How deep do you go?

The complainant, Hui Wu, was dissatisfied with the level of coverage surrounding a fundraising effort on behalf of a widowed Ottawa woman. She thought the facts used, and those left out, created a deceptive impression, and legitimized the fundraising request. In fact, the fundraising was a small part of a story about a family whose father had drowned in Cuba. There was no advocacy or endorsement of the money request.

COMPLAINT

You were very concerned about the coverage of fundraising efforts on behalf of an Ottawa family after the father, Yue Liu, drowned while on a family vacation in Cuba. There are two stories on the website: “Ottawa Father Yue Liu drowns while trying to save son in Cuba” and “B.C. man saved drowning boy but couldn’t save father.” Both stories made reference to fundraising efforts on behalf of the family. In the first one, a man named Andy Wang provided information about the family, and the costs of repatriating the body and the funeral for the drowned father.

You had several issues with the reports, and were concerned that the “news content on the fundraising does not comply with CBC’s journalist standards.” You thought there were omissions that created bias and inaccuracy in the story. You thought that rather than saying close friends were raising the money, it appeared that the “Chinese community” was doing so, thereby lending an air of legitimacy to the endeavour. You were concerned with the omission of the fact that Andy Wang, only identified as a family friend, was in fact the “English media spokesperson of the fundraising committee”:

“Since many details in the news were supplied by Mr. Wang, without proper identification of him, the audience was not provided the context necessary to judge the credibility of Mr. Wang’s statements.”

You were also bothered by the reference to the “Chinese community”:

“In fact, as a Canadian immigrating from China, I have not been aware of any entity called ‘Ottawa's Chinese Community’ that would be capable of and responsible for any actions like fundraising.”

You also thought there was bias in the article because the stories did not reveal the fact that the couple were “professionals employed by the federal government,” and that Ms. Bu, the widow, would be entitled to death benefits. The article did mention that the family had no insurance and you thought this was done to emphasize the need for financial support and that the mention of some financial information, like the cost of repatriation and burying the body, meant that other financial information should be given in the interests of balance.

Overall, you thought it inappropriate that the needs of one family should be promoted on the website of the public broadcaster:

“I don’t know what social values the journalist and programmer were advocating when public resources were consumed to promote a private fundraising for one family who didn't use insurances to manage its financial security, which is contrary to what Canadian families should have been doing in a modern society. I also don't understand why the news had to single out ‘Ottawa's Chinese Community’ when the only relevancy was that the fundraiser and the beneficiary happened to come from the Chinese ethnic group and that they started soliciting funds from people around them.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of regional news in Ottawa, Paula Waddell, responded to your concerns. She explained that the reporter had gone to the bereaved household a few days after the family returned to Ottawa from Cuba, where Mr. Liu had drowned. When she was there to talk to the widow, she also encountered Andy Wang, “consoling the grieving family.” He identified himself as a family friend. She noted that is why he was identified in that way in the news stories. It was from him, Ms. Waddell said, that the reporter got the information that Ms. Bu would now be the sole support for her two children and two parents. He is quoted as saying that the Chinese community had raised $20,000 at that point. He also provided the details of the cost of repatriation and burial, a total of $30,000. The reporter followed policy because she attributed this information to the source, Mr. Wang. Ms. Waddell wrote:

“Reporters are our eyes and ears bringing us information about events that we did not witness ourselves. But – as is often the case – when reporters do not know about something with certainty, we expect that they will attribute that information. That way viewers or readers know the source of the information and can make their own judgment about its reliability. That is what happened here.”

Since you questioned why the story did not include the details of Ms. Bu and Mr. Liu’s employment and eligibility of death benefits, she told you the focus of the story was about the family and its time of grief, and “not about their financial circumstances or trying to establish whether or how much money they needed. Pursuing questions of that sort at the time would, rightly I believe, appear churlish and insensitive.” She added that the story did not go into much detail about the fundraising, merely noted that it was going on, and left it to members of the public to decide whether they wished to contribute or not.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic policy requires accuracy, and providing members of the public with adequate information to form a judgment about an event or controversy. Most of your concerns center on a belief not enough information was provided. Specifically, you say that Andy Wang was a close family friend and also chair of the fundraising committee. You thought the fact that was not mentioned was a significant omission and violation of CBC policy on identifying interviewees. The policy states that news staff provide relevant information about affiliation of the interviewee so that the public can decide on the “relevance and credibility” of his or her information.

In this case, I do not think the fact that he was chairing a committee was relevant. There may have been an ad hoc organization, but there is no indication that there was association with a larger organization with its own agenda or purpose. The context is clear enough; he is a family friend providing support, which includes publicizing an appeal for funds. This is not a violation of policy.

You also believe the reporter did not do due diligence because you found information on Chinese language websites that assert that both parents had access to death benefits. I hasten to add I have no idea if that information is accurate, and it wouldn’t be considered a reliable source had reporters been doing an in-depth story on the fundraising. They reported the fact that it existed; the fundraising was not a focus of the story. And while you consider it a lapse and told Ms. Waddell she was giving in to emotions not to have questioned the widow on her finances, I think she made the right call.

You are right to point out by linking to the fund, and mentioning it in the first place, it confers a certain legitimacy on it. But the stories in no way advocated that people contribute, or actively promoted the fundraising, which would have violated policy. In the context of a piece about a family in the early stages of grief, and largely centered around the story of the drowning, this made perfect sense. Given this information, an individual could decide to donate, or to seek more information before doing so.

You raise an interesting and important point when you criticize the phrasing of the story:

Ottawa’s Chinese community and other supporters have already raised $20,000 for the family as of Monday afternoon, he said.

You point out that there is no entity that is the “Chinese community,” but rather individuals who make it up. It is a kind of shorthand to phrase it in this way. It should more properly read “members of the Chinese community.” The second story, mostly featuring the man who saved Liu’s child, did write it in that way in reporting $70,000 had been raised in all. As for the relevance of mentioning the ethnicity of the donors, it is in context and in no way contravenes CBC policy. You also felt that this phrasing provided legitimacy to the fundraiser because it implied it had the support of the “Chinese community.” I think it is clear in context that some members of the community, a community that the family was part of, did provide funds. I do not think this creates a false impression or implies some sort of official endorsement. As you point out, the community is made up of its constituent parts – individuals and organizations.

From your correspondence, it appears there was some concern among people who participated in a discussion on a Chinese language website that there was no financial need to solicit money and that the family had sufficient means. There was also discussion that the money was purportedly raised to cover death and funeral expenses, but the amount raised was larger than that. When you made CBC staff aware of those concerns, they did do some follow-up to ensure that there were no complaints to police or any suspicion of fraud or embezzlement. There were no indications that was the case.

While there is no violation of policy in this case, your demand for rigor is a strong reminder that in cases where CBC reports on these kinds of fundraising activities, it is important to follow up to ensure there has been no significant abuse.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman