Justin Trudeau "Just watch me"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The complainant objected to the sub-headline, "Justin Trudeau tells Canada to 'just watch' him beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper." He said Trudeau "did not tell this to Canada..." There was no violation of CBC policy. Appropriate context was provided.


During his run for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau responded to a question about whether he thought he could defeat Prime Minister Stephen Harper, by invoking the words of his father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, “just watch me.” A passenger on the same flight as Trudeau passed him a note with the question, and got a written response in return. The passenger posted the note on Twitter, and the incident went viral – it caused quite a stir in the social media world. Mainstream publications picked up the story and the reaction to it.

Cbcnews.ca published a story, and you strongly objected to the headline on it, which read, in the main headline: “Justin Trudeau sparks twitter frenzy with ‘just watch me’ note.” The second line of the headline, the sub-head said: “Justin Trudeau tells Canada to ‘just watch’ him beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper.” You called this a “fantastic lie.” “He did not tell this to Canada and I deeply resent the CBC for spreading this lie.”


The Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, explained the background to the story – that the passenger who got the note posted it on Twitter, and by the next day the Trudeau quote had been “widely reported across the country, including by CBC News.” She acknowledged that the note was addressed to Mike, the passenger, but “in publishing it, ‘Mike’ came to stand for all Canadians. To say he ‘tells Canadians’ is a figure of speech – synecdoche – in which one comes to stand for the whole, in this case, all Canadians.”


The writing of headlines is a particular skill. The headline must be accurate, but at the same time sell the story. Readers will scan the headlines, they will not always read the story. Copy editors are under considerable pressure to create headlines intriguing enough to ensure that they do. This is true in newspapers and in broadcasts. It has become an imperative in the world of digital news. The competitive pressures in a noisy and crowded environment to get people to use one’s own site are intense. Headline writers must ensure accuracy, reflect what is in the body of the story, and entice readers all at the same time. One has some sympathy for the challenges they face. And while accuracy, as in all CBC reporting, is an intrinsic value, traditionally headlines are granted a bit more leeway to interpret but not distort. In considering this headline in particular, it is important to note that the reference to “tells Canadians” is the second part of the headline. The first part does in fact refer to a note. So there is some context. It is true that Justin Trudeau wrote a note to one individual. And I have no way of knowing his state of mind, but I would imagine that any public figure, especially a politician in the midst of a leadership race, would expect and indeed hope that a note passed in this fashion would quickly be widely shared. The body of the story also provides the context needed to understand the reference. It would take a very literal reading of the sub-head, out of context of the rest of the story, to completely misunderstand its meaning. This headline, because it is part of a two-line explanation, manages to stay on the right side of acceptable. I do not agree that this was a lie. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther EnkinCBC Ombudsman