Accuracy in Reporting: You can't report what you don't know but you can tell the public you don't know it

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, thought Nahlah Ayed completely missed the mark in her reporting on an incident in Ukraine. The story was about the distribution of an anti-Semitic leaflet outside a synagogue in Donetsk. He was concerned that she merely repeated the unproven allegation that a pro-Russian group was responsible. But she made clear that the allegation was unproved and quoted the group’s spokesman denying it. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You are generally unhappy with CBC News coverage of events in Ukraine, and this is one of two reviews I will be conducting based on your complaints. In this case you felt that a piece that ran on The National April 18 was biased. The story, reported by Nahlah Ayed, was about an anti-Semitic leaflet distributed at a synagogue in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

The flyers had been delivered to the rabbi of the synagogue and some of his congregants as people were leaving the building following a Passover service. The leaflets demanded that all Jews 16 and over register with the authorities. The report stated that it was purportedly authored by a pro-Russian separatist group, a charge denied by its leader. Ms. Ayed reported those details and also provided an explanation about why this would be upsetting to the Jewish population with its echoes of Nazi activity in the Second World War.

You were concerned that the piece lacked balance and that the reporter should have made a greater effort to verify who was behind the leaflets instead of reporting the allegations:

“The reasonable effect on an audience of this CBC report would be to vilify Ukrainian anti-government protesters, those that identify culturally and ethnically specifically with Russia, by heavily inferring a charge of collective antisemitism (sic) and racism on them in particular with virtually no proof whatsoever and without a proper or even handed investigation.”

You thought it would have been appropriate, after making reference to the fact that there were echoes of the Nazi treatment of Jews, to mention that it was “those in the western area that were more prone to be involved collaborating with the German Nazis.” You also thought it was critical to talk about the Right Sector, an alliance of far-right groups involved in the removal of the elected Ukrainian government because the anti-government protestors (those who support Russia) are strongly motivated by their fear of the power of this group. Since these protestors are “anti-fascist” they could not be supporting policies reminiscent of the Nazis.

You also feel that this anti-Semitic incident was promoted by United States Secretary of State John Kerry for his own purposes, and that Ms. Ayed should have pointed out this origin of the story to put it in context. You also said there is no justification to report conjecture about responsibility for this incident and that other scenarios, that the Right Sector is responsible, for example, are equally plausible:

“In my view, it would be as reasonable to conjecture that this leaflet could have as much been planted by the CIA, the "Right Sector" or the coup Ukrainian government itself to be used by John Kerry to rile the Jewish community in the United States and Canada and vilify the ‘enemy’ protestors. The timing of its disclosure, added with the western media’s abject refusal to discuss the very vocal neo-Nazi element in Ukraine’s ‘revolution’ over the past few months, is extremely suspicious. It should be the role of journalists to question what they are being drawn in to report in a responsible way.”

You also noted that Ms. Ayed reported the denial from Denis Pushilin, the leader of the group alleged to have delivered the leaflets, but that she did not interview him herself even though she was in the area. Overall, you thought she should have made a greater effort to get to the bottom of the story in an “even-handed” investigation.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He agreed that others, including the Right Sector could have been the authors of the flyers distributed at the synagogue. He explained that reporters do not “have the luxury of developing the kind of ‘proof’ you are looking for.” He said daily news reporting is the “first draft of history.” He thought it likely that either CBC or other reporters would eventually get to the bottom of the story. But as a story develops, he saw the purpose of reporting what is known, with its contradictory positions, as a way of letting people know what is going on and to make their own judgments. He explained the pro-Russian anti-government group were identified because their organization’s name appears on the leaflet. But the denial was also reported, and the story emphasized it was an alleged connection:

“In the report that followed, Ms. Ayed described how ‘three men in masks’ showed up outside the synagogue with dozens of fliers ‘which claim’, she said, ‘to be from one of Donetsk’s main pro-Russia groups’. She continued, ‘The group named in the leaflet and its leader deny any link or allegations of anti-Semitism’. She also included a clip of the local rabbi who told her ‘It looks like a provocation’, someone trying to ‘use’ the community. She concluded by saying that ‘Whatever the motive, they say they will not be intimidated’ and like many others, pray the discord ends quickly.”

He told you that CBC News would watch for developments in this part of the story and that reporters would continue to report on the role of the Right Sector in the ongoing story of the conflict in Ukraine.

REVIEW

There is a cliché that the first casualty of war is the truth. Certainly both sides in any conflict try to create a narrative that is favorable to its own cause. In the day and age of social media, it has never been easier to spread propaganda. Another recent example would be the intense propaganda battle in Syria, with both sides putting out a tremendous amount of misinformation. This conflict is no exception. Both sides have called each other fascists and levelled charges of anti-Semitism. In a region like Ukraine where there is a significant history of persecution of Jews, it would have a particular resonance.

The purpose of journalism is to try and make sense of the information and accusations made by each side. There is a need to provide context where possible. But there are also times when the truth is not known, and it is necessary to report the contradictory claims, and allow people to infer or understand as best they can. Sometimes it is as important to say what is not known as what is. This would reflect the CBC News value of accuracy. Getting it right, based on what is known is important, but that is different than what might eventually emerge as the truth. That is why CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices talks about the need for multiple perspectives, and achieving balance over time.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book, The Elements of Journalism:

“It is more helpful, and realistic, to understand journalistic truth as a process – or as a continuing journey toward understanding – that begins with the first story and builds over time.”

In the case of this story about the anti-Semitic leaflets, Ms. Ayed reported what was known at the time. The leaflets had been delivered, and they bore the symbol the People’s Republic of Donetsk. The leader of the group in question denied responsibility. She reported the reaction of the people who received the flyers, who did not blame anyone in particular. Rather they talked about their own fears. Ms. Ayed put those fears into context by invoking what had happened to Jews in Ukraine during the Nazi era.

I do not agree that the tone or substance of the report implied that all “anti-government protestors,” those that identify “specifically with Russia,” are guilty of anti-Semitism. In fact, Ms. Ayed says that members of the Jewish community said they feel welcome. She also included a comment from the rabbi of the community, who provided important context of why this was done, regardless of who is behind it. He said:

“It looks like a provocation. Someone tried to use the Jewish community and the political conflict here in Donetsk and Ukraine.”

He was later quoted as saying more definitively that this was likely a hoax. By then Ms. Ayed was no longer reporting on this part of the story. And while this event was significant, it was not the most critical in this ongoing story. The story conforms to CBC policy. I note that CBC Radio’s The Current did a more in-depth look at “The Politics of anti-semitism in Ukraine” about a week later.

You also questioned why Ms. Ayed did not seek out and interview Denis Pushilin, head of the People’s Republic of Donetsk. She tells me that in fact she and her crew did contact them, but were not granted an interview.

You also raised issues about CBC’s coverage of the Right Sector and its potential role. It is the judgment of most journalists that have spent time in the region, a judgement borne out by the results of the recent presidential election, that it was hardly a major force. It does play a role and deserves some coverage, but there is no equivalence – it is up to the editorial judgment of the CBC News department about the level of coverage that would be appropriate. They have been mentioned in several reports. So have accusations of attacks by the group. Given the accusations between Kiyv and Moscow, many of those stories have also said that it is unclear who is really to blame. In other cases, reporters have been able to discern the facts.

The assertions you make about the role of the Right Sector are certainly views you are entitled to believe and discuss. They are similar to the positions that Russian media have taken throughout the conflict, and have been reported in that context in various CBC news reports. The facts, as I mentioned, seem to indicate a different reality. The two far right candidates, Oley Tyagnibok of the Svoboda Party got about one percent of the vote. The Right Sector’s Dmitry Yarosh got less than one percent. As The Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out in a post-election article:

Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish community leader and businessman, finished seventh with 2.3 percent — more than the combined number of votes cast for Oleg Tyagnybok of the ultranationalist Svoboda party and for Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector movement.

“The failure of the ultranationalists reflects a reality which we have been trying to represent all the time despite Russian propaganda’s attempt to portray Ukrainian society as intolerant,” (Josef) Zissels told JTA. (Chair of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine.)

While I don’t agree with your analysis or assertions, you raise an important point that there is a Russian perspective on events in Ukraine, and it is the job of CBC journalists to get beyond rhetoric and help Canadians understand how Russians see the conflict. Analyzing whether they have done so adequately is beyond the scope of this review. There is nothing wrong with The National report you questioned. But as this story continues to evolve, I hope CBC News management will be mindful of the need to explain the Russian perspective, its motivation and historical perspective, to its public.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman