The complainant, Paul Musgrave, was a candidate in the recent New Brunswick provincial election. He says the reporter used a quote he couldn’t have possibly said. It’s in the reporter’s notebook. I look at the issues raised but find no violation of policy. NOTE: In the second paragraph the phrase "it was not what you thought it would be" has been changed to "it was not what you were told."
This past fall, you ran as an NDP candidate in the New Brunswick provincial election. You said that one of the reasons you did so was because you thought the NDP policies on control of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, were in line with your own views. You understood that the party would impose “a legislated ban on fracking” and would suspend fracking leases companies held to enable them to explore for gas and oil on properties all over the province, many in your riding.
When the party platform was released, you discovered it was not what you were told it would be and did not include a ban. You were so concerned that you spoke to a reporter from CBC News in New Brunswick, Daniel McHardie. You explained your decision to do so:
The easiest option for me would have been to quietly withdraw from the election, but that would have contributed nothing. I was deeply concerned that the pro-fracking bias of the NDP platform had not been noticed by any journalists or politicians. Moreover, the fracking debate could not be fair or complete, until each political party explained how they would compensate affected homeowners. Hence, I decided to talk to the media, to help voters understand the issues better. I also hoped that Cardy (the party leader) would feel compelled to clarify.
The story, entitled “NDP candidate ‘uncomfortable’ with Dominic Cardy’s shale gas policy,” was published on September 18, 2014. You had two major concerns about the piece: There were two remarks in quotation marks you deny ever saying. They are similar. One is “I didn’t understand the fracking policy.” And the other was “I didn’t understand the platform.” The quotes were in the sixth and eighth paragraphs of the story.
Your second concern was that this phrasing was used twice in the story, and was also part of a “pull quote” near the top of the story. A “pull quote” is a statement in a box in large type, and its use is common in the lay-out of online news stories. You thought using this phrasing three times in the story put you in an unflattering light: “These misquotes have damaged my credibility and misled the public, and continue to do so.” You said the reporter was not quoting you because you never said the quoted words, but rather was paraphrasing and using quotation marks anyway.
You said that the reporter clearly realized that you did understand the NDP fracking policy, something you said you spoke about “knowledgeably” in the course of the interview with him. You added he even made that point elsewhere in the story:
The reporter not only attributed such ridiculous statements to me, but he also emphasized them. The public is likely to conclude that a) I was incapable of understanding the platform, and b) I neglected to inquire about the platform prior to registering as an NDP candidate…In fact, prior to running, I did investigate and understand the platform, and the fracking policy in particular. Moreover, fracking was the issue of greatest concern to me from the outset. As the reporter stated in the CBC article, “Musgrave does not hide the fact that he entered the election so he could lend his voice to the movement against the shale gas industry.” Thus, the reporter himself implied that I was strongly opposed to fracking. So it defies all logic to suggest that I did not bother to ask the NDP about their fracking policy, before agreeing to run for them.
Even if the words exist in the reporter’s notebook, you said, it is possible that he wrote them down incorrectly at the time of the interview. “Hence the reporter’s original notes cannot be considered proof that I said the disputed sentences.” You added that since there is no audio recording, there is “absolutely no proof I said them.” You also questioned whether the notes could have been recopied to prove the reporter’s contention. You are adamant that these quotes are inconsistent with everything else you had to say on the subject.
You said that an email you sent shortly after the interview, but before publication of the story, is further proof you never uttered the contested quotes. In that email you said: “You asked whether I would [have] run if I had known the full NDP platform. The answer is no.” You said this was the only time you answered that question, and if you had already answered it in the interview, you would not have sent the email.
You attempted to reconcile this situation directly with the reporter, who told you he stood by his notes. You pointed out that you talked to the reporter precisely because you did understand the NDP policy and had concerns about it. You said even if Mr. McHardie believed he had quoted you correctly, he did not seem to understand the impact of using essentially the same phrase three times in the article and was surprised when you contacted him.
When his executive producer became involved, the story was modified. The “pull quote” was changed from “I wouldn’t have run. I don’t want to let people down now, but I didn’t understand the platform. These people have good intentions, but it is not explicit enough, it is not clear enough” to “An ethical candidate needs to speak out.” There was also a clarification placed at the bottom of the story which restates your position. You are unsatisfied with this outcome. You want the quotes you say are not authentic removed from the story. You say the clarification is not helpful because it is at the bottom of the story. You said that the only redress is to remove the two quotes entirely.
You contacted various CBC News managers. Jack Nagler, Director, Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, answered on behalf of CBC News management. Mr. Nagler offered his own assessment of the story:
It outlines quite clearly that you were disappointed by the NDP Leader’s platform as it related to shale gas. It explained your passion for the issue, and its role in your decision to run as an NDP candidate. It gave you a fair amount of time and space to explain your own position on the issue, as well as outline the steps you took internally with NDP officials to resolve your concerns before going to the media. From what I have seen, the story had the impact you were hoping for; on the very day it was published the NDP leader gave you written assurances you were seeking. Indeed, there was a follow-up story the next day to that effect, published under the headline
“Paul Musgrave earns clarification over NDP shale gas policy”
The second article quotes a statement you released, and explains again in some detail your stand on the subject of shale gas.
Mr. Nagler pointed out that your initial reaction to the story was quite positive, and it was only some days later you contacted the reporter to ask for changes.
Mr. Nagler told you he had concluded that CBC News had treated you fairly, and had responded to some of your concerns and offered to change the “pull quote” in the story and to add a clarification at the end of it. He told you those changes would be made the day after you received his email. He thought this showed fair treatment and in the “world of journalism” it was a gesture of “goodwill” as well as “a significant one.” He told you it was “unfortunate” that there is no agreement on the accuracy of the quotes. He pointed out that Mr. McHardie has a strong professional record, that his notes are clear and that there was nothing for him to gain by making up statements attributed to you. He agreed that it is possible he could have made a mistake in his notes, but after speaking to Mr. McHardie and to Dan Goodyear, the executive producer of News in New Brunswick, he did not think that was the case.
He also assured you that in his view the story did not leave a negative impression of you:
It seems to me the most likely scenario is not that you were misquoted, but that as time went by you became uncomfortable with how the quotes would portray you if taken in isolation – “I didn’t understand the fracking policy” as a stand-alone would not look good on a political candidate. But when taken in the context of the article, I think most reasonable readers would not draw the conclusion that you were negligent or ill-informed. They would understand the message of the article that you felt misled by party officials when it came to their policy on shale gas and fracking, and you were now using what leverage you could to get them to firm up that policy and reflect your views.
He told you he had no reason to doubt Mr. McHardie’s work, that there was good faith in addressing your concerns by changing one quote and adding a clarification. The story would not be changed to remove the quotes in question.
There are two aspects to your complaint: one is that the quotes are misleading, and imply you did not understand the NDP fracking policy when clearly you did, as evidenced in the rest of the piece. The second and certainly more problematic one to adjudicate is that you say you are misquoted, while the reporter’s notes indicate that you did indeed use the phrase in question. You suggested he paraphrased your quote. You asked if CBC allows this. Their online style guide states that quotes should be verbatim. “Inverted commas mean exact wording, not close paraphrases.” The words in the notebook support the use of quotation marks.
There are fundamental contradictions in the two versions of the interview. You say that you only ever responded to the question whether you would have run in an email you sent to Mr. McHardie after the interview. “You asked whether I would [have] run if I had known the full NDP platform. The answer is no.” You think this is where the report got the statement “I wouldn’t have run.” You think that the reporter used the phrase “I wouldn’t have run” in the article based on your email, and put it in quotes even though you did not actually say it that way. However, the reporter’s notebook has this line: “I wouldn’t have run. I don’t want to let people down now but I didn’t understand the platform.”
You are right there is a possibility the reporter wrote it down incorrectly to begin with. There is an equal possibility that he got it right, and given it was a time you characterized as stressful for you, that you don’t remember the phrase in the context of the longer interview which took more than half an hour. The fact is, there is no way for me to make a judgment about that. There is no way to obtain absolute proof of what transpired. I will say, though, that it is not appropriate to suggest that the notes were altered in any way. There is nothing in the way Mr. McHardie and his supervisors have acted that would even hint at impropriety.
To say it was unfortunate that there is no audio recording is an understatement. Mr. McHardie tells me he explained to you that he did not have the equipment to record your initial lengthy interview and you agreed to go ahead with it. Mr. McHardie tells me after you finished the initial interview you changed locations, as you had agreed, and he re-asked some of the questions and recorded your responses with a very primitive iPhone app. So the disputed part of the interview was not recorded. I can only encourage CBC management to ensure reporters have the proper tools and are diligent in recording their interviews.
Mr. McHardie is a journalist with 13 years of experience. Before he joined the CBC in 2008, he was a senior political reporter at more than one New Brunswick newspaper. There have been no previous challenges to the accuracy of his work. You yourself found some positive aspects in this story, and a further one done a day later. In that story, entitled “Paul Musgrave earns clarification over NDP shale gas policy,” your role in clarifying the NDP position is made clear. Your position, and the impact it had, is clearly laid out.
Looking at the article as a whole, it is my impression that you are presented as a principled man raising concerns about an issue important to you and the people you hoped to represent. The fact that you didn’t have the full picture does not seem to be because of any deficiency on your part, but because, as the article explained, the official policy was different from what you had been led to believe. The opening paragraphs of the story lay out the context pretty clearly:
The NDP candidate in Kent South is criticizing his party’s shale gas policy for not going far enough to protect landowners, saying he would not have run in the election had the full platform been available earlier.
Paul Musgrave is running in the southeastern riding that covers many picturesque communities that are built around the Northumberland Strait and scenic waterways, such as the Bouctouche River.
Musgrave does not hide the fact that he entered the election so he could lend his voice to the movement against the shale gas industry.
The NDP seemed the logical landing place for him, he said, because of its history on issues that he agreed with, such as the environment and social justice.
Musgrave initially found himself embracing the campaign themes of ending corporate welfare and stopping political interference in government contracts. But he said he became “very uncomfortable” when the party’s full platform was released publicly.
You are concerned that the phrase “I did not understand the platform” reflects badly on you, and you would prefer other wording. Within the context of the story, I took it to mean you did not have the whole picture, not necessarily that you didn’t grasp it. It can be understood to mean you didn’t understand why the final platform did not reflect what you were told initially. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t uttered.
On September 23 and 24 you sent several emails to Mr. McHardie. You told him he did a good job in his election coverage. In one of his pieces there is a link back to the September 18 story done about you and you asked that the link be to the second one from September 19, which you thought was clearer. You express concern about the “I didn’t understand” phrasing in several emails, but you didn’t deny saying it until later in the email chain.
You may not have said it, and the more you thought about it, the less likely it seemed to you, judging by this series of emails. You eloquently present arguments to prove that your memory is correct. On the other hand, the reporter has his notes, and is equally eloquent that he got the quotes right. He told me that he does not ask the next question when he is writing down a statement he thinks he will use in the piece. He finished writing before proceeding. There is no breach of policy here. CBC management has the right to stand by its reporter.
CBC News has clear policy about corrections.
We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.
The fact that a situation has evolved so that information that was accurate at the time of its publication is no longer accurate does not mean that an error was committed, but we must consider the appropriateness of updating it, taking into account its importance and impact.
The form and timing of a correction will be agreed with the Director, in consultation with the Law Department where applicable.
They observed the process. When you made your complaint, it was duly considered and evaluated at the proper level of authority. They determined there was not enough proof to alter the quotes, but they did show respect for your concerns and modified the story.
You are not the first person to observe that a clarification at the end of the story does not have the desired impact. I agree, and would hope that CBC News Management would find a way to more prominently highlight corrections and clarifications. There is a commitment to transparency, and in that spirit it would be helpful to make these changes more obvious.