Everest College: It's not one for all and all for one; criticism of one college doesn't tarnish them all

The complainant, Serge Buy, wrote in his capacity of CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges to say he thought a story about Everest College was unbalanced and constituted a “drive-by-smear campaign.” The story was critical, but it provided context, and the response from the closed college’s spokesperson. A criticism of one private college is not criticism of them all so the fact his opinion wasn’t sought is not a policy violation.

COMPLAINT

In your capacity as CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges (NACC), you wrote to complain about a CBCNews.ca story concerning Everest College, which had recently been shut down by the Ontario government. On February 19, 2015, the superintendent of private career colleges shut down the U.S. based chain. The reason given was concern for the financial solvency of the organization. Indeed, a day later the parent company, Corinthian Colleges, filed for bankruptcy for its Canadian Everest Colleges, which had operated 14 campuses in Ontario.

The article you objected to was published about a week later and featured allegations of shoddy practices made by former students and an instructor. You called the piece, entitled “Everest College closure no surprise to some who call it a scam,” “drive-by smearing.” You were concerned that no attempt was made to find and feature students who were happy with their education at Everest College.

You were critical of the reporter because she did not approach the right people for response and to balance the allegations:

No call was placed by Ms. Harris to the representative associations - including the association I represent (the National Association of Career Colleges) to try to get a balanced view. Only the Ministry’s - whose job is not to defend the sector and Corinthian - the US parent corporation which is right now run by bankruptcy trustees and therefore are not equipped to respond.

After you received a reply from CBC News management you reiterated your view that the reporter was obliged to seek out and quote people who had positive experience to balance the story. You felt the reporter had manufactured the story, not reported the facts:

. . . the journalists involved in the story saw the closure of Everest and tried to spin this into a story on the quality of Everest’s education. Which, in the end probably would have led to stories on career colleges in general. But the fact is that the story should have been on Everest’s closure or if it really had to be on the quality, they should have presented both sides: they didn’t.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Michael Colton, the senior producer of the Business Content Unit, replied to your concerns.

He pointed out that the story you find objectionable was one of several written within a week or so of each other. He added that there was significant coverage of the impact on the students, faculty and staff of the college, who were left in limbo. He noted you were quoted in one of the stories about the closure. He cited other stories done weeks after the closure was announced. He added:

This highlights something that I believe is central to any assessment of our coverage of Everest College. The story you are critical of was in fact just one of many. It was part of a continuum of coverage. Naturally, not every story contains all the details of previous stories.

He also disagreed that the story was one-sided. He explained the reporter contacted the parent company, Corinthian, several times seeking comment and that they were given more than one opportunity to reply to the allegations. He said that the college spokesperson, Joe Hixson, was quoted from an email he sent refuting the claims of sub-standard education and questionable practices. Mr. Colton also told you he did not agree that it was remiss not to reach out to “representative organizations” because the story was entirely about Everest College and not about career colleges in general:

It was not in any way a story about an entire industry. Recent stories about defects in General Motors cars, as an example, may rightly be judged on their journalistic merit not whether or the extent to which they involve other manufacturers. The story in question was well researched, accurate and fairly presented. I might also add that shortly after you contacted one of our Web

writers with respect to this story on February 25th, we did insert your comments.

REVIEW

You raise some issues about balance, and they are good ones. In an article like this one, where there are negative claims, what are the obligations for balance? You also questioned the notion of balance over time, that a series of articles provides balance and not every single one must be perfectly balanced. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices provides guidance, although no perfect solution:

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.

This article fulfills the policy in both respects. It does provide some response to the allegations within the article. And there were links provided to other articles which did have the voices of satisfied students. Here is one of them:

Others had nothing but good things to say about the school, both while they were students there and after. Eduarda Cabral graduated from the Kitchener location last September with a diploma to be a personal support worker.

“My experience at Everest College, it was an absolute wonderful experience,” she told CBC News. “I decided to change my career after working in finance for over 20 years and I thought I’m going to get into healthcare and I’m so glad I made the decision to coming to Everest College because it made a world of difference to my life.”

You dispute the voices chosen to provide alternative perspectives. I disagree. The purpose of seeking out those views is to get accountability for the accusations of shoddy practice. The institution that has accountability for that is the licensing authority, in this case the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. A spokeswoman was quoted as saying there is ongoing inspection. And ultimately the accountability rests with the owner of the college. The journalist has a responsibility to seek that out and to do so diligently. In this case there were numerous attempts, and the person who responded is not, as you surmised, a bankruptcy trustee, but the designated spokesperson for Corinthian College. Ms. Harris, the reporter, tells me journalists must go through him to get any response from the organization. She showed me a news release from the college and Joe Hixson is the designated contact. According to this release he is the media contact and is with The Abernathy MacGregor Group, Inc.

You mentioned in one of your emails that the reporters tried to spin the story into the quality of Everest’s education “which, in the end probably would have led to stories on career colleges in general.” Probably, but it didn’t. This story is narrowly focused and the only wider reference comes from the government spokesperson. While I can understand that the CEO of a group representing career colleges would be concerned all of them would be tarnished with the same brush, that is neither stated nor implied in any way in this article. Furthermore, when you approached the reporter to voice your displeasure, your perspective was in fact added to the piece:

The National Association of Career Colleges says the vast majority of students at private career colleges have glowingly positive experiences.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of students with positive experiences that have received training that allowed them to obtain meaningful employment thanks to the work done by Everest instructors,” said Serge Buy, the CEO of NACC, a non-profit association representing 500 colleges and 160,000 students across the country.

This article has three perspectives that provide different views of the issue. There is no violation of policy.

I questioned the reporter about the research that supported the claims of the people represented. They were the ones who wished to be quoted by name. There were quite a few others who came forward, many unsolicited. I know you were concerned that there was a call out for negative feedback but Ms. Harris and another reporter between them received dozens unsolicited. The stories they told corroborated one another. There were also court documents and filings with similar allegations in the United States, where the parent company is based and runs colleges. The American company faces suits filed by various state and federal authorities.

The reporters were doing their job reporting on these allegations from people who approached them and had some documentary evidence, although by no means conclusive. The report lays out the information and provides alternate views of that information. It is one of quite a few articles written about the college. It is well within journalistic practice.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman