Kids can be seen and heard

The complainant, Ed Podolaniuk, thought CBC News Thunder Bay was irresponsible in its coverage of community reaction to a controversial Ontario election newspaper ad placed by a local Libertarian Party candidate. He also questioned the use of a child’s response. I found the coverage was fair and that reflecting the voice of an Aboriginal child affected by the content of the ad was completely legitimate and in line with CBC journalistic policy on the participation of children in programming.

COMPLAINT

During the recent provincial election in Ontario, a local Thunder Bay candidate, Tamara Johnson, placed a full-page ad in the local paper, the Chronicle Journal. In it she stated, in part, that no people are “entitled to handouts or are owed a ‘debt’ by today’s taxpayers; that no group of people are above the law,” or can illegally block roads or that no “group of people ‘own’ crown lands” and that “crown lands are public lands, not native lands. We all own these lands.” Her appeal to voters concluded with “No group of people are special and deserve first class ‘super-citizen’ status.”

There was a strong reaction in Thunder Bay to this ad – various anti-racism groups and spokespeople for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation denounced the ad as racist and criticized the newspaper for running it. The day after the provincial election the mayor of Thunder Bay called a news conference and denounced the ad, as he had earlier in the day on CBC Thunder Bay’s morning show. Johnson ran unsuccessfully as the Libertarian candidate in the Superior North riding of Thunder Bay.

You thought CBC’s coverage of the incident was biased and unfair. You said that the coverage of the mayor was one sided and his statements went unchallenged. You do not think the ad can be categorized as racist:

“This ad was purchased and run in the Chronicle Journal. while I seriously doubt that the Chronicle would have run this ad if it were indeed racist. I have read the ad and there is no mention of any race in it except a reference to native lands.”

In the course of the coverage of the mayor’s news conference, the news story and the radio feature also contained some comments from some First Nations people who were at the event. Tesa Fiddler explained why she was protesting and why she had brought her children along. Her nine year old daughter was asked about the ad, and why she was at the protest. You thought it inappropriate to feature a child: “Since when does the CBC use children as a political prop to make a point. This borders on child exploitation…”

You categorized the coverage as a “witch hunt” without any regard to Ms. Johnson’s perspective and the fact that she had received death threats and was the subject of “racial abuse” during the election campaign.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The program manager in Thunder Bay, Susan Rogers, responded to your complaint. She informed you that Tamara Johnson had been interviewed on the Thunder Bay morning show on June 20, one week after the broadcast you found objectionable. She told you that Ms. Johnson responded to the news conference, telling interviewer Jody Porter that there had been a backlash against her as a result of it. She was also able to speak on her own behalf about the controversial Chronicle Journal election ad. Ms. Rogers wrote: “Ms Johnson was given the opportunity to explain who she was referring to when she talked about ‘super citizens’ and her intentions with the ad, given that she apparently was unaware of the press conference held by the mayor and hadn't been invited to attend.”

She explained the context for the use of a child in the news conference coverage. She explained that the Fiddler family had purposely brought their daughters to the news conference because they had discussed with their children what the ad’s publication meant to them as aboriginal people living in Thunder Bay. She told you they “included the daughter with the permission and encouragement of the parents.”

REVIEW

You were concerned that CBC provided coverage of this story because you believe the ad was not racist in the first place. At the end of the day, journalism in the public interest provides facts, analysis and varying perspectives to allow citizens to make up their own minds. When the full-page ad was placed in the newspaper, there was strong reaction from the community. Whether their assessment of the ad is right or wrong, it is newsworthy that the accusations were made. Since the paper was criticized for accepting the ad, CBC News sought the views of the publisher of the paper as well as those of a spokesperson from the Anishnabek Nation. All of this occurred within days of the actual vote in Ontario.

The day after the June 12 vote the mayor of Thunder Bay chose to publically take a stand against Ms. Johnson’s ad. He and others spoke to a group of people who had gathered at City Hall. CBC in Thunder Bay covered the event in newscasts and on radio current affairs shows. On Voyager North, the afternoon show, the story was introduced this way:

The provincial election may be over, but a local election ad continues to draw outrage. Earlier in the week, Libertarian candidate Tamara Johnson took out a full page campaign ad in the Chronicle Journal. In it, she took aim at First Nations people and their treaty rights.

Today, the city of Thunder Bay held a news conference to speak out against those statements and promote respect for First Nations people. Here’s some of what Mayor Keith Hobbs told a crowd of more than 60 people at City Hall earlier today...

There follows a clip of the mayor condemning the ad.

You say the ad makes “no mention of any race except a reference to native lands.” CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows journalists to “provide judgment based on facts and expertise.” There is no violation of policy in characterizing the ad in that fashion. And there is certainly no violation of policy in reporting on the mayor and the people who came to support him.

The perspective lacking in the coverage on June 13 was that of the candidate who placed the ad, Tamara Johnson. CBC rectified the situation by featuring an interview with her the following week. CBC journalistic policy allows for balance to be achieved over a reasonable period of time. Since the earlier stories involved her reputation, it would have been preferable to get her perspective sooner, but there is no violation of the policy.

In the interview Ms. Johnson was able to present her views. She told interviewer Jody Porter that the ad was not singling out any one group when it mentioned road blockades and that no group who breaks the law should be above it. She told her the ads were not about “native people” and the reason why people might have interpreted it that way was “because I have used the word native lands when I speak of public lands. I think it’s a serious miscommunication….there is not one racist word in this ad. My life has been threatened ever since the mayor made his statements, I guess on CBC last Friday, discussing the election results.”

Your second criticism involved the use of a child in the coverage of the mayor’s news conference. CBC journalism policy lays out the principles around using children in news stories. While special caution is required, it also states that children and youth also “enjoy freedom of expression and a right to information.” It acknowledges that parents or guardians do have a say in the matter. As Ms. Rogers explained to you, in this case the child spoke with the encouragement of her mother. And the context was clearly laid out: the parents had explained the situation and why they were protesting. The child told the interviewer how she understood the situation from the perspective of a nine year old aboriginal child living in the city of Thunder Bay. There is certainly no violation of policy in doing so.

The publication of Tamara Johnson’s newspaper ad elicited strong response in the Thunder Bay community. It is appropriate that CBC News in Thunder Bay reflected that fact and examined the issue from a variety of perspectives.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman