No oversell on oversold flight story

The complainant, David Ferrier, wanted a Go Public story edited. He thought many of the personal details were there to create sympathy for the couple featured in the story. Go Public tells the stories of individuals who are in dispute with institutions. In this case, a B.C. couple had been bumped from an oversold flight. The story featured a photo of their young children. Mr. Ferrier thought that the photo and some other details of their story created bias. I disagreed. The story was told from the perspective of the family. It also presented the view of the airline.

COMPLAINT

Every week Go Public features an investigative story on all CBC News platforms. The stories are frequently based on personal experience but deal with a broader issue. That was the case on the October 7 edition, which featured the story of a British Columbia couple who had been bumped from an overbooked Air Canada flight. They were making their way back to their home in Nanaimo, British Columba.

According to the story, they were bumped from the flight in Calgary, which created several complications for them: their parents were bringing their two young children back to their home in Nanaimo and didn’t have a key or the access code to get them into the house. Once the travelling couple did get back, their luggage did not. This became quite critical because their car keys happened to be in the checked luggage.

I reference all these details because their presence in the story formed the basis of your complaint. While the story may have had some merit, you felt inclusion of “these inflammatory comments turned a straight news story into a sob story, a worse blunder by CBC.ca than Air Canada’s bumping passengers.”

Specifically, you thought it was wrong to include a photo of the couple’s young children who “had nothing to do with Air Canada’s practices.” You asked that it be removed from the online story. Other details you objected to were:

The fact that the grandparents were unable to get the children into their home because they did not have the access code or a key: So what? The story says later that the couple got into touch with the grandparents and could have given them the house keypad entry code.”

The fact that they couldn’t drive home because their car keys were in the luggage which was not on their flight: “Nobody should pack house or car keys in checked baggage. This has nothing to do with Air Canada bumping people off flights, and should be cut from the story.”

There were other details you cited as well to prove the story was slanted and should have just stuck to the facts. You thought there was an inaccuracy as well – you said the mother could have flown home alone, as initially only her husband was bumped from the flight. Furthermore, in the end they were only delayed two hours.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of news for British Columba, Wayne Williams, responded to your concerns. He explained the approach taken to the journalism in Go Public stories and why the personal elements of the story were appropriate:

Go Public stories are about ordinary Canadians, Canadians who typically write to us about their experiences, untold until then. They are stories that we feel are in the public interest, stories that you are not likely to hear anywhere else. After looking into them, Go Public and reporter Kathy Tomlinson has exposed wrongdoing, incompetence, injustice, waste and just plain shabby dealing. They are personal stories, often about treatment by government, bureaucracies or corporations. That is what this story was about.”

He addressed your specific criticisms as well. He said the children’s photo was appropriate and relevant to the story:

“They are the first thing that came to the mother’s mind when she was told she had been bumped off the flight. Not knowing when she would get another flight or how long she might be, she said she thought of her children – one four and the other only 15 months old – and started to cry. They were central to the story in another way too. They were travelling with their grandparents to meet the Jesseys who could not reach them to tell them about their changed plans.”

He explained that although you assert the parents could have simply phoned the grandparents with the access code to their home, they were actually unable to get in touch with them for three or four hours. He addressed several of your other criticisms with alternative perspectives. For example, you said the writer should never have mentioned the issue of the missing keys because it was wrong to pack them, and even if they had been locked out, they could simply call a locksmith. Mr. Williams pointed out that might be possible in a large city in the middle of the night, but not feasible in Nanaimo where the couple live.

He also explained that although you thought the story was overblown because they were only delayed two hours, initially they had the impression they would not get out that day:

“The story’s first sentence said Air Canada gave the couple’s seats away leaving them unable to get home to their children. At the time that was the case. Of course, the story went on to explain what happened, why it put the couple in a stressful situation and how it was resolved. A story’s lead sentence is intended to capture the reader’s interest and draw him into reading the story to find out more. That is what this lead sentence did.

Initially, of course, they didn’t know how long they would be delayed. Fortunately, it turned out to be “only…two hours”. Had the clerk said two hours immediately their concerns might have been eased. Nevertheless, whatever the period of time, their inability to communicate the delay to the children’s grandparents was a source of anxiety.”

He noted that each aspect of the couple’s experience conveyed in the story illustrated the “central theme” of the story, which was “the impact Air Canada’s over booking policy has on one couple trying to get home to their children.”

REVIEW

Your concerns about this segment revolve around the details reported to illustrate it. Journalism is not only about the facts, but about the narrative, the story telling. It also, by CBC standards and practices, must present more than one perspective on a matter of controversy. The technique of telling the story from the point of view of the people who were bumped from the flight is completely acceptable practice. The story was about the frustration customers can experience getting bumped without warning because of the airline practice of overselling flights. The details presented are the narrative of their experience. Whether it’s smart to pack your keys or not is irrelevant. The fact is that’s what happened.

The story also presented the perspective of the airline, Air Canada in this case, about why the practice of overbooking is necessary:

Air Canada said it continues to overbook to keep prices down and make up for money it loses, when its highest-paying customers cancel refundable tickets at the last minute.

“As we sell flexible, fully refundable tickets to worldwide customers connecting in from other airlines, our customer no-show rate is much higher than at carriers that do not offer fully refundable tickets or have the same network structure,” said a statement from Air Canada spokesperson Angela Mah, who added the airline regrets what happened to the Jesseys.

The story also pointed out that the couple received some compensation for their inconvenience.

The presence of both perspectives satisfied the journalistic policy requirement for fairness and balance. At the end of the day it is up to the reader to decide whether the practice is legitimate, and what he or she thinks about this family’s experience. The fact that you thought the Jesseys were partly authors of their own misfortune means the story did what it was supposed to do. Based on the facts presented, you came to your own set of conclusions.

On the point of accuracy where you point out that Mrs. Jessey actually could have flown home on the original flight, it appears that may initially have been true. However, later on the story reveals that when she said she didn’t want to fly without her husband, “she said the agent turned around and took away her seat too — without asking first. ‘She said, “We’ve now bumped you and given your seat to somebody else.” So, at this point I’m really upset because both of us aren’t getting home,’ said Monique.”

The choice of storytelling technique and the choices reporters make every day about what details to include or omit can have an impact on its overall balance. As Mr. Williams explained, Go Public explicitly tells stories from the point of view of people affected by the policies or actions of large institutions. That involves letting audience members know what people were feeling and thinking. This story was largely written from the perspective of an anxious Mom. It provided the rationale of her unfortunate experience from the airline’s perspective. It may have had more details than you considered necessary or relevant, but it did not violate any CBC journalistic policies.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman