Make it Clear to Make it Accurate

The complainant, Ed B, is being identified only by his first name and last initial because revealing his full name would compromise his professional position. I reluctantly agreed to do so because, as much as possible, the process should be transparent. He complained because an hourly report on the statement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights only mentioned her criticism of Israel and not Hamas. That wasn’t exactly the case, but the short item was still unacceptable.

COMPLAINT

You wrote that you were concerned that there had been “selective reporting” in an hourly newscast on July 23, 2014. The report concerned statements made by Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at that time. Speaking at an emergency debate of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, she condemned Hamas’s and other armed groups’ indiscriminate firing of missiles into Israel. She also condemned Israel’s attacks that resulted in civilian casualties, which she said violated international humanitarian law “in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

The report you heard talked about possible war crimes but did not mention the criticism of Hamas and other armed groups, you said:

The segment included a voice quote to that effect. Only later, when I read about this event as reported by other news organizations, did I learn that in fact the Commissioner had voiced concerns about possible war crimes committed by both sides, not just Israel.

You questioned why “CBC selectively report(ed) this important story in a manner that incorrectly suggested that one side was accused of possible war crimes.” You attempted to alert the news service of this perceived violation of policy via the programming feedback contact form on the web site, but received no response. You then contacted this office.

You rejected the explanation given you, including that there is any distinction between the way the Commissioner characterized Hamas’s and Israel’s activities. You asked me to review the matter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, responded to your complaint. He said you had raised a valid question about selection, and “whether we should have reflected Navi Pillay’s comments about Hamas as well. He said that it would have been preferable to have done so, but that it was permissible to have run the story the way it went to air. He thought that there was a distinction between the way the Human Rights Commissioner referred to Israel’s actions and the way she talked about Hamas. In Israel’s case, she mentioned possible war crimes; in the case of Hamas she talked only about violation of international law. Mr. Nagler said those “characterizations are qualitatively different.”

He explained further that the hourly newscasts are only five minutes long, and so the news producers treat them as an “audio headline service.” It was a defensible decision, he said, to leave out the information about Hamas because the information about Israel was more newsworthy. He agreed it would have been better to have included that information, but its absence was not evidence of bias. He also said that it was a “bit of a mug’s game” to assess balance and fairness when the sample is so small.

REVIEW

Your complaint raises the question of balance and accuracy. The CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for balance to be achieved over a reasonable period of time. So Mr. Nagler has a point about judging bias based on one story. Being selective is a constant – reporters and editors distill what they know and what they have seen. Their judgment is based on, among other things, what is new, what is engaging, what has been reported before. They must certainly be mindful about what comes afterwards as well, to fulfill the policy on achieving balance over time. It would be hard to say there was any kind of bias based on this one story.

But there is also policy that deals with accuracy:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

It is here the story did not live up to the spirit of this commitment. And it is not necessarily for the reason that you cited. There were two stories out of the Middle East on that newscast. The first was from CBC reporter Derek Stoffel and it focused on the search for some sort of breakthrough on the diplomatic front to get to a ceasefire. The second was from the BBC and dealt with Navi Pillay’s presentation at an emergency hearing of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The announcer began:

Meanwhile the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says there is a strong possibility that Israel may have committed war crimes. Navi Pillay is condemning the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas, Imogen Foulkes reports.

I bolded the text which actually does provide the information you thought was lacking. It is not surprising that you missed it. I did too the first time I listened to the newscast for this review, and had to play it again to catch the reference. You did not have the luxury to do so, although, in fairness, you mentioned that in your message on the website you asked for a copy of the item.

The way the story is written and the way it is delivered falls short of a “clear and accessible manner.” The body of the piece also highlights the Commissioner’s condemnation of Israel. This was an inadequate treatment of her testimony because it is unclear and undermines its ability to convey accurate information to the listener.

I would also note that although I have not heard her entire presentation, she does seem to make a distinction between Hamas and other armed groups’ activities, and her very specific condemnation of Israel. While she condemns Hamas’s tactics, she spends much more time documenting Israeli attacks, and it is only in the context of Israel that she raises the possibility of war crimes. It is not clear, from her words, if she believes Hamas’s activities constitute war crimes. In Israel’s case, she refers to the breach of international humanitarian law, which could lead to charges of war crimes. It is fair to say, as later reports on CBCNews.ca did, that she accused both sides of violating international law.

CBC management might want to review this newscast for lessons it might teach about clarity of writing. It might also want to review how clear the web site is about what an audience member can expect after submitting a query or complaint through the programming feedback option. You are not the first person to contact this office in frustration after going that route and getting no reply.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman