No bias here, just human error

The complainant Jack Chivo was puzzled and concerned when an online story out of Gaza had no details at all about the information in the headline. He rejected the explanation that this was human error due to the fact that the story had been updated so often the facts referenced in the headline disappeared. He thought this was one more indication of CBC bias in covering the Middle East conflict, and he thought there were other missing details that reinforced his view. I found no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about an apparent contradiction between a headline in a story and its content. The story, attributed to the wire news service Associated Press (AP), was headlined: “Palestinian rocket misfire hit Al-Shifah hospital, Israel says.” Nowhere in the story, however, was there any reference to this headlined statement. You asked if editors even bother reading the material, or worse, “is it possible that propaganda trumps accuracy??”(Sic). You were further perplexed by the fact that you could not find an AP story about this incident anywhere else, and were concerned that CBC was the only one to publish this. You were concerned that CBC was tampering with news agency copy, something you view as forbidden. You wrote:

“I do not have to tell you, as a former seasoned journalist, that no news organization can use the names of AP, Reuters, AFP or CNN, to give a few examples, when it publishes a story, if it does not originate with the stated organization and only when it reproduces the said dispatch without any additions or modifications, unless approved by the original news agency.

Moreover, nobody is entitled to wantonly add or remove any word from the original story, if it exists, because it is considered professional and commercial fraud.”

You rejected all of Mr. Brodie’s explanations of how CBC news aggregates material and uses reports from more than one source in the body of a single piece, acknowledging it at the end of the article.

You had a further concern beyond the issues with this particular story. You felt the reporting lacked context and background. You pointed out that other news organizations had reported that Hamas operated out of this hospital, and that a Finnish reporter had recently reported that she had seen rockets launched from its parking lot. You quoted an article from the Washington Post that referred to Al-Shifah Hospital as the “de facto headquarters of Hamas.” Since CBC News did have reporters at this hospital, you wondered why there was no reporting of Hamas’s presence and use of the facility.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Brodie Fenlon, the Managing Editor of CBCNews.ca, responded to your concerns. He agreed that the version of the story that you referenced did in fact lack the information cited in the headline. He explained the story was originally posted just after midnight on July 28. As the day progressed, and more news emerged, the detail about the hospital, that Israel said it was hit by a misfired Palestinian rocket, moved further down the story. He went on to say:

“As far as we can tell, the detail about the hospital was cut from what was then a very long, unwieldy story at 7:37 p.m. Unfortunately, the editor did not change the headline at the same time, leading to your justified confusion. We have since updated the story to bring back the detail about the hospital. We modified the headline so it better reflects the final version of the story, and we have attached a correction that explains what happened.”

He also explained that like all news agencies, CBC News editors frequently edit copy as “we see fit.” It is also routine to use multiple sources, including input from CBC reporters in the body of one story. When this happens, as it did in this story, there is a footnote at the end which said, in this case, “With files from CBC News and Reuters.” He added that since the majority of the piece originated with AP, it was given primary credit at the top.

He referred you to the modified story. He strongly rejected your question that this might be “propaganda over accuracy’, and explained it was “human error on a story that was handled by multiple people over 20 hours and involved dozens of updates as the story developed over the day.” He also pointed you to two versions of the AP story, one published in U.S. News and World Report, the other in The World Post.

He said he was unable to respond to your critique of the work of CBC reporters who were at Al Shifah hospital because you were not specific about the stories in question. He said he would share your comments with the foreign editor.

REVIEW

The issues you raise around the AP story and headline were fully explained and answered by Mr. Fenlon. It misses the mark of CBC’s standard of accuracy to have a story that does not address the headline above it. On discovering the error, it was fixed and noted, in keeping with policy. It was one of many articles on the CBC News website capturing the events of a breaking news story. And this is not just any breaking news story; it is a complex and difficult war story. The attempt to continue to update signals a commitment to bringing people the most up to date facts. As you would know from you own experience, wire services continue to file on active stories, replacing facts that were wrong or adding new ones as they become available. Truth and accuracy in the middle of a war is a moving target. It is not generally because of bias or sloppiness, but because what is known in one moment in time is not known or is revised as more information becomes available. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out in The Elements of Journalism:

“It is more helpful, and more realistic, to understand journalistic truth as a process –or as a continuing journey toward understanding—that begins with the first story and builds over time.”(p.43)

This was literally true in the story you cite. As the day progressed new information and further developments changed the nature of the story. That is why CBC News articles on the website always say when they were first published, and when they were last updated. In this case, it might have been easier or preferable to start a new file, but that is a judgment call. I am not sure when you were involved in processing wire service copy, but it is interesting that the practice was to publish it unedited. I too have been a professional journalist for a long time, and I can assure you that the practice of rewriting, editing and supplementing a story from one agency with information from other sources is an industry norm. In this era of virtually infinite sources, aggregating and synthesizing is even more widespread. CBC upheld its values of accuracy and transparency by naming the other sources used in the story.

You questioned why CBC News had not reported that Hamas uses Al-Shifah hospital as its headquarters and that it fires missiles from its grounds. In the story that is the focus of your complaint, the reference to the hospital is one small part of an overview of days of intense fighting. The reference is to the mutual blaming for an attack on that hospital and a nearby park:

The Hamas-run health ministry said 10 people, including nine children under the age of 12, were killed and 46 wounded in the blast at a park in the Shati refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City.

Israeli and Palestinian officials are blaming each other for that attack and a separate one, which Gaza officials reported at a nearby hospital outpatient clinic.

"This incident was carried out by Gaza terrorists whose rockets fell short and hit al-Shifah Hospital and the Beach (Shati) camp," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman.

He said the explosion in the park was caused when a rocket launched by Gaza militants misfired. Palestinian police and civil defence said an Israeli missile hit as children were playing on a swing set.

Not every story can address every aspect of this conflict, and it is even more challenging for the reporters when they are in a war zone and in imminent danger themselves. It is rarely conducive to the kind of time and effort needed to get beyond the breaking news aspect of the story. I did ask Mr. Hunter about his experiences at Al-Shifah. He told me that he was able to move freely through the hospital and was not prevented from visiting any part of it. You mentioned that a Washington Post article by correspondent makes a passing reference to a “de facto headquarters” where “Hamas leaders - can be seen in the hallways and offices.” Al-Shifah became a place where Hamas officials would come to talk to foreign journalists during the course of the fighting. There are many reporters who suspect that there is some kind of subterranean bunker, but no one has had any kind of definitive proof.

The other CBC reporter who spent time in Gaza, Derek Stoffel, tells me that he did interview Hamas officials at the hospital. He also mentioned a volley of rockets he witnessed being fired from a location near the hospital on one of his early visits there.

It is my experience that when people strongly hold a particular position on a controversial subject like this conflict, they attribute the worst possible motives to work that does not conform to their own personal world view. There is no evidence of “propaganda “or bias in this work. There is no unprofessionalism or breaching of journalistic standards.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman