Maintaining Balance: On matters of controversy represent both sides whenever possible

The Executive Director of HonestReporting Canada, Mike Fegelman, complained that CBC reported the shelling of the Gaza power plant by Israeli forces as a proven fact. He pointed to Israeli military statements denying responsibility. One online story was edited to reflect that fact, but another one, published some time later, was not. The inconsistency is not acceptable.

COMPLAINT

In your role as Executive Director of Honest Reporting, you wrote to complain about a story originally published July 29, 2014, about the bombing of the sole power plant in Gaza. The story was headlined: “Gaza conflict: Israel hits symbols of Hamas rule as UN finds rockets in school”. The sub-headline was “Gaza’s only power plant shut down by shelling, residents brace for prolonged power outage.”

You were concerned that this implied Israel was responsible for the shelling of the plant, even though an Israeli military spokesman said that Israel had not hit the plant deliberately but it may have happened by accident. You provided part of an article from The Times of Israel reporting on the Israeli denial, and pointed out that on the July 29 edition of CBC News Network’s Power and Politics, another Israeli spokesperson denied Israeli targeting of the power plant.

You wrote again on August 6 because of a brief reference to the attempts to repair Gaza’s sole power plant, “badly damaged by an Israeli attack.” The reference was in a much longer article about the ongoing attempts at reaching a ceasefire. You asked that this article be corrected to reflect the Israeli position as well.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Bob Campbell, a senior manager with CBC News, acknowledged your concern the same day he received your email and told you he would look into the article. As a result, the article was amended to reflect the Israeli position on the shelling of the power plant. It quoted from an interview with Yigal Palmor, a spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Power and Politics.

When you wrote again to ask that the story on August 6 also be amended to reflect the Israeli position, he replied that the news team did review the article but they were “not planning to include the Israeli denial in this story.” He explained that the shelling and the denial were fresh a week ago, but that the story had developed further:

Yesterday's AP/CP story is about the negotiations and the aftermath of the fighting. The power plant reference is included in a couple of sentences at the end about power shortages. At this point that Israeli tank shells hit the plant (perhaps inadvertently) has been widely reported including in the Israeli media.

He indicated that when the results of the Israeli Defence Force investigation are made public, CBC News will report the findings.

REVIEW

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices demands that CBC reporting be accurate and balanced. In a breaking news story, the facts and what is the complete story are not always apparent at the outset, and that is why stories are amended and rewritten over a period of time. In a war situation it is even more chaotic and difficult to get the facts. But CBC policy is clear about stating that “we will sometimes receive conflicting information from credible sources. We may choose to report this, making clear the circumstances of the situation and citing the sources while we work to reconcile the information in light of the reality on the ground.”

When the story was first published, in the early hours of July 29, the story quoted Palestinian officials stating that Israeli tank shells had shut down the territory’s only power station:

Israel on Tuesday unleashed its heaviest bombardment in a three-week-old war against Hamas, striking symbols of the militant group's control in Gaza and firing tank shells that Palestinian officials said shut down the strip’s only power plant.

Thick black smoke from the plant’s burning fuel tank rose for hours. The station’s shutdown further disrupted the supply of electricity and water to the 1.7 million people packed into the narrow Palestinian coastal territory.

When Israeli spokespeople responded to the accusation later in the day, saying that Israeli Defense Forces had not targeted the power plant, but may have hit it accidently, the story needed to be updated. On the afternoon of July 29, on another CBC outlet, CBC News Network’s Power and Politics, a foreign ministry spokesperson gave the Israeli government response. Evan Solomon, host of the program, asked Yigal Palmor how Israel could justify hitting a power plant, since that disproportionately affected the civilian population. Mr. Palmor replied:

There is no justification and it wasn’t shelled by Israel. We have spent the whole day reviewing and checking all army operations in that area and it is very clear to us that no army operation took place anywhere near that power plant. I am unable to say what did happen, but I am able to say this: It wasn’t anything that had to do with Israeli army operations.

And as you pointed out, elsewhere an IDF spokesperson was quoted as saying that the power plant was not deliberately targeted, but may have been hit by mistake. When you pointed this out to CBC News staff, the story was amended to include Mr. Palmor’s remarks. CBC News abided by its policy on corrections; to do so as soon as they are pointed out. In this case though, they should have rewritten the story when the new information was first made available.

As for the second story on August 6, the reference to the shelling of the plant is a passing one in a much longer story. It was made in the context of a discussion of the challenges faced by Gazans trying to return to their homes:

Utility crews were working frantically to repair downed electricity and telephone lines. Gaza’s only power plant was shut down after it was badly damaged by an Israeli attack and repairs are expected to take months, leaving the densely populated strip with only two to three hours of electricity a day, via Egypt and Israel.

One of the great challenges in covering this conflict is that so many facts are in dispute, and not every story can present each position every time. So there will be lapses. Having said that, in this case, since there is still no clear answer about what happened at that plant the story should have qualified the statement

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman