One sign one time is not bias

The complainant, Allen Lasko, was concerned that showing a “Vote Justin Trudeau” sign held by demonstrators at a 4/20 rally was biased and endorsed the Liberal Party and Trudeau’s position on legalizing cannabis. He thought other parties’ views should have been mentioned as well. The report was a brief 30-second montage of images from the annual promotion of “cannabis culture” that occurs every April 20 in a variety of locations. This one was held on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature. The home-made sign was one of several banners and placards shown. CBC News in Manitoba, as well as national news, has done many stories about various parties’ positions on legal marijuana. There was no violation of policy showing this sign at the rally.

COMPLAINT

Every year on April 20 (4/20) proponents of legalized marijuana hold public demonstrations in support of “cannabis culture.” It generally involves rallies advocating the legalization of the substance and public displays of smoking it. In Winnipeg this past April 20th such a demonstration was held on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature. CBC News in Manitoba broadcast a 30-second report of the demonstration the next night on its 5:30 newscast.

You felt the report lacked “impartiality and journalistic integrity” because the final shot in the item featured two young women holding up a “Vote Justin Trudeau” sign. You pointed out that there was no explanation for including this sign and why support for Trudeau would be relevant in this context. You pointed out that he “has widely (been) reported as having expressed a desire to legalize marijuana.”

You noted the report did not give the position of any other federal party. This gave the impression of favoring one politician over others, and violated CBC policy on impartiality. That policy prohibits promoting a particular point of view on matters of public debate. You considered this an indication of systemic bias, and promotion of a particular position. You said there was no context to let viewers know that Mr. Trudeau supports legalization. But even if that is widely known, that just reinforces your complaint that the piece is biased:

“If we take the additional step of that it is indeed public knowledge the leader of that party supports legalization of marijuana, it can also be suggested the staff of CBC Manitoba indeed took a stand to promote a ‘point of view’ on a matter of ‘public debate.’”

You considered the use of the Vote Trudeau sign particularly egregious because it was the final shot in the piece and therefore reinforced the message.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Cecil Rosner, the Managing Editor of News in Manitoba, replied to your concerns. He pointed out that several shots of signs people were carrying were shown in the broadcast, and the Trudeau sign was one of them. He suggested that the shot was in context, because the narration at that point was talking about legalization in other jurisdictions and its impact on efforts in this country:

“It is widely known that Justin Trudeau advocates legalization of marijuana, and our production staff judged that this was an appropriate visual to accompany the context provided in the script. Showing placards carried by protesters in the coverage of a demonstration is a very commonplace event, and this was no exception.”

He explained that “not every single piece of a newscast can provide a complete picture of any given topic.” The purpose of the report, he explained, was to give a quick idea of what had happened at the demonstration and what some of the issues were. It was not intended to be a thorough examination of the issues, nor was it “an attempt to air support for a particular party or leader.” He added that CBC News has done many stories on the legalization of marijuana and they have presented all sides of the issue over various treatments.

REVIEW

You quote, appropriately, from CBC’s definition of Impartiality in its Journalistic Standards and Practices:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

There are other values that apply here as well. The policy, in laying out what is required of Balance, says:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The judgment comes down to whether the “Vote Trudeau” shot unfairly promoted the Liberal leader, and required immediate balance. The item in question ran for 30 seconds. It was a pastiche of shots from the rally, with a narration from the studio anchor. Its scope was limited. The visuals were largely shots of various signs and banners, interspersed with shots of people presumably smoking marijuana. One of the signs at the rally supported Justin Trudeau, and while not stated, it was likely because he has come out in favor or legalizing cannabis.

I agree with you it would have been better to explain that, since it is hard to assume what viewers know. But the absence of that explanation is not a violation of policy. The brief piece gave a flavor of the event. It was reporting a fact, through a visual means, that there was a sign at the rally linking Trudeau to their cause, the legalization of marijuana. This was not a discussion of public policy or an election rally. The reason the policy book allows for balance over time is so that there is no need for constant equivalence. So while I can appreciate that you thought the context required immediate balance in this case, I conclude that it did not.

I reviewed some of the CBC News coverage in the wake of the Trudeau statement on legalizing pot. It fairly presented the views of all major parties, and presented various perspectives on the wisdom of doing so. There was no violation of policy in the brief news report on the CBC News evening broadcast in Manitoba.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman