Election Balance: The National in Newfoundland

The complainant, Martin Crawford, was appalled at a story that documented the depth of the anti-Conservative mood in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The story showed a store selling anti-Harper T-shirts. He thought there should be stories from other places that balanced this one. I explained balance is not achieved by showing favorable Harper T-shirts, but by ensuring a proper range of material over the course of the campaign.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about an edition of The National broadcast from St. John’s, Newfoundland during the recent election campaign. You were concerned that the content was strongly anti- Conservative with no balancing items that were positive. You described the program this way:

...Peter Mansbridge starts the show off by saying “we begin as usual with the news of the day” and after hearing about flooding in Carolina we see the next important news story about a clothing store in St. John's, Newfoundland called “Johnny Ruth & Living Planet” which has for years sold shirts with designs based on Second World War public outreach campaigns. However the story is that now they are selling anti-Harper shirts!

You said that “There are pro Prime Minister Harper shirts and pro Conservative shirts being sold across the country, why is that not reported on?” You pointed out that the next news item featured former Premier Danny Williams, who was also very critical of Stephen Harper.

You said: “The story about the clothing store and the interview with Mr. Williams does not qualify as news, it is also grossly anti-partisan.” You thought that to remedy it there should have been a feature which included a clothing store that sold pro-Harper shirts, and an interview with a former premier “who wanted to speak of Mr. Harper’s good character and talk about the many good things he had done for our country.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He explained that the story you cited wasn’t about the store and its T-shirt sales, but part of a feature “that tried to show Canadians what was happening on the ground in that province.” [Newfoundland and Labrador]:

In this case, it was demonstrating that voters there were by and large opposed to the Conservative Party federally, and had been ever since Danny Williams launched a campaign when he was still Premier that he called “ABC” - Anything But Conservative. The scene in the clothing store was a manifestation of how popular that sentiment was. By showing it, The National was not sending a signal that it endorsed or opposed any party - it was doing its job of reflecting the country. Certainly, the results from that province on election night suggest that the report was accurate - Newfoundlanders had made up their mind.

He also pointed out that the program did not merely jump into the story, that the item about anti-Harper sentiment did not lead the newscast, right after a story about flooding in South Carolina. He pointed out the newscast began with extensive coverage of the just announced Trans Pacific Trade treaty, followed by election news of the day and other stories. The material you cite, he told you, began about 17 minutes into the newscast.

He added that The National and other CBC news and current affairs programs provided coverage from across the country and from a variety of perspectives and that there was a concerted effort to abide by CBC’s journalistic standards of “unbiased and non-partisan” coverage.

REVIEW

Your complaint raised some specific issues about one story on the program, and the larger issue of bias, balance and fairness. I will address the particular first. Mr. Nagler pointed out to you that the feature including a scene at a clothing store came at the seventeen minute mark of the program, and not as you characterized it. He, as you acknowledged in your response to him, was correct. Although the newscast opened with Mr. Mansbridge on location in St. John’s, there was a variety of stories presented before the program turned its attention to the location.

There were other election stories, including the just-announced completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. The views of all major parties were presented in an appropriate manner. The other election stories also provided information about the activities of the three major leaders for the day. There was an appropriate balance, but not an exact equivalence.

You also make it sound like there was a story about the clothing store and then an interview with Danny Williams – in other words two full segments about the anti-Conservative mood in Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, the two were scenes within one story. CBC Journalistic policy demands accuracy, balance and fairness. But it is not a mindless mathematical formula. Reporters are obliged to assess and understand what they are seeing in front of them. One of the core values is to “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

The growth of a strong anti-Harper, anti-Conservative sentiment in the province was not new, and had been documented. There was tangible evidence it existed – through polling, and through reporters on the ground who moved through the province talking to people and observing what was happening in riding associations and in various races. This was not some frivolous made up thing. As the reporter David Cochrane pointed out, the Conservative Party did not win any seats in 2008 and only one in 2011. They did not win any in 2015 either. The purpose of this piece was to provide context so that people from other parts of Canada would understand the mood and why it happened. It is important to make a distinction – the coverage was about feelings against the Conservatives. That does not make it “anti-Conservative” in the sense that it is taking a stand or advocating a point of view. It is an important distinction. Here is how the piece begins:

PETER MANSBRIDGE (HOST):
Here in Newfoundland, a very direct message for voters from a former premier. Danny Williams, who led a Progressive Conservative government from 2003 to 2010, is urging people not to vote for Stephen Harper. It isn’t the first time he’s done so and it’s a big part of the Conservatives’ troubled relationship with this province. David Cochrane has that story.

DAVID COCHRANE (REPORTER):
The Johnny Ruth & Living Planet boutique doesn't look like a hotbed of political activism, but just take a closer look at what they’re selling.

ANGELA HAJEK (JOHNNY RUTH & LIVING PLANET):
(St. John’s) They are originally World War I and World War II recruitment posters that we have updated to turn into a little bit of an anti-Conservative propaganda. Newfoundlanders just are not the biggest fans.

DAVID COCHRANE (REPORTER):
They’re big sellers and the reason is as simple as…

DANNY WILLIAMS (FORMER PREMIER OF NEWFOUNDLAND-AND-LABRADOR):
(Toronto – May 3, 2007) A, B, C, anything but Conservative.

DAVID COCHRANE (REPORTER):
The province’s relationship with the Harper Conservatives fractured in 2006 over a broken promise on offshore oil revenues. Danny Williams hammered the message…

DANNY WILLIAMS (FORMER PREMIER OF NEWFOUNDLAND-AND-LABRADOR):
(September 10, 2008) Stephen Harper is a fraud.

DAVID COCHRANE (REPORTER):
And voters hammered the Conservatives. No seats in 2008, one in 2011. But an election finance scandal forced the Conservative to quit and the Liberals won the by-election. Then this year the Conservatives rejected St. John’s lawyer Ches Crosbie as a candidate. The son of Newfoundland Conservative legend John Crosbie was deemed unfit to run.

The T-shirt store is a concrete way of illustrating some pretty strong feelings. I note that the story does also include a comment from Trevor Taylor, a Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister in Danny Williams’s Progressive Conservative government, who ran for the federal Conservatives in 2011 in an attempt to reconcile the two parties.

This story does not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. It is a legitimate piece of journalism, reflecting the reality on the ground. There were other stories that evening which attempted to reflect the mood in the province – a piece focusing on younger voters and their ideas about leadership and which candidate best embodied it. All leaders were mentioned. Another story was about the impact the loss of jobs in western Canada was having on communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, which had sent workers west for many years.

The larger issue you raise is what constitutes balance and fairness in election coverage. While you expressed your criteria as a need for a literal equivalence – that is, if there are anti-Harper T-shirts then there need to be stories about pro-Harper T-shirts – I imagine you were making a point that there needed to be material that was equally strong to balance out this one. But that is not what constitutes balance and fairness. News drives the reality. In the case of Newfoundland it would create a false reality to feature equally strong pro-Conservative material. In fairness, I think you were asking were there equally positive portraits from other places in Canada. It might be useful to first consider what Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP) lays out as the expectation of journalists, and what constitutes best practices. JSP addresses the need for a variety of perspectives and a variety of opinions, giving due consideration of the relevance of the opinion in any particular debate or controversy. That is why the measure is never precise equivalence, a kind of tit for tat approach. That can create a kind of false picture, a false equivalence. In their book “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have this to say about fairness and balance:

Rather than high principles, they are really techniques—devices—to help guide journalists in the development and verification of their accounts. They should never be pursued for their own sake or invoked as journalism’s goal. Their value is in helping get us closer to more thorough verification and reliable version of events. (p.87)

They go on to point out that an exact balance might create a false version of reality. So in doing other broadcasts from other locations, as The National and other CBC programs did, they provided a range of views and perspectives. For example, The National broadcast from Quebec City, focusing on that area and province. There was a range of stories here and in this case, one of the major themes was the erosion of NDP support, with the Conservatives poised to make some gains. The important thing was that the perspectives of all the parties were appropriately presented. CBC News coverage came from every part of the country, and focused on regions to try and present a portrait of the concerns and trends they could reasonably identify. In some places, that would favour one party more than another. For a great deal of the campaign, the parties appeared to be very close – so some of the coverage, for instance that in British Columbia, tried to focus on ridings where there was an indication of a close race. The job is never to balance one type of report with an identical type of report from somewhere else or about another party.

CBC journalistic policy does provide some broad guidelines and some principles to guide election coverage:

Canadians expect us to provide a wide range of information and context so that they can make decisions during election and referendum campaigns.

We ensure that the facts and analysis we present on issues, candidates and parties is timely, accurate, fair and balanced over the course of the campaign.

We give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment. This does not necessarily mean equal broadcast time.

The program out of Newfoundland and Labrador provided accurate coverage of the situation in that province. The story you questioned did not violate policy. And while I have addressed some broader coverage to provide some insight into what goes into consideration of balance and fairness, it is beyond the scope of one review to address all of the election coverage. CBC News management ensures independent monitoring of its election coverage. The Office of the Ombudsman receives reports from independent review panels. Their findings will constitute part of my publicly available annual report, usually published in June.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman