Bias by omission

This year the annual March For Life on Parliament Hill was disrupted by two topless protesters. They yelled two slogans, one of which contained an obscenity. The account on CBCNews.ca didn’t report the obscene slogan. The complainant, Tom Forsythe, thought this was deliberate and the omission rendered the whole story inaccurate and biased. News reporting is about synthesizing and reporting information that reflects the event. The report by omission or commission should not distort reality. I found in this case the text and accompanying pictures were an accurate reflection of what happened and did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

During an annual anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill, two topless protesters attempted to disrupt the event. They were removed by RCMP officers. In a story about the disruption and the rally, CBCNews.ca reported the two women were shouting: “my body, my rules.” You recorded them on video as they were being handcuffed and arrested, shouting “f**k your morals,” and posted the segment on YouTube. You thought the failure to report that chant in the CBC News piece was a major inaccuracy and that it must be corrected. You pointed out that bias can come through omission:

“A lie of omission is still a lie. By deliberately choosing to leave out the more vulgar chant, she (the writer) made the protesters look more reasonable to the audience. It was only three words, which would not have added much to the length of the story, but by leaving them out it fundamentally changes the meaning of what they were saying.

There is a huge difference between “my body, my rules,” which many Canadians agree with, and “f**k your morals,” which is an attack on morality as a concept.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

In this particular instance, the response did not come from management but from the writer of the online story, Laura Payton. She explained that she quoted the chant “my body, my rules” because the woman chanting that slogan was the one who made it to the microphone, and that’s what most of the attendees would have heard. She said it was the other woman who was using an expletive, and would not have been heard by the majority of people present. She explained she also wanted to avoid using a vulgarity in the story, and that the other quote conveyed a sense of the event:

“I thought that quoting one of the protesters gave a sense of the events without requiring me to quote language my mother would have been offended to read.”

REVIEW

The story you mentioned in your complaint is entitled “Topless pro-choice protesters interrupt anti-abortion rally.” The article itself covers quite a bit more territory. It provides some of the details of the disruption. It identifies the group the topless protestors are involved with and talks about their preferred tactic of appearing topless. It also gives some details of the annual March For Life and it seeks to put the March in the context of the then-recent announcement by Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau that his MPs will be obliged to vote pro-choice.

CBC Journalistic Policy requires accuracy, fairness and balance in its reporting. The value of accuracy asks that reporters seek truth in matters of public interest and to “clearly explain the facts to our audience.” The reporter is obliged to provide the public with enough facts to form a judgment about events. There is no obligation to provide every detail and statement. Your complaint is based on your belief that leaving out the detail of one of the protestor’s chants renders the coverage inaccurate and biased.

The story as it stands reports the disruption and shows, through a still photo on the webpage, and in its text, that this was a topless protest. It also provides some background on the organization the two protesters belong to. It provides enough detail and context for someone reading the article to form a judgment about who the protesters were and what was going on at the March for Life rally. It does not distort the meaning of the event, or create a false sense of it. The profane slogan was certainly the most shocking, but the point is well made by describing and showing two semi-nude women being pulled from the crowd.

You see it as a choice based in a bias in favour of the protesters’ position. Ms. Payton assured you that it did not inform her decision. The journalistic process is one of synthesis and choices about what to include or omit. Ms. Payton told you her thinking about why she ignored the profane chant. There is no reason to doubt her word.

I note that while Ms. Payton said her choice was partly based on a desire to avoid the use of offensive language, CBC journalistic policy would have provided some guidance. It states that it is acceptable to use offensive language if it is important to the editorial purpose of the story. It was relevant, but not critical, so the decision to use it or not is a judgment call:

In particular we avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.

In this case she made the decision that the editorial point could be made without repeating offensive language. Its omission did not distort the meaning of the event. There was no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman