Being Transparent: More on how much detail is enough

The complainant, Josette Wier, believed that it was a serious omission not to provide the information that an academic quoted in a story also sat on the board of a large oil company. The story was about Canada’s competitive global position on taxation. CBC policy states that reporters and editors are obliged to provide relevant information so that audiences can judge the credibility and relevance of the information. It is a very important principle. It is critical to provide context and background, which may include any and all affiliations. How much information is necessary is a judgment call. In this case, the context was provided through other information, and the directorship was not critical. I found there was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to this office because you were particularly concerned by the way economist and academic Jack Mintz was identified in an article about a study he published about Canada’s global tax competitiveness. Mintz, who is director of the University of Calgary’s school of public policy, had called a news conference to draw attention to the fact that Canada’s global competitive position in its corporate taxation rate had declined. Mr. Mintz and another academic publish a yearly “Global Tax Competitiveness ranking” through the School of Public Policy.

You thought that only identifying Professor Mintz as an academic was withholding important information from readers of the article. You pointed out that Mr. Mintz also sits on the Board of Directors of Imperial Oil and, therefore, “he is NOT (sic) an unbiased university scholar. Given his dual affiliations, there are many reasons to infer bias and his corporate membership should be disclosed to the readers.” You had complained about the omission of Mr. Mintz’s corporate affiliation when he was quoted in a World at Six story commenting on the appointment of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the impact that might have on the future of the Keystone pipeline.

At that time Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, agreed with you that the Imperial Oil directorship was relevant in that instance and should have been mentioned. You questioned why he hadn’t lived up to the commitment to mention it and pointed out this was the third time you have complained about Mr. Mintz. On a broader front, you are concerned that “it is more widespread and that CBC does not accurately present the full titles of the people they quote.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler responded to your concerns this time as well. He acknowledged that last March he had written that “we should present sufficient information that our listeners can make an informed judgment about the relevance and credibility of statements made.” He pointed out that in the Keystone pipeline story, the fact was relevant. He explained that in this case he did not think it was. He said:

It is true that the only title by which we identify Dr. Mintz is the academic one from his university. But we make a careful point in the article to note that he is "a longtime advocate of low corporate tax rates." This made it clear that Dr. Mintz is not a completely neutral academic analyst. And it provides readers with sufficient context so they can decide for themselves whether his opinion on global tax rates is credible.

That context is the end goal, not the naming of any and all affiliations. You will recall that back in March, I agreed with you that we should have referred to his relationship with Imperial Oil in a previous article. That's because his comments then were about the Keystone XL Pipeline development. His links to Imperial were relevant, and we were wrong to exclude them. However, this does not mean that Imperial Oil is relevant to every story in which he appears.

He acknowledged that “reasonable people” could disagree about how much context is enough. In this case he thought cbcnews.ca writers had acted appropriately in light of CBC policy.

REVIEW

CBC has a policy that addresses this issue directly. In “Identification of Interviewees” it reminds journalists of the need to provide relevant information about a subject or participant in a story:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

The relevant phrase is “we make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give context and explanation necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.” You are right to ask that this policy be adhered to fully. The policy sets out the principle. It cannot, obviously, spell out exactly how much is enough in the context of any particular story. (Full disclosure: I was involved in the writing of these policies, in consultation with many CBC journalists and outside experts).

It might have said we disclose every bit of information about the interviewee. But that is not realistic, and most likely not necessary. As in most reporting situations, what you leave in and what you take out is a judgment call against the principle – which is ensuring that relevant information is available so that a reader, viewer or listener can judge the credibility of a speaker. At times it is also necessary to indicate the person’s perspective. But that perspective can be provided in other ways, and often is. Most reasonably, it is provided by the expert or interviewee him or herself. In this case, Professor Mintz’s perspective is made clear in his own words: In the course of the article he is quoted as referring to Tom Mulcair, leader of the NDP, as having a “reckless” taxation policy:

“But he warned against ‘reckless populist politics’ that call for an increase in corporate taxes so that corporations pay a larger share of Canadian tax. Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair would raise the federal tax rate on business to about 22 per cent, one of the highest in the world, Mintz said.”

And as Mr. Nagler pointed out, Mintz was also described as a “longtime advocate for lower corporate tax rates.” This seems to me sufficient positioning for the readers of this article to understand Mr. Mintz’s perspective. The very fact that taxation rates are something he tracks on a yearly basis indicates his interests and perspective.

You are concerned that omitting Mr Mintz’s corporate connection infers he is a neutral academic. I am not sure that it is an assumption everyone would make. His academic credentials certainly qualify him to speak to the subject at hand. The article provides context in other ways, short of mentioning his Imperial Oil affiliation. In this age of transparency where there is little room to hide in a world of social media, there is a high expectation that all will be revealed. That is a good thing. It just can’t always be revealed in every iteration.

This is an issue journalists spend a lot of time thinking about, for themselves as well as the people they feature in their stories, given the ability to find out every detail with a few clicks of a mouse. Your reminder that journalists should be diligent in providing this information is one they should take to heart. In each story, it is a question to be asked and evaluated. The answer won’t always be the same. If the academic is attached to a study, for example, it is critical to disclose if the study was funded by an advocacy group or company.

While I don’t believe there was a violation of the policy in this instance, I do think you raise an important issue that CBC news management should ensure is well understood and considered by its news staff. Mr. Nagler’s two responses to you indicate that that is likely the case.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman