Balance in an ongoing issue: One view at a time can work

The complainant, Caroline King, objected to an interview with a local citizen about the impact of a proposed mining development on property values in Kamloops. She said the interviewee had no expertise but he did have a point of view and balance demanded an opposing one at the same time. This is an ongoing issue, and there’s nothing wrong with soliciting a range of perspectives, including those of an engaged citizen.

COMPLAINT

On March 11, 2015, Shelley Joyce, host of Daybreak Kamloops, the local CBC morning show, interviewed a local resident who had concerns about the impact of the development of the proposed Ajax mine on property values in the area. The development of the open-pit copper gold mine has been an ongoing issue in the community for several years. The company, KGHM International, will be submitting its environmental assessment application to the federal and provincial governments sometime this year. Sean McGuiness was introduced as an associate math professor at Thompson Rivers University and the author of a letter to the editor of a local blog. The producers of the program invited him on to share what he found out and why that caused him concern about property values.

You had several concerns about the interview, which you called biased and unbalanced. You asked why “this person [who] was so baseless and opinionated” was interviewed at all. You said this could not be “considered sound journalism by any stretch.” You pointed out he was interviewed about real estate values although he had no special knowledge or expertise in that field. You were concerned that he had no data or evidence to back up his claim that properties around the mine would drop by at least five percent in value:

The prof had no evidence, no data, and no facts to back up his opinions -- only a 20-year-old piece of U.S. research unrelated to the Kamloops mine proposal, a study he found after “spending some time on Google.”

You thought that the interviewer should have challenged him but instead his “opinion and speculation” was given the “weight of uncontroverted fact.” You added that this was the host’s pattern in interviewing people who have concerns about the mine development. You also thought it was “most shocking” that someone else with a different perspective was not interviewed to provide balance. You believe that overall, CBC News in Kamloops had been biased in its coverage of the mine proposal by favoring those who oppose or question aspects of its development.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The program director for CBC Radio in British Columbia, Lorna Haeber, replied to your concerns. She told you that the interviewee, Sean McGuiness, made it clear that he had no particular expertise in real estate, and was clear that he had a vested interest in the matter because he owns a home in Kamloops. She said the program host, Ms. Joyce, challenged him to explain his opinions and conclusions and “armed with those details, it’s up to the listener to draw their (sic) conclusions about his views and the questions he raised.” She added that the interviewee also pointed out the need for more research:

I would also point out the main thrust of the guest’s argument wasn’t that real estate prices would decline if the mine is approved. Yes, he is worried about that possibility - and yes, he did find one study dating back to the 90’s involving a gravel pit mine in the U.S. which concluded property values within a 5 mile radius of the mine declined 5 per cent. But the guest also expressed concern about what he couldn’t find. He said “very little is known that I could find...I found only 1 study....a lot is not known, a lot needs to be found out.” He called for a neutral third party to study the issue as it relates to Kamloops and the Ajax mine proposal.

She explained that CBC News in Kamloops, as well as the morning program, provide ongoing and regular coverage of the issues in the community concerning the mine development. She said for that reason there was no need to provide a counter point of view on the same program. She told you that the coverage over the years about this controversial issue has included many perspectives:

I’m confident that over time our coverage has been balanced and that going forward we will continue to provide multiple perspectives connected to this highly charged and contentious debate. I also have the utmost confidence in Ms Joyce. She has steadfastly remained neutral about Ajax and has worked diligently to interview guests in a way that allows them to get their point across, while at the same time challenging them when necessary to ensure our listeners are provided with enough information to draw their own conclusions.

REVIEW

One of the issues you raised was the wisdom of interviewing Mr. McGuiness at all. There is really no reason why not. He is a citizen of Kamloops with a concern and a point of view. CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices require that members of the public be given relevant information about an interviewee so that they can judge for themselves the value of what he or she says:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.

Here is the introduction to the interview:

All fired up about the Ajax mine. An associate professor of math at TRU is worried about property values in Kamloops. A letter to the editor spelled out his concerns to an online audience on the Armchair Mayor news blog. Daybreak asked Sean McGuiness to join us in studio.

It is clear from the outset that the purpose of the interview is to find out what he had written about. He is introduced as an associate professor of mathematics, so it is clear he is not speaking as an authority on this subject. A small quibble though – his employment status is irrelevant, and it might be interpreted that his academic status confers special insight in the matter.

You were concerned that his views were baseless, and dismissed his lack of research. The interviewer actually takes him through how he made his assumptions. And in fairness, he is clear that it is not definitive. But it is equally clear he has done relevant reading and thinking, based on data related to similar kinds of developments. He never claims more than he knows, or that what he knows is definitive. In fact he mentions quite a lot of related reading he has done, and information he has found, including one study:

Joyce: What made you decide to focus on property values when it comes to Ajax mine?

McGuiness: It was sort of by accident actually...I had been following the development of another mine which is the Rosemont mine down in Tucson Arizona. It’s going through an assessment. It’s come actually quite a ways through the assessment. It’s sort of in the final permitting stages now. And I stumbled across an article in the Arizona Star which is a local paper in Tucson which basically gave a synopsis, a rundown of the environmental assessment and one of the things that caught my eye was that the estimate was that property values within a 5 mile radius of that mine would drop by 4.9%, roughly 5%.

Joyce: So based on your research, do you predict the property values in Kamloops around the mine would drop by 5%?

McGuiness: My own feeling yeah I would say 5% is a conservative estimate but I would also add that nobody knows for sure. I mean what brought me to all of this, when I saw this number 4.9, it piqued my curiosity and I wanted to know where did they get this number, what’s known about open pit mines and real estate values; and actually very little is known and that’s what I could find. But I thought well there are a lot of other types of industrial developments – for example you have quarries or gravel pits or power plants or landfill sites, fracking sites and so on that where there may be studies that have been done.

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices lays out expectations of what is considered balanced and fair in the coverage of an ongoing issue of public interest. At the outset it states “Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.” Here are the policies on balance and fairness:

Fairness

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

Balance

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The interview falls well within what is permitted by the policy. The guest did not claim his information was definitive. There is nothing wrong, in an ongoing story, to have a single guest present one perspective on an aspect of the story. While blatant inaccuracies should be challenged, it is well within journalistic practice to use an interview to explore a single idea, or one’s person’s thoughts.

The CBC News policy does not spell out what constitutes a “reasonable period of time.” Good practice dictates that the more controversial a matter is, and how pressing a public interest is at stake, dictates the need for immediate balance. The proposal for this mine to be developed close to Kamloops has been on the public agenda since 2012, which coincidentally is the year that the Kamloops morning show launched. While there is a clear public interest, the story is ongoing and as Ms. Haeber pointed out, the news and current affairs department has covered developments and has presented a range of perspectives over time.

I reviewed the period from October 2012 to the present. Various spokespeople, from communications officers to project managers of KGHM, have appeared many times on the program. So have public officials accountable for ultimately granting a permit for the development to proceed. There have been the voices of community members at large who are both for and against the Ajax project. I note that as an active supporter and advocate for the project, you have also been interviewed. There have been other interviews with stakeholders in the community as well as experts.

I did not listen to all of the material, but from the sampling I did, there was even-handed treatment of the issue. CBC Kamloops seem to have provided a range of perspectives and provided information so that citizens of the community can draw their own conclusions.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman