Dalhousie "Gentlemen": An error is unacceptable but it's not a deliberate attack

The complainant, Robert Harrison, thought CBC was remiss in its coverage of the one dental student who came forward in the Dalhousie scandal. He said the student was not shown proper respect because CBC published erroneous information about him. The error was corrected within a half hour of publication. The error was a violation of policy but there were no issues of bias.

COMPLAINT

This past year, the dental school at Dalhousie University in Halifax was embroiled in a scandal when the details of a Facebook page created by a group of male students were made public. The comments were considered sexist and misogynist. There was a series of disciplinary hearings, a process of restorative justice and a review of the whole incident. The findings of that review were recently made public.

The story first came to public attention in December of 2014, right at the end of the academic term. Before the new term began in January, Dalhousie officials announced the dental students implicated would be isolated and barred from clinical practice. One student from the Facebook group, the so-called “Class of DDS Gentlemen,” went public because he felt he did not deserve the same treatment as the others because it was he who was the whistleblower and, while a member of the group, had never written objectionable posts nor endorsed them in any way.

It was the coverage of that member of the group, Ryan Millet, that prompted you to make your complaint. Millet went public via an interview published in the Halifax newspaper, the Chronicle Herald, the day before he was to appear before a university disciplinary body. That story, entitled “Dentistry Student: Facebook post was ‘hateful, sexualized, violent attack,’” was published on the evening of January 18, 2015. CBCNews.ca posted a story, entitled: “Dalhousie dentistry student breaks silence over scandal” shortly thereafter, referencing the Herald story. The subheading said “Ryan Millet says he blew the whistle on the misogynistic Facebook posts.”

You thought this story was inaccurate because the initial version stated that Mr. Millet was responsible for a post referred to as Red Alert, which warned members of the club that others had become aware of their objectionable posts, and it was time to take some action. Based on information you heard from Mr. Millet’s lawyer, you said that this was not true and CBC should not have published it. You also believed that CBC News in Nova Scotia waited too long to change the reference once the Executive Producer at the time, Nancy Waugh, heard from Mr. Millet.

You also believe that CBC did not treat Mr. Millet “even-handedly” because someone from the newsroom sent “emails to classmates, asking for questions to put to Ryan Millet, that might not be obvious to the CBC.” You added:

My complaint is that by mistreating this individual, the CBC is damaging public trust. Ryan Millet was not treated with respect nor was he dealt with evenhandedly. The CBC strives to be mindful of the rights of individuals. I am left with no other conclusion that these journalistic acts were purposeful, punitive and did not meet the ethical standards the CBC chooses to uphold.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Nancy Waugh, who was then Executive Producer of News and Current Affairs in Nova Scotia, replied to your concerns. She mentioned that your concerns arose from statements made by Mr. Millet’s lawyer during a news conference held after Mr. Millet had met with the university disciplinary committee. She told you that she did not agree with your criticism, based on the lawyer’s statement that CBC News failed to correct the initial story that Mr. Millet was the author of the “Red Alert” post in a timely fashion. She explained:

In fact, the initial story went live at about 11:00pm, quoting from Mr. Millet’s interview with the Chronicle Herald, and from the documents in our possession. When Mr. Millet wrote to say he was not the author of the post, we updated our story immediately. The version with Mr. Millet’s version of events has been on our website since shortly after midnight that day.

She added that CBC news coverage had a strong track record on this ongoing story. She said the only communication about errors in the reporting since the issue became public on December 15 was the one from Mr. Millet. You disputed that fact in a later email and by way of proof supplied an open letter sent by the students who were participating in a restorative justice initiative.

She rejected the accusation that asking classmates for questions to put to Mr. Millet at the news conference he was to attend violated CBC journalistic standards. She told you it was not unusual for a journalist to ask if there is something she or he neglected to ask. She concluded:

As you will know from watching and listening to our coverage since December 15, we think this is a complex and important story. We are committed to accuracy and transparency.

REVIEW

You are concerned that CBC News in Halifax treated Ryan Millet unfairly, and that this was a deliberate act. There is little evidence to support that view. There were attempts from December, when the story first broke, to contact Mr. Millet as well as the other members of the group under scrutiny. Mr. Millet made a decision to go public. The CBC continued to attempt to get his side of the story, and in the article published on January 18 his point of view is put across, based on the video version of his interview with the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

CBC News in Halifax did violate policy because it published wrong information. Accuracy is the cornerstone of all journalistic endeavours. The initial article attributed a Facebook posting to Mr. Millet because his name was on it. The story also had a “screen grab” of that posting, which CBC obtained in December. The story said:

“In the Facebook excerpts provided to CBC in December, Millet appears to persuade his classmates to get out in front of the looming scandal.

‘GUYS RED F-ING ALERT!!!!’ writes “Ryan” in a Facebook message. “Apparently one of the ladies has seen or heard something about the recent posts in the Gentleman’s. We have to get rid of the evidence. Someone leaked it. Clean up the posts gentlemen.’”

This story was posted around 11:00 p.m. on January 18, a Sunday night. While the story fudges the language a bit by saying the Facebook posting “appears” to be from Millet, it certainly leaves that impression. The story also mentions that Mr. Millet had declined to provide CBC with a comment.

Mr. Millet did respond after the story was published and explained his name was associated with this “Red Alert” warning because he had passed it on to another student to bring to Dalhousie administration. When the then-Executive Producer of News, Nancy Waugh, received Mr. Millet’s email, she rewrote the story and flagged the need for an immediate correction. According to the email chain back and forth between her and the person on duty in Toronto late that Sunday into Monday morning, the changes were made before midnight. The added text quotes Mr. Millet’s explanation of how his name came to be on the “screen grab” of the Facebook page:

The name on the screen grab is “Ryan.” But in an email to CBC News late Sunday night, Millet said he didn’t author that post.

“That red alert post was a copy and past [sic] of a comment from another group member … that was a private message me sending it to the person who took it to administration.”

The information was added soon after Mr. Millet contacted Ms. Waugh. However, higher up in the story there was a line that said “Millet appears to persuade his classmates.” It was not changed until early the next morning, around 6 a.m. That language was changed to:

In the excerpts provided to CBC News in December, it’s clear someone in the group is trying to persuade his classmates to get out in front of the looming scandal.

I have spoken to all those involved in Toronto and Halifax. The story rewritten around midnight on January 18 had changed both references to Millet’s authorship of the “Red Alert.” It seems the change from “Millet appears to persuade his classmates” to “it’s clear someone in the group is trying to persuade…” was not made until later. There is no excuse, but there is context. The changes were being made late at night in two different cities. Someone missed that change in the small hours of the morning. It appears the intention was there to alter the story to reflect the information provided by Ryan Millet. Its execution was not precise enough. This sentence should also have been changed at the same time the information from Mr. Millet was added the night before. It’s unfortunate, but is not proof of some desire to target Mr. Millet.

There was another violation of policy. The Journalistic Standards and Practices policy on corrections says:

In the world of digital on demand, material may be accessible long after its original publication or broadcast. A dated story is not necessarily wrong. It is a reflection of the facts known at the time of publication. It can be an important part of the historical record.

But there may be times, in the light of new information, that archived material is substantially wrong. In those cases we review the material and take appropriate action that could include revising the original material, including a correction box or writing a fresh story.

Any changes to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.

Decision to alter a story or its status should be done in consultation with the producer or editor.

While the policy refers to archived material, the principle applies across the board. This was more than an update. There should have been a corrections box.

Your second concern, which you also felt unfairly targeted Mr. Millet, was the fact that CBC reporters contacted the other members of the Dalhousie dentistry group to ask them what questions they might want to ask Ryan Millet. The phrasing of the email was not particularly elegant. The fact that it was done is no violation of policy.

Mr. Millet may be admired for coming forward, the only one of the group to do so. He and his lawyer had a narrative about what happened. CBC News was obliged to report accurately on that narrative. It was not obliged to necessarily take that narrative, or anyone else’s for that matter, at face value. You mentioned in your correspondence that you thought there was an even higher duty of care with a whistleblower, as you characterized Mr. Millet. It’s an interesting point. If a whistleblower comes forward to any media organization, he or she is put through rigorous scrutiny – the information presented is double checked, the motives for doing so are carefully assessed.

CBC News wanted to hear from other members of the group, and it wanted to be able to ask Mr. Millet well-informed questions at a news conference he had planned (but didn’t in the end attend). This was a complex story with many layers. Getting at as many perspectives as possible is what journalists do. Sometimes it can border on the unpleasant. The responsibility is to get at the truth and as full an understanding as possible so that members of the public can make up their own minds.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman