A carriage ride in modern Tehran: Sound and colour is information too; proper context is required

In a radio piece out of Iran, reporter Derek Stoffel used the image of people arriving in a horse drawn carriage at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran as a scene setter about the mood on the eve of the conclusion of the nuclear talks. The complainant, Aziz Izad, thought the reporter was biased and wished to create the impression that Iran was a backwards country. I agreed the image was not given proper context, but there was no bias at work. A few seconds of sound was a very small part of the information conveyed.

COMPLAINT

Recently CBC News reporter Derek Stoffel was in Iran as talks on an agreement to ensure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon were approaching an end of June deadline. On the June 22 edition of World Report he reported on some of the reactions to those talks, and the impacts of years of sanctions, from the capital, Tehran.

He reported on location from the Grand Bazaar, a major commercial area. He began the piece with the sound of bells, and described customers alighting from a horse and carriage. You were offended and objected to this reference. You said it created a false impression of Iran as underdeveloped and “far behind the industrial world.” You feared that listeners would get the impression that the report was coming from a country “lacking civilization, infrastructure, modernization, cars, metro, and still riding horses and carriages for transportation.” You said this showed that the reporter was biased and wished to “downgrade Iranian culture.” You accused him of “poisoning” listener’s minds.

You asked for an apology from CBC and the reporter, and that the reporter be disciplined.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of CBC radio and television news, Paul Hambleton, responded to your concerns. He said you raised an interesting point and could understand why you were concerned. He did not share your opinion that the information was “false and misleading.” He explained Mr. Stoffel produced two stories that morning. The one you did not hear ran on alternate editions of World Report, and did not have the horse and carriage reference. The piece you heard, at 8:00 am PDT, did begin that way. Mr. Stoffel was using a more “casual” production style, as he delivered his story from the streets. He explained the use of the horse and carriage reference was a “scene-setter” and did not distort the information:

I have reviewed the item and he was walking into a market in Tehran, where in fact there were horses pulling carts and carriages. It was a scene-setting detail, and a moment in time. That was what he saw, but it was in no way intended to be a characterization of the country. I don't believe others would conclude that it was, either.

He also told you that Mr. Stoffel went on to produce many other reports over the 10-day period he was in the country that covered a wide range of details and aspects of life in Iran. He added that in the course of his reporting, and that of his colleague, Nahlah Ayed, “you could see and hear how cosmopolitan Tehran is…”

REVIEW

Mr. Stoffel was using a production technique in his piece to set a scene. He told me that the horse and carriage is used only in the area of the Grand Bazaar, and that people, especially older women with few resources, do use this mode of transport to do their shopping. He said in the time he was at the Grand Bazaar, a carriage would arrive every few minutes, dropping off passengers. It is a bit of local color, but the question is was it misleading. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices on production says this:

We are clear and open about the production methods we use, so the audience can put our images, sound and statements in their proper context.

This auditory image comprised seconds of the report. It followed an introduction from the news presenter that gave the broader context of the piece. Then Mr. Stoffel began his piece with a few seconds of the jingling of horse bells:

This is the Grand Bazaar in Tehran’s main shopping district. People are arriving by horse and carriage here to do a little bit of shopping. There are rows and rows of stalls selling Persian carpets, fabrics, housewares, you name it – it’s on sale here.

He goes on to talk to a woman who speaks flawless English about her views on the nuclear talks, and the lifting of sanctions. He refers to an electrician who has difficulty getting to work because the Western-imposed sanctions on Iran mean that gasoline is very expensive. I note that throughout this report, there is a constant background hum of traffic and car horns. The horse and carriage reference is somewhat out of context, and would have been better contextualized by a reference to it being a unique feature of this district. But it’s a big leap from there to accusing the reporter of misinformation and deliberately creating a false impression of Iran.

The detail stood out for you – but it was one detail in a report that created a different kind of picture. And it was one report of many done over the next several weeks. Those reports referred to young Iranians who spend a great deal of their time on their cellphones and computers. I reviewed much of the coverage. It included the voices of young people who express a strong desire to open up their country to the rest of the world, business people struggling to cope under sanctions, a trader on the floor of the Tehran stock exchange, and hard-liners who do not trust or want dealings with the United States. There is no evidence of any kind of bias. There might have been more precise writing. At most this is a minor infraction of the need to put “sound in its proper context.”

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman