Ambush Interviews: The ethics of not taking no for an answer

The complainant, Chris Miller, said that attempting to interview a Memorial University professor when she had already said no was harassment. He strongly objected to the reporter showing up at the university and interviewing the reluctant subject. CBC policy allows for such interviews, and in this case the policy was followed and the technique justified.

COMPLAINT

You were disturbed that CBC News approached, recorded and broadcast an interview with a Memorial University professor who had been in the midst of a controversy. The reporter, Carolyn Stokes, approached Professor Ranee Panjabi as she was leaving a classroom and, even though the professor said she would prefer not to be interviewed, they continued talking and recording the conversation as Ms. Panjabi walked through the corridor.

You considered this tactic harassment and completely unnecessary: “I was uncomfortable with what I saw and it was deplorable that Ms. Stokes would not relent even when asked to stop.” In your view what made it worse was that Ms. Panjabi had delivered “a carefully thought out letter” to the CBC News bureau earlier that day, so the news staff had her statement and view of the controversy involving a hard-of-hearing student she said she could not accommodate.

You pointed out that in her written statement she had mentioned she had been the subject of threats. You thought airing an interview would make that worse:

Not everyone wants their lives turned into a three ringed circus and this woman certainly doesn’t deserve it. By propagating this type of journalism you are inciting hatred toward minorities.

You also thought that Ms. Panjabi would not have been treated as aggressively “if she wasn’t a minority and claimed the issue was due to religious reasons.” You said the airing of the interview “incited hatred”:

This all comes at a time when hatred toward minorities is at an all time high in our country due to issues with minority freedom. As a Canadian, I have an issue with this being, in my opinion, propagated by our government funded news agency, the CBC. As a taxpayer, I have an issue with this type of reporting and I don't want my tax dollars used to fund this type of journalism.

You added that the biggest issue for you was that the professor had been harassed at her workplace. It was completely unacceptable to follow her down a corridor and into an elevator. What made it even more inappropriate, you said, is that she had already provided CBC a written statement.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of news in Newfoundland, Peter Gullage, replied to your concerns. He told you that news staff considered whether or not to approach Ms. Panjabi with a camera over the course of several days. He gave you some of the reasons they decided to go ahead:

Panjabi did not reply to our requests for an interview, and then after the story broke, she did an interview with another station. While she did deliver a letter to CBC, she still refused to acknowledge the receipt of our requests for an interview. There were conflicting answers and explanations so we decided the best approach was to ask her directly for clarification.

He told you that while it was not common to obtain interviews in this fashion, it was an “acceptable journalistic practice at CBC to obtain answers from people at the centre of controversial stories.”

He rejected the notion that this was in any way “inciting hatred toward minorities.” He strongly disagreed that the motivation behind the decision to pursue the interview was in any way racist.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has a policy to cover the very practice that you found so disturbing. It is referred to as “interviews without consent” and it is acknowledged as a necessary tool but not one to be used without due consideration:

We generally respect a person’s refusal to be interviewed. However, in the public interest we may choose to disregard the refusal, especially in investigative reporting or when a person plays a key role in an event of public interest.

In such cases we first try to persuade the person to be interviewed. If he or she continues to refuse and we consider it essential to record his or her reaction to our questions, we may confront the person, in person or by telephone, and record his or her statements without obtaining consent. A decision to confront a person who has refused an interview will be discussed in advance with senior editorial management. We will resort to this form of interview in the public interest, not simply for stylistic effect.

The first paragraph is relevant in this case. Prof. Panjabi was certainly a person playing a “key role in an event of public interest.” Earlier in September a student who is hard of hearing, William Sears, went public when he could not receive the accommodations he needed to continue in a course taught by Panjabi. Issues of accommodation and rights are important questions of public policy.

This case was made even more interesting because it appeared that there were issues of accommodation and rights on both sides. As the story developed two facts emerged: one is that Ms. Panjabi had refused accommodation for hard of hearing students before because she said that wearing the device necessary to enable them to hear was against her religious beliefs. The other is that she said that she had a “legally binding” agreement with the university that she would not be required to do so.

She laid this out in a letter delivered to CBC. You consider that would be enough. It is a conundrum reporters face all the time. It is true it lays out a person’s perspective, thereby satisfying the need to present both, or multiple sides of a story. What it does not allow for is accountability or fact checking – there is no way for the reporter to ask follow-up questions, or to request clarification, or, as was the case here, to resolve contradictory information. As I have stated many times before, ethical decision making involves competing principles and values. In this case there was a right to privacy and to decline an interview against the public interest to get at a story which raised some important issues.

The story of the dispute over accommodation had been in the news for about two weeks at that point. And there were conflicting accounts of what happened, and when. It is a journalistic duty to seek out the truth as far as it can be known, and to hold those in positions of responsibility accountable.

The decision to seek the interview after making repeated requests aligns with the policy requirement. The decision to pursue it is a judgement call which appears to have been given due consideration. The team had fulfilled the policy requirement of making requests for an interview. After they received the letter from Prof. Panjabi, and realized there were contradictions to what others had said, they discussed methods of obtaining an interview. The acting executive producer that day was part of that discussion, so the matter was considered at an appropriate level. He told me the reporter was given instructions not to “ambush” but to be visible from the classroom. Looking at the video, that seems to be the case.

On the video, it appears that reporter Carolyn Stokes waits openly outside the classroom at the campus and is respectful in her approach:

Stokes: Hello Prof. Panjabi, we are hoping you will give us your side of the story, would you mind speaking to us for a few minutes. (She keeps walking and the reporter walks alongside her.)

Panjabi: I have said what I need to say and I think that is really all I want to say.

Stokes: We do have your statement but we were hoping that maybe you could speak with us in person. I know our viewers would love to hear what you have to say about this situation.

The conversation continues, and while it is intimidating to have a camera and microphone following you, the crew and Ms. Panjabi walk slowly along. She next says:

Panjabi: I think that at the moment, given what I have gone through in the last few days, I really need a little breather. (She stops.) I brought the document because I sense that there was a bit more fairness at your station than I had hitherto found. And I left it with a very polite gentleman this morning and I think that says it all. So -

The reporter then jumps in to ask about an area where there is a dispute about what happened – and the professor provides an answer.

And so it goes, inside the elevator and briefly as they exit it.

It may seem churlish, but Ms. Panjabi had the option to say nothing. She continued to engage with the reporter. The conversation is low key on both sides. The reporter was fulfilling her responsibilities to get at the story in depth. Given the circumstances, she did it in a very measured and respectful way. In that way the reporter fulfilled the policy imperative to do the interview in a way that is in the public interest and not merely a gimmick.

As for your concerns about racism, I too wonder why you would insinuate that was the case. You say that the story would not have been pursued, or pursued so aggressively, if Ms. Panjabi was not a person who is a visible minority and that she claimed religious grounds for her position. I don’t know why you would make that assumption. The story touches on several compelling issues in the public interest: the right to accommodation, how to decide the level of accommodation when there are competing needs, and the role and responsibility of the university to finding a solution in such cases.

I agree with you it is regrettable and shocking that publicizing the story led to threats and racial comments. That too is an issue of public interest. Journalists are told to minimize harm, and those threats are an unintended consequence. But CBC news staff did not incite those threats nor could they turn away from a story when that ugly side of society reared its head. It is a sad reality that in the age of social media the ability to shame, threaten and harass is an anonymous click away. The response, however, is not to retreat from legitimate journalistic endeavours.

The decision to confront Ms. Panjabi for an interview was within policy and there was no violation.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman