Balancing Act: A story subject might wish others were included. But it's not unfair to keep the focus on one person or company.

The complainant, Peter Fitzpatrick, is a media manager for Air Canada. He complained that coverage of his company’s crackdown on carry-on luggage was unfair because the piece did not include customer reaction to a rival airline which implemented similar policies around the same time. The story was really about the impact on Air Canada employees. It might not be wanted attention, but it was fair.

COMPLAINT

As the manager of media relations (central Canada) for Air Canada, you wrote to complain about an article by Sophia Harris published on CBCNews.ca on October 31, 2014. It was entitled “Air Canada Service agents call carry-on crackdown too unpleasant.” You thought the story unfairly singled out Air Canada, which was about to implement a checked baggage fee for some customers, and had put in a trial program to monitor carry-on luggage in advance of the new fees. The luggage charge went into effect on November 2. A rival airline, WestJet, had also introduced checked luggage fees around that time, on October 29. You thought that the story unfairly and unduly focused on Air Canada.

As the reporter presented it to you initially, the story wasn’t about the checked baggage charge as such, but would focus on the issue of carry-on luggage. Airline personnel would be ensuring that the existing rules were being followed, as people might try to get around the checked luggage fee. The issue of the size and amount of carry-on bags is an ongoing one for air travellers and the airlines.

In advance of the fees kicking in you explained Air Canada would begin a “type trial September 30 at Toronto Pearson airport to ensure compliance with the airline’s carry-on baggage policy and TC regulatory provisions.” You added that extra staff would be on hand to make sure customers were in compliance and to help them check any bags that did not meet the requirements.

You thought Air Canada was not treated “even-handedly” because the actions of its major competitor, enacting the same policies at virtually the same time, with the same impact on customers, were not featured in the article. You felt it was inappropriate that only Air Canada’s scrutiny of carry-on bags was featured in the story. You said that WestJet had implemented a similar practice, and it was not mentioned. You made reference to a Calgary Herald story that quotes a WestJet spokesperson as saying “WestJet is keeping a close watch to make sure that people bring only the carry-on they are entitled to.” You felt it was necessary to balance this story by mentioning how WestJet was ensuring compliance as the new charges began. You wrote:

In addition, complaints from Air Canada customers were reported, even alluded to in the headline, but no reports of dissatisfied WestJet customers were included. Ms. Harris had to go no farther than the WestJet Twitter feed to find quotes from disaffected WestJet customers, such as “Way to go @WestJet flight on Sunday didn't charge me for bags, today charged! Thanks for the heads up #notimpressed #usedtolikeyou”

You pointed out that in her first emails to you the reporter, Sophia Harris, led you to believe she would be including both airlines in her story. You said her email mentioned she was working on a story “about carry-on baggage because the new checked baggage fee kicks in this Sunday.” You reminded her that both West Jest and Air Canada were implementing the fees, and she told you she had reached out to West Jet as well, and would likely do one story.

You thought that when the story changed to focus on some Air Canada employees who were unhappy having to confront passengers, Ms. Harris should have checked to see how WestJet agents were responding to similar working conditions. You thought it was an admission of bias not doing so. “Would not a story on how employees in the industry were reacting to a new policy at both carriers be more newsworthy and of value to your audience, let alone more balanced and fair?”

You explained that you did not respond to Ms. Harris’s emails about employee complaints because it was standard that people in any organization complain about which shifts they work, and which jobs they are assigned and “this should not be considered news to anyone.”

You also noted that on October 28, CBCNews.ca had incorrectly reported on a Supreme Court ruling involving Air Canada. The court had upheld a Federal Court of Appeal decision that was in Air Canada’s favor. They were not required to pay damages to a couple who had sued because of lack of service in French. The initial report on the website said Air Canada had lost. You wondered how that could have happened and if there was enough editorial oversight.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The senior producer of the Business Content Unit, Michael Colton, replied to your concerns. He explained that CBC News had published and broadcast stories about the implementation of the two fees at the time each airline made its announcement. The decision was made to do a follow up story which would focus on the carry-on bag policies just as both carriers were to implement the new charges. He told you that initially reporter Sophia Harris approached both Air Canada and WestJet. But as she was doing her research, he mentioned, she found a group of Air Canada employees who were unhappy because they were dealing with unpleasant passengers in the course of measuring and monitoring carry-on bags. He said it was a matter of “some public interest” that some employees and passengers were unhappy:

I fully realize that this is a highly competitive business and that you would have preferred that we had prepared a story about how both WestJet and Air Canada passengers had reacted to the airlines’ new charges. But this was a different story, one that focused on Air Canada and its employees. That focus does not make it “unfair”; the story stands on its own. Recent stories about defects in General Motors cars, as an example, may rightly be judged on their journalistic merit not whether or the extent to which they involve other manufacturers. Ms. Harris’s story was well researched, accurate and fairly presented.

He noted that Ms. Harris tried several times to get your perspective on the issue raised in the piece and you didn’t respond because, as you wrote to me, you did not consider it newsworthy.

Mr. Colton acknowledged that CBC News had erred in reporting the Supreme Court decision. He apologized for inaccuracy and explained there was a breakdown in communication between the news desk in Toronto and the desk in Ottawa. He said that as soon as the error was noted, the story was changed and there is an acknowledgement on the website.

REVIEW

You cite two aspects of CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices: fairness, which calls for even-handed treatment of individuals and organizations, and balance, which calls for a range of views and perspectives on an issue presented over a reasonable period of time. You argue this was breached because both airlines were following similar procedures, yet only Air Canada is featured in the article.

You might have a point if the focus was strictly on the travelling public’s response to the changed policy and the increased scrutiny on carry-on bags. That was the initial focus, and the one the reporter first emailed you to get your response. CBC News had done other stories, including one which featured the displeasure of WestJet passengers: “Checked bag fee will backfire on WestJet, say CBC News readers.” It also covered the announcement of the new fees when both carriers made them. There is no requirement for strict equivalence.

The focus of the story is not the discontent about carry-on luggage; it is about the discontent of Air Canada employees who are being asked to implement the policy. It was no longer an industry piece; it was more specific than that. The article begins:

It’s been a month since Air Canada launched its carry-on crackdown where customer service agents stop and confront travellers at check-in to ensure their cabin bags meet size limits. Bags that don’t make the cut now must be checked.

The move has made some passengers hostile. And a number of agents find crackdown duty so unpleasant, they don’t want to do it, according to Air Canada service agent and union representative, Sheila Fardy.

The article goes on to say that Fardy has asked management to recruit volunteers to do the front line work of monitoring compliance with carry-on bag requirements. The issue of unhappy passengers is not the focus; it is the response and request of Air Canada employees. The push back from some passengers is there to provide the context to understand the employee’s concerns. Ms. Harris does provide your perspective on the public’s reaction:

Air Canada says, so far, the crackdown has been “highly effective. We have had a great deal of positive feedback from customers who appreciate that [airline overhead bin] space is being apportioned more equitably,” says spokesperson, Peter Fitzpatrick.

In an email to CBC News you explained that Air Canada had developed a pilot project and put on extra staff to monitor carry-on luggage, and while WestJet may have heightened their scrutiny, it appears they did not devote the same resources to it. WestJet may have had a similar program, but it was not the same. As Ms. Harris explained to you in an email, the implementation of the new baggage charge was a news peg to check in on your program at Pearson airport. Part of the fallout of that program was that employees were unhappy.

You thought the employee request to volunteer for these shifts was not newsworthy and the fact that employees are unhappy about shifts and assignments is not particular to Air Canada. From your perspective, that may be the case. You did not share that perspective with Ms. Harris before the article was posted.

On any given day the treatment of a story or the angle to cover is a constant conversation in any newsroom. She mentioned she was checking in on the carry-on oversight but information she hadn’t foreseen was the impact on staff as opposed to the public. That is arguably an interesting development, and one that would not have been widely known at the time. I might also add that it is not at all unusual for the focus of a story to change in the course of the newsgathering.

While you think that there was biased treatment of Air Canada, there are actually a series of email requests, including one to your colleague with a request that he ask you to call her to get a response to the story. You were under no obligation to do so, but in the light of that, the reporter is under no obligation to pull the story or include other companies in the industry to see if their employees were also unhappy. That is not the equivalence or perspective required here.

The second matter you raised about the incorrect story is a clear violation of policy because it was completely inaccurate and no small error. It is surprising it took 30 minutes to correct it. Looking at the initial copy, it seems the reporter misunderstood the meaning of the Supreme Court ruling and completely mischaracterized it. In this case, clearly there was not sufficient editorial oversight, but that does not imply there is a pattern of neglect. Once the error was discovered, it was corrected and noted, as is required by policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman