East policy was one of the reasons, it would have better captured the nuance the introduction to the interview and the questions posed by the host captured far better.

The introduction to the interview and the phrasing of the questions put to the guest do put the argument into a wider context.

The other policy consideration at play here is the one that deals with Corrections.

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 principle and the commitment of this policy is to acknowledge errors when they occur. The definition and interpretation of what is significant and the reach of the published error is left open to interpretation. News organizations face a challenge about where to place that bar: the
oversight in this world of social media, and the permanence of online reporting are pushing most organizations to greater accountability and transparency. The headline was not strictly false, but it was misleading. It is up to CBC news management, in its commitment to accountability and transparency, to determine how to handle this particular instance.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman