Justin Trudeau's platform: the danger of a paraphrase

The complainant, Marc Poitras, objected to the characterization of a platform speech by the Liberal Party leader as “striking hopeful notes.” He’s right – there was no justification and it appeared to be editorializing in a news piece.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to highlight part of a story about a policy speech given by Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. The story, entitled “Justin Trudeau vows to end 1st-past-the-post voting in platform speech,” carried two bylines, Rosemary Barton and Trinh Theresa Do. You assumed the story had been written by Ms. Barton (reasonable assumption) and you thought she had editorialized in her characterization of the Liberal leader’s speech and the way it was contrasted with the Conservative Party’s policies. The line in question was this:

His speech struck many hopeful notes and drew a stark contrast between the Liberals and the “cynical” Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

You pointed out that the article was not labeled as an opinion piece, and the reporter had crossed a line:

It is my understanding that a journalist’s job is to report news, not to push their personal opinions about political parties.

In further correspondence, you wondered why the line was included at all, no matter how it was intended. You asked what information it actually was giving to a reader, and you thought its only purpose could be to promote a particular point of view:

Was it, as is being suggested, that the reporter thought Mr. Trudeau’s speech struck hopeful notes and that Mr. Trudeau thinks the conservatives are cynical? I would submit that the purpose of the line was to convey the sense that the Liberals provide hope to Canadians while the Conservatives spread cynicism.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the senior producer, Politics, replied to your concerns. Mr. Carter is responsible for the online content published in the parliamentary bureau. He told you that he did consider this article to be reporting the news, “which was Trudeau’s announcement of policy planks in the Liberals’ election platform around the themes of transparency, open government and democratic reform.”

He acknowledged that the reporter was characterizing Mr. Trudeau’s speech “by saying it contained many hopeful notes.” He explained that the reference to the contrast to the Conservative Party as cynical was not her characterization, but what the Liberal leader had said. He explained that the use of quotation marks around the word cynical denoted that the word was not the reporter’s, but a quote.

REVIEW

Before I address the particulars of your complaint, there is need for clarification. This is the first time I have encountered this issue. It would have been preferable if Mr. Carter had made mention of the fact that there were two bylines on the story. I spoke to Ms. Barton and she explained that while she wrote portions of this story, it went through several iterations over the course of the day. She explained she did not actually write that sentence. She wrote an earlier version, and as the day unfolded changes were made and parts were rewritten or more information was added. In this case, the story does carry a double by-line. While that does not change my assessment of it, it is only fair to point out the phrase you questioned was written by the second author.

I agree that this sentence falls short of CBC standards. Reporters are permitted to draw conclusions based on “facts and expertise.” Generally speaking, it is useful to provide the reader with what some of those facts might be. That is not the case here. There is nothing in the article that indicates what would be more “hopeful” from an objective point of view. You would have to agree with Mr. Trudeau’s position, and that would be editorializing.

I suppose that the author meant to attribute both sides of the equation to Mr. Trudeau himself, as he does characterize both his own approach and that of the Conservative Party. In the course of this speech, he did characterize the Conservative positions as “cynical.” And that was properly attributed with the use of quotations. That is the convention used in print.

The difficulty here was that since the whole sentence was unclear, it might not have been obvious to you that this was in fact a quotation. It compressed so many thoughts into one short sentence that it lost clarity. It left the impression of bias. I think more likely it is a case of bad writing and editing. CBC News policy also calls for clear and precise use of language:

CBC is a language model for its audiences. Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism. Our language should be simple, clear and concrete.

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.

On this score, the article fails. I recommend CBC news managers review how this happened so that those involved can learn from the mistake.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman