Upfront with Errors

The complainant, Constantine Kritsonis, felt it wasn’t enough that CBC News acknowledged and corrected an error in a wire service story. He thought there was a lack of accountability and wanted to see the original story again after he was advised of the edit. He also questioned the system of accountability for publishing material. I found no violation of policy and shared the process on the copy desk.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to draw attention to a story entitled “Golan Heights: Israel military shoots down Syrian fighter jet.” The story came from the Associated Press. You pointed out that there was an inaccuracy in the story which referred to the Golan Heights as Israeli airspace:

The Golan belongs to Syria under international law regardless of occupation by Israel.

Who is CBC trying to help by lying and repeating lies of the Netanyahu that the territory is Israeli? Why is CBC allowing Israel’s lies referring to *sovereignty* over the Golan to go unchallenged and thus mislead the Canadian public?

Although the story was corrected, you were not satisfied and asked that you be provided with a copy of the original story. You also wanted to know if there was a system to track who had vetted or copy edited the story and if there was a formal process for approving publication. When you could not obtain a copy of the original version of the story, you explained you were not satisfied with the response to your complaint:

I do ask for a review. You state the original story was corrected. I do not believe the wording of the correction statement at the bottom of the new story was necessarily proper. I feel it is critical for CBC to have unencumbered recorded access to its original stories for accountability. I submit that accountability means knowing what *original* story CBC is accountable for. I respect court procedures may not apply, but in a court of law, if someone presented an altered document as evidence, then made a reference of what changes happened, the original document would be a fair subject for cross examination. I would be surprised if CBC does not keep an original copy of corrected stories. It may not necessarily be policy, but it is common sense.

Further, to accountability policy, if no specific person signs off on vetting a story, how does CBC know it was done? In your examining the situation, will determining if vetting work on an original story has a specific person on record for doing that? I do not ask who that was.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of CBCNews.ca, Brodie Fenlon, responded to your complaint. He agreed that the story “should have more clearly indicated the region’s (the Golan) history and status.” He explained the story originated with AP, but that CBC News takes full responsibility and are “accountable for any journalism on our website.” He explained the story had been amended and outlined other actions taken to ensure this would not happen again:

1. Change the sentence in the story to read “...The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet over the Golan Heights...”

2. Publish a clarification box in the original story with this text:

“An earlier version of the story published the Israeli assertion that the Golan Heights is territory of Israel. Although the territory was occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed by Israeli law in 1981, the territory remains internationally recognized as part of Syria. A U.N. peacekeeping force maintains a demilitarized border zone between Israel and the rest of Syria.”

3. We will create several map illustrations of Israel and its disputed territories, similar to this one on BBC, which we can use in future Middle East stories to aid clarity.

4. We will reiterate to our web staff our policies on reviewing facts that appear in Associated Press and other wire service stories before they publish on CBCNews.ca.

When you asked, he supplied you the relevant CBC journalistic policies that came into play in this case. He did not agree that it was necessary to provide the original AP story, and reiterated that he had taken the appropriate measures necessary to correct and acknowledge the changes to the article.

REVIEW

Mr. Fenlon cited two policies. The first is the commitment to accuracy, a fundamental principle of reporting. The second addresses the use of language. It demands “quality and precision” and that “the description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.”

I happened to find a paper copy of the original story in my files. Here’s what the story first said in its lead paragraph:

The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet that infiltrated its airspace over the Golan Heights on Tuesday morning – the first such downing in decades, heightening tensions in the volatile plateau.

Here’s the corrected version:

The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet over the Golan Heights on Tuesday morning — the first such downing in decades, heightening tensions in the volatile plateau.

You are concerned that because the original AP story is no longer easily accessible, there is a lack of accountability. The commitment to be “responsible and accountable” in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices states:

We are aware of the impact of our journalism and are honest with our audiences. We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.

The actions taken by Mr. Fenlon and his team fulfill this requirement. There is no violation of policy and no indication of a lack of accountability because it is no longer on the website. He went further by sharing with you the other actions he had taken to try to prevent this from happening again.

Mr. Kritsonis, the change made to the copy is the critical journalistic issue here. It abides by another policy, that dealing with corrections. It is clear that corrections must be made if there is an error, and that the correction be noted to preserve the transparency of the process. That is what is important here. The error is acknowledged, so having the original with the error intact serves no useful purpose. News writing is iterative. Stories change all the time. Wire services send multiple versions, adding new details as they become known, correcting errors as information is clarified, and dropping other details as the story develops. It is true that in this case, the story was static – but the same principle pertains. It is the latest, most accurate and up-to-date piece that is relevant. It is not as if CBC News tried to hide a mistake.

You were also curious about the vetting and editing process, and how the decision was made to publish the article. The executive producer of CBCNews.ca, Gary Graves, explained the process for wire service copy. There is a senior producer who curates the Home, World and Canada pages. It is the senior producer who decides what is published by assigning it to a writer, and then checking it over after it has been prepared for publication. The producer, along with the story writers, are sampling and looking at stories coming in from various wire services. One or the other of them might flag something as appropriate and interesting. It is the senior producer who would make the decision to publish a story and assign it to a writer to package it in the publishing tool.

The writer will create a headline, and add pictures and any appropriate links. The writer also reads it for style, length and Canadian perspective. Some editing might be done. But Mr. Graves said that in the case of wire service copy, it is not fact checked. Wire services like AP are reputable news agencies which have systems of their own. That doesn’t mean they are error free of course. If the writer or senior producer notices an obvious error in fact when initially reading the story, it will be rejected at that stage. If, as in the case of your complaint, an error is pointed out, it is corrected on the CBC news site. A CBC editor also gets back to the originating wire service and discusses with them what happened and why it might have occurred. This model is consistent with the practices of mainstream media organizations.

While it is regrettable that the original piece was published with an incorrect fact, the system worked in correcting it. There is no violation of CBC policy or any issues with the process.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman