Rally Reality: Covering big public events requires balancing the sensational and the mundane

The complainant, Stephen Wehner, disputed the characterization of a rally in support of arbitration for the B.C. teachers’ dispute. He thought that the attention paid to some brief confrontations between parents who supported the teachers and others who did not distorted the reality of the event he attended.

COMPLAINT

Children in British Columbia were unable to go back to school this past September because of a teachers’ strike. As is often the case in labour disputes, each side blamed the other for the impasse.

On September 14, a group of parents organized a public demonstration entitled “Rally for Arbitration.” It was in support of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation request that the dispute go to binding arbitration for resolution. You were at that rally, although you mentioned you arrived about an hour after it started, and you felt that cbcnews.ca’s account of the event was inaccurate. It did not reflect your experience:

We listened to very good speakers who made excellent points. We then walked with all others around the block of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

There was no sign of conflict, tension, or anything besides strong support for public education, the teachers and the BCTF. I was too late for the confrontation reported in the article, and heard no one mention it.

You pointed out that the confrontation was a small part of the day’s event, and you thought the report gave it a prominence it did not deserve. In your judgment “the positive energy of the rally” and “the excellent points made by the speakers” was what was newsworthy about the event, not the small number of people who attempted to disrupt it.

You were also concerned that a tweet about the event was misleading. The CBC news tweet, which provided a link to the story on the event said: “Parents, students rally to call for end to B.C. teachers’ strike.” You pointed out that it was a rally for arbitration, not to end the strike. This seemed particularly unfair to you “especially when it is clear that the rally was in support of teachers and the BCTF!”

You wondered if this event wasn’t part of a pattern in CBC’s coverage. You had earlier written about a mistake in a May 24 article entitled “B.C. teachers strike and lockout, 8 things you need to know.” In that case, CBC News management acknowledged shortcomings and amended the article.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The News Director of CBC News in British Columbia, Wayne Williams, responded to your complaint. He provided some context by explaining that news is “about the unusual” and “the unexpected.” He said the rally itself was newsworthy, and he explained the decision around the presentation of events:

…what began as a grass-roots labour rally involving a large number of parents, as well as teachers and union officials, within minutes threatened to turn into something quite different. A small group of parents crashed the rally to deliver an opposing view. Tension, conflict and potential violence threatened the peaceful rally. Although quickly over, the melee did involve heated exchanges and enough pushing and shoving that Vancouver police intervened to calm the participants. That flare-up of tension – the unusual, the unexpected – then became the focus of our story.

He explained that if the reporter had not included this part of the event, he or she would not be doing a proper job of conveying the event. He pointed out that the confrontation was put in context by referring to it as a “brief interruption.” He also noted there were many other details in the article that conveyed the flavor and tone of the rally:

It said “nearly a thousand” parents and teachers had demanded “the government accept the teachers’ offer of binding arbitration and end the strike”. It also included a lengthy quote from Protect Public Education’s James Boothroyd who explained why he was “really, really angry”, as well as the recommendation of another parents’ group that parents call their MLA, the premier and the teachers’ union to express directly their views about arbitration.

In response to your concerns about the tweet, he said that a tweet is a like a headline, and is “intended to convey information briefly, succinctly and of course accurately.” He did not think this tweet contradicted the stated purpose of the organizers to support arbitration. He added the point of binding arbitration is “exactly to end the strike.”

He also reminded you that as a result of your complaint about the May 24 article, as he told you then, as soon as they realized the article was “deficient” in one of its points, it was rewritten to include new accurate information.

REVIEW

There are some challenges in covering demonstrations and rallies. In the context of covering them live, CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices cautions news staff to ensure they are able to move around and get a sense of the entire event, or to be clear they are only reporting on a portion of it. The underlying principle of course is the need to accurately portray what happened.

News values, as Mr. Williams points out, also underscore what is new and unusual. Perhaps to a fault, that often centers around conflict. But in this case, I don’t think it was a fault. The headline accurately states that tensions flared. The first part of the story documents that fact:

A brief melee broke out at a parent, teacher and student pro-teachers rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery Sunday when it was crashed by a group of parents from Richmond wielding anti-union signs.

The rally, one of three that was planned for the day, was organized on Facebook and described as a grassroots, parent-driven rally, although it easily attracted as many teachers and labour leaders as it did parents.

The article then provided some context and information about who the dissenting group was, and what they stood for. That is important information so readers can understand what happened.

It then carried on by saying:

Despite the brief interruption the rally went on with parents and teachers demanding the government accept the teachers' offer of binding arbitration and end the strike.

Nearly a thousand parents, teachers and children turned out in a huge show of support.

The article leads with what the writer and editor thought was most newsworthy. That is always a judgment call, and certainly this choice is consistent with a classic definition of news. The article conveyed appropriately what had occurred that day, and what the motivation behind the event was.

As for the tweet, while it was not precise, it was not inaccurate. That might seem like splitting hairs, but I think it is a reasonable distinction. Its purpose was to drive people to the article, where they would get a full picture. It did not significantly distort the purpose of the rally. We are dealing with 140 characters to capture the attention of readers, and send them to the full article to get more information. Like headlines, tweets have a particular function. They do not allow for nuance or multiple perspectives. That is achieved through the substantive coverage. It is a reasonable inference that binding arbitration would end the strike. There is no violation of CBC policy in this instance.

You were concerned, partly because of a previous complaint about a story published last spring, that there was a pattern of unfair coverage. As I noted at the outset, CBC news staff corrected an inaccuracy you pointed out in the story. While errors are not acceptable, they are almost inevitable. CBC News conformed to policy by correcting it and acknowledging the change on the website. Their responsiveness indicates their commitment to fairness.

Articles about the strike that I read provided multiple perspectives, and presented that analysis based on facts. The daily news coverage presented the perspectives of students, teachers, union and government officials. The coverage did not violate CBC policies.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman