Lots for Sale - Story or Shill?

The complainant, Gordon Dickson, thought a local Winnipeg story about the start of a housing development that had been contentious in the community was nothing more than an “infomercial.” There were unanswered questions about the development and CBC News did not address those issues. That might be, but the story itself did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that a report broadcast by CBC News in Winnipeg was an “infomercial” for a housing development and not news at all. You pointed out that the piece ran on June 30, the same day the first lots in the development went on sale. You also thought the interviews with local area residents appeared staged. You thought the article published online on July 1 was guilty of the same thing:

After reading the article online it appears that the article was intended to promote the project identifying the developer, price of the individual properties for sale, timeline for completion of the properties.

You said that while CBC News pretends to be doing investigative journalism, there was no questioning of the land deal which had been concluded a year ago. You also criticized the coverage because no one from the Winnipeg School Division, the previous owner of the land, was interviewed in the online article or TV news report. You think CBC News should be “follow(ing) the money train.” You have questions about the price of the land sale, and who benefited from it. You believe this is what CBC News should be addressing, not simply noting that the development is moving ahead.

You rejected the explanation given to you by the assignment editor responsible for the piece – that this was an article on trends in the real estate market in Winnipeg – as a lame excuse for a piece that merely promoted the development:

Does Mr. Kaniuga for that matter CBC Winnipeg truly believe that the development of 30 parcels of land will have an economic/social impact on the housing market in the City of Winnipeg? What about the 11,000 houses being built in Waverly West? What about the countless other housing projects that are going on in the City? Where’s CBC Winnipeg regarding those developments ? No where to be found.

The development of 30 parcels of land isn’t a trend. It’s a economic reality of a city that’s trying to increase the tax base.

Mr. Kaniuga’s responses are a feigned attempt to justify an article that had no reason to be broadcast via the Internet, Television or any other medium.

The online article entitled “River Heights housing development’s first lots go on sale” noted that the first lots had been sold in a development being built where a school and its playground previously stood. The article notes that there had been some controversy over the design of the development when the land was sold a year before.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC News in Manitoba, Cecil Rosner, replied to your concerns. He told you the story was published and broadcast because it was “newsworthy, as the development has been controversial.” He reminded you that the land had been used as a dog park and green space for twenty years before it was sold to the developer. He added that CBC News had done stories about this development in the past “and this was an update to determine where the development was at the moment.” He also told you that the CBC had discovered through its “own investigation” via a land title search, that the property had sold for $2.7 million.

He told you that the interviews in the television piece were definitely not staged, and that no one from Winnipeg School Division agreed to be interviewed for the stories. He also noted that the online story had comments from area residents who had criticisms of the project and he added: “I think you would agree that infomercials would not contain critiques of this kind.”

REVIEW

You believe that this should have been a much more in-depth piece about this particular development, that there is a need to “follow the money.” That may be a very good suggestion. But news is many things. It is, first and foremost, what is new – and it was new that this development was moving forward.

It also represented a follow-up to some stories that CBC News in Winnipeg had done about a year earlier, since there was some controversy about the project. The first, entitled “Housing Project builds controversy in River Heights,” ran in June, 2014, and laid out the issue in the community. A second story was done as a follow up to the first as the project neared approval.

One of the criticisms frequently leveled at news media is that there is no follow-up to stories – there is a report and then everyone moves on. The “news hook” Mr. Rosner mentioned, that the lots were going on sale, is a legitimate motivation to go back to the story. It did not have a lot of depth, but it provided the basic questions a person reading or watching might want to know. It’s true it might get someone interested in a purchase. There are often competing considerations at work. Not providing the information because it might benefit the seller seems a lesser one. If that became an overriding consideration, by that logic a news outlet should never conduct an interview with a performer or author because someone might buy a book or recording.

The tone of this article and TV report did not lead me to believe that its purpose was enticing people to buy. On the other hand, if one was interested, then one would have some information going forward. News is about what is going on in a community. For a person interested in buying a lot, knowing they have gone on sale would be a useful bit of information to have. I suppose that could be to the benefit of the developer, but it hardly classifies it as an infomercial.

News does not live in some bubble of purity. Context is important, and the needed context is provided. The developer, Ryan Skrabyk, is quoted in the piece, not to extol his properties, but to explain he is looking for people who actually want to buy a house, and not speculators:

“We’re looking for individuals who want to build a home; we’re not looking for investors,” he said.

“So our primary concern is that those who are interested and have made offers are looking to build a home in a timely manner.”

Skrabyk said the area is being serviced now, so successful buyers can start building on Sept. 1.

While the first few paragraphs provide information that might be helpful to the developer, the second part provides the perspective of the residents in the area. It also provides a bit of background about why this development is of interest at all:

MIXED REVIEWS FROM RESIDENTS

People living in the area started raising concerns after the Winnipeg School Division put the property up for sale.

The developers of 386 Beaverbrook bought it for $2.7 million and divided the land into a total of 30 lots.

HOUSING PROJECT BUILDS CONTROVERSY IN RIVER HEIGHTS

On Tuesday evening, residents gave mixed reviews of the development so far.

“Developments are always good; they increase densification for the interior of Winnipeg, which is a good thing,” said Lorne Roder.

“The only difficulty, I would say, is that dog walkers lost their dog walking park and … I worry about the infrastructure, the sewer, the water lines, the power that are going to eventually service this space.”

Another resident, Bruce Mahaffy, said he plans to move.

“I don't want to be subjected to another two to three years worth of construction, bottom line,” he said, adding that no one has offered any kind of assistance or compensation to affected residents.

CBC journalistic policy’s commitment to fairness states:

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.

And its statement on balance is:

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.

Including a statement from the developer was part of an even-handed treatment. It is not an endorsement or advertisement. Mr. Kaniuga, who initially replied to your concerns, told you the angle on the story was about the high cost of owning a home in “one of Winnipeg’s most desirable and in demand neighbourhoods.” That was the subject of this piece, part of a “wide range of subject matter.” This might not be the most in-depth or comprehensive piece of journalism, but it does not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman