All in the Family: Is it okay to feature family members in a story?

The complainant, Lauchlin Murray, questioned the use of the husband of a reporter in a story about problems with the renewal of New Brunswick health care cards. He thought this was a conflict of interest, and someone else should have done the story. The relationship was clear in the reporter’s TV piece. The online version was written by someone else. There’s no conflict since many others were affected by the same glitch in the system. But the online writer should have made clear the person featured in the story was related to staff at the station.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that a story entitled “Medicare card delivery problems raise identity theft concerns” abrogated CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices because it featured the spouse of the reporter who presented the story. You felt this was a conflict of interest. You also were concerned that George Butters, the spouse, was the only person cited as an example of the problem.

You believe that “if a journalist has a story involving a friend, family member, business associate or similar; that journalist must find other sources. If a story involves a friend, family member, business associate or similar; that journalist should pass the story off to a colleague; where another source cannot be found or even when another source can be found. I believe a story involving a friend, family member, business associate or similar; can easily be perceived as involving bias, independent of the degree of bias. I believe if no other sources can be found, and the story is still considered to be in the public’s best interest and must proceed, it should have a disclaimer attached.”

You also thought the story was not balanced because there was only one complainant in the piece and there were “no quotes or response from Medicare, N.B.” After making CBC News in New Brunswick aware of your concerns through the online comments, and receiving no response, you asked me to consider the matter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Denise Wilson, the Senior Managing Director for CBC Atlantic, replied to your concerns. She explained that the reporter, Catherine Harrop, prepared a television news report about the problems with the provincial health cards. It originally aired on CBC News on the evening of January 21, 2014, and was embedded with the online story. It was placed just under the headline and before the text of the story on the same subject.

She noted that in the TV news story Ms. Harrop briefly mentioned her husband twice. She said that while this isn’t common practice, she did not agree that it met a definition of conflict of interest. She explained why the reporter’s husband featured prominently in the web story that accompanied the video online:

Later that evening, a CBC News online writer based in Halifax watched the television report. With an eye to freshening the story for his CBCNews.ca readers, he telephoned Ms. Harrop’s husband, George Butters, to ask him directly about what had happened. The writer subsequently included several quotes from Mr. Butters with additional information about his experience. Some hours later, CBC News in Halifax posted the online story which began with Ms. Harrop’s report followed by a brief written story with the added information.

She told you the story would not be retracted, nor would there be a disclaimer added.

REVIEW

You are concerned that featuring the spouse of a CBC employee in a story about problems with the renewal of New Brunswick health cards constitutes a conflict of interest. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has some specific things to say about conflict of interest but it also refers to the corporate policy which provides the overarching framework.

The introduction to the journalistic policy focuses on journalists’ memberships in any outside organizations, and what public statements they make, so that they are not perceived to be in conflict if they must cover an issue related to an organization. There is also a policy about covering a story involving family members, which states:

Independence is a core value of CBC. If a current affairs or news employee has a close relative, defined as spouse, parent, child or sibling who is a major actor in a story, that employee cannot be involved in the coverage. It is the responsibility of the employee to inform his/her supervisor of the potential conflict so that a protocol can be developed.

I suppose one could argue that the story you cite falls under this category. However, the intent and spirit of this policy is to avoid a situation where a reporter or editor must cover a story where a relative is a major player, the person accountable or in charge of an organization. It is also true that reporters should not do stories that would in any way advance the interests of or advocate for a family member. Had George Butters been the only person in the province of New Brunswick who had had difficulties with his health card, you would be right that there was a conflict of interest. Had the story led to special treatment for the reporter and her spouse, that too would be an issue. The story, however, makes it clear that 500 people have been affected:

Service New Brunswick is hoping more than 500 people will soon be in possession of their Medicare health cards — months after a serious technical glitch. In early December, a technical problem resulted in 116 such cards being sent to 24 wrong addresses — another 400 were destroyed before they were mailed out.

One of the people affected was George Butters of Fredericton.

There is a common convention in journalistic story-telling to use one person’s story to illustrate the many. It is easier to identify with one person than with a collective. Generally speaking, reporters try to avoid using friends or family members for the very reasons that led you to file your complaint. In this case, since there are privacy issues around health cards, it was difficult to know who those other 498 people were. (Both Mr. Butters and the reporter had been affected). The producer of the piece, Darrow MacIntyre, explained that there was an attempt to find other people affected in the same way as Ms. Harrop and Mr. Butters. They did find one other couple, but they did not wish to go public.

There is no issue of accuracy of the story, as the numbers come from New Brunswick Health. There also is no issue of balance even though only one complainant, as you characterize him, is named. While there is no spokesperson for Service New Brunswick, there are also no contentious facts in the story. There is no dispute that there had been difficulties, including the delivery of cards to the wrong households, and that there were delays.

The TV news story which accompanies the text on the web page makes the relationship clear, although she never actually names her husband. The reporter conveys the entire report as a first person tale about trying to find out when their health cards would be renewed, and what to do in the meantime if they needed medical services. It is transparent and in no way violates any CBC policy.

You made it clear in your response to Ms. Wilson that your complaint pertains only to the text. Anyone reading the story, without watching the accompanying video, would not know the relationship between Mr. Butters and the reporter. Ms. Wilson explained a web writer independently focused the online story on Mr. Butters. While that is not a violation of policy, there is a high expectation of transparency and openness. Because it is not common practice to use a family member in a story, it would have been better had the web writer made the relationship known. There was a legitimate public interest in telling about the second time there had been a delay in issuing health cards. There is a public interest in being very clear when a choice is made to use sources close to news staff.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman