Name one candidate, name them all

Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia was much in the news this fall when a video of students singing a pro-rape chant went viral. The fallout continued and there was an election for a new Student Association president. One of the candidates said she was running because of the incident. Her decision made it on to a few newscasts. Mary MacDonald complained that none of the other candidates were ever named or canvassed for their views. News management said the story was a about the rape chant, not the election. I think Ms. Macdonald has a point.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that CBC was biased because it only mentioned one of the candidates running for the presidency of the Student Association at Saint Mary’s University. You felt this amounted to promoting and endorsing one candidate over all the others:

"Ms. Dickie was promoted as a candidate on CBC's Mainstreet program, on the local newscast that was broadcast on that same program, as well as the supper hour television news.”

You pointed out that the CBC broadcasts could have been seen and heard by Saint Mary’s students who would not know the names or platforms of the other candidates: “This one-sided reporting by the CBC amounts to partisan endorsement of one candidate to the disadvantage of others.”

You acknowledged that the context of the coverage was an ongoing controversy on the campus about a frosh chant promoting rape and under-age sex. A video of a group of students singing a chant that promoted non-consensual sex with young girls had gone viral on line. The Student Association election had been called to replace the president who had resigned as a result of criticism of his handling of the incident. You felt the impact of the event and reaction to it was old news and had no justification in the coverage of Ms. Dickie, head of the university Women’s Centre, and her decision to run.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Managing Director for Atlantic Canada, Andrew Cochran, responded to your concerns. He explained that the fact Ms. Dickie said she decided to run for president because of the controversy about the frosh chant made the decision newsworthy. He explained none of the other candidates were mentioned because “this was less a story about the SMU election campaign, and more a story of additional fallout from the pro-rape chant. And in that case, the judgement was made that we did not require additional information about other candidates and what they stand for.’’ He did not agree that this had been an endorsement of one candidate.

REVIEW

The stories run on the afternoon radio newscast and the television News at 6 were brief and very similar. They were framed around the ongoing story that had captured headlines across the country, and had certainly had a great impact on student life and politics on the Saint Mary’s University campus. After the exposure of a video of students performing a pro-rape chant, the student association president had resigned, and an election to replace him was called. The CBC News radio piece began:

A St. Mary’s University student upset about the way the university dealt with a pro-rape frosh chant has decided to run for student president. Amanda Dickie runs the Women’s Centre at the university which refers women who have been sexually assaulted to organizations that can help. Dickie said she was not planning to run but the controversial chant pushed her to add her name to the ballot.

The television piece was a script read by the anchor over video of Ms. Dickie and stock footage of the rape chant. The only campaign reference, other than that which dealt with her motivation to run for president, was a two-second shot of a campaign poster of Ms. Dickie at the end of the report. Here is the piece in its entirety:

A Saint Mary’s University student from the Woman’s Centre is running for student president in the wake of the rape chant controversy. Amanda Dickie says she wasn’t planning to run but the controversial frosh week chant pushed her to add her name to the ballot. She runs the Women’s Centre at the university which refers women who have been sexually assaulted to organizations that can help. She wants to create a new position in the student association that could hold the university accountable.

Amanda Dickie: The main reason we are running and why we have been talking to students and why we have been so vocal on this issue is that this is not surprising. This is nothing new. This is what happens in Canadian universities across the country. It’s not limited to St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s is just the university that got caught. This is part of a wider systemic issue which is linked to rape culture.

Since the chant went viral, the Women’s Centre on campus has been getting more and more calls. She says the chant revictimized some students.

The decision to feature a candidate motivated to run because of an event that had happened weeks before is a reasonable news judgment. Interest in the incident and others like it across the country continued. The issue that you raise as well is whether it is fair or not to have mentioned only one candidate when there were three others.

CBC has policy governing election coverage, when there should be an even more stringent oversight of balance and fairness. And while it was written with federal, provincial and civic elections in mind, the principles would still pertain.

Canadians expect us to provide a wide range of information and context so that they can make decisions during election and referendum campaigns.

We ensure that the facts and analysis we present on issues, candidates and parties is timely, accurate, fair and balanced over the course of the campaign.

We give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment. This does not necessarily mean equal broadcast time.

The important aspect of the policy to consider here is “equitable treatment.” It would not be realistic for a news service broadcasting to a general audience to then do stories on all the candidates running at Saint Mary’s. It would be reasonable to think that their names might have been mentioned in the context of the piece that the producers and reporters in the news service decided to do. While the stated motivation of Ms. Dickie’s candidacy made it newsworthy in the judgment of Halifax news staff, CBC policies on fairness and balance would have been more properly fulfilled if they had done so. The news story was published in the context of a campus election, and that should have been taken into consideration.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman