Mean Tweets: Did a story about a nasty Twitter account in PEI show political bias?

The complainant, Dan MacKinnon, thought a CBC News story out of Charlottetown made too much of some mean tweets against a local politician and unfairly focused on some Conservative party accounts which followed it. I found that the story was balanced and worked with the information known at the time of broadcast. There was no bias.

COMPLAINT

You thought CBC News in Prince Edward Island had unfairly targeted the provincial Progressive Conservative Party in the lead story of the Compass at 6 broadcast on February 24, 2015. You characterized it as a “terrible case of ‘gotcha journalism.’”

The story focused on a Twitter account called “@Kingwadepei” which anonymously posted tweets that were insulting to Olive Crane, a sitting independent MLA and former leader of the provincial PC Party. The piece on television asked the question if the use of Twitter in this way was excessive. Ms. Crane and another interviewee characterized these kinds of posts or tweets as cyberbullying. In the course of her interview, Ms. Crane pointed out that two accounts associated with the provincial Conservative Party – its caucus and party accounts – were followers of @Kingwadepei.

You considered the story an attack on the party and unfair and unbalanced because the story neglected to mention that a provincial Liberal Party cabinet minister was also a follower, as were two employees of CBC in Charlottetown. You also said that the NDP had “favorited” at least one tweet from this account. You said that the mere act of following the @Kingwadepei account was portrayed as something wrong:

The PC Party had apparently given CBC a statement saying that they follow over 2100 users and have never retweeted, favorited, or in any way endorsed the satirical Twitter account. Nevertheless, CBC presented the mere act of following the account in question as being highly inappropriate.

You questioned the decision to run the story at all because, you said, the Twitter account in question had only a couple dozen followers. You characterized it as a “satiric site” and thought it was poor news judgment to lead the newscast with this story.

You accused CBC News of “doubling down” by publishing a story on its website as well. You said the article, entitled “Political cyberbullying goes too far: MLA,” was not grounded in fact. You questioned the claims made by Ms. Crane about the personal attacks about her “upbringing and other personal characteristics.” You said that again, the Liberal Party was “given a pass”:

Worse, the article includes a quote from the Liberal Party which says their members would not follow such a nasty twitter account. 1) Virtually nobody was following the account, and; 2) Their most senior cabinet minister was following the account…

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Donna Allen, executive producer of news for CBC in Prince Edward Island, responded to your concerns. She told you she did not agree with your characterization of the coverage as “over-zealous coverage of a non-story,” nor as an attack on the provincial Progressive Conservative Party.

She explained the story started with Olive Crane, former head of the PEI Progressive Conservative Party and now an independent MLA. Ms. Allen explained Ms. Crane was the recent victim of hurtful tweets about her from one account, and that was the origin of the idea of the story, but it was put in the larger context of the “corrosive and destructive effects of online bullying.” She also took issue with your characterization of the site as “satirical”:

You refer to the site as “satirical”, suggesting the messages were not offensive and hence the CBC News stories were “not grounded in fact”. I don’t know whether or not the site’s intention was to be satirical. Regrettably, those behind it chose to remain anonymous. Certainly, the posts that we saw were critical of Ms. Crane in what can be fairly said to be a personal and mean- spirited fashion, one that Ms. Crane told us she found offensive and one that a woman with some expertise on the subject described as “cyberbullying”. Had the authors chosen to clarify their intentions or disagree with that description, we would have welcomed the opportunity to include those views in our stories.

She explained that the stories did point out the provincial PC Party had two official accounts listed as followers of the @Kingwadepei account. It also had the full statement of a party spokesperson pointing out that the party follows over 2000 twitter accounts but had never retweeted or favorited a tweet from the account in question. She went on to explain that there was no selective targeting of the Conservative Party. She said at the time the reporter was preparing the story they were the only party accounts he was aware of:

You wrote that a Liberal cabinet minister was following the account at one point and the NDP had “favourited” one of the posts. I asked the reporter about this. He says while he did review the posts on the account on several occasions that day, at no point did he see any Liberal cabinet minister following, nor did he see the “favourite” you mention. He may have missed this information or it may not have been there at the times he viewed the account.

Had he seen either of those elements, he would definitely have included them in the story. As you know Twitter accounts can change from minute to minute, hour to hour. People can quickly and easily follow and unfollow an account. And, as we said, by the time the story went to air the account had been removed from Twitter altogether.

She did agree with you that it would have been better to note that some CBC staff were also following the account in question. She thought the script could have been clearer in explaining that being a follower of someone on Twitter did not necessarily imply endorsement but she added that message was conveyed in the statement from the PC Party spokesperson.

She also told you that while you saw the publication of a story on the web as “doubling down,” it was simply common practice to publish stories on multiple platforms.

REVIEW

You raise the question whether this story should have been covered at all. The mandate of this office does not include editorial choice. The news department has the right to determine the news agenda, and in most cases decisions about coverage are outside the purview of the ombudsman. News judgment is somewhat subjective – news is more than one thing. It is what is happening in the moment, obviously, but it also includes judgments about what is relevant and has impact on people’s lives, or on decisions about social policy and larger social good, or social trends. Ms. Allen mentioned that in this case the story was done because it fit into a broader concern about use of social media and some of its negative consequences.

The reporter, Steve Bruce, explained its origins in more detail to me. He told me he had been watching accounts, some of which came and went, other than @Kingwadepei, that indulged in some pretty strong attacks on various political figures. He added that others had commented about the tone of these tweets in other social media. The trigger for this particular story came from an anonymous woman who declined to participate in a story but wanted to point his attention to the @Kingwadepei account, as she had also been a target of nasty tweets. When Mr. Bruce checked out the account, he noticed the photos of Ms. Crane and contacted her. She agreed to participate in a story.

You say that there were Liberal and NDP followers as well as Conservative ones, and the lack of mention is that the reporter was “cherry picking.” His version of the facts is somewhat different. He said when he checked out the account thoroughly as he began to prepare the story, he did not see the Liberal cabinet minister listed as a follower. He said had he done so, he would have certainly followed up. He said there were other Conservative MLAs but he did not mention them in his piece. He focused on the official party accounts, and found only ones linked to the provincial PC Party.

Mr. Bruce’s story was done in a roughly 24 hour period and so he did not thoroughly check the site more than one time. It is plausible that in the time frame the followers you noted were not present. He also told me that when he did go back to check activity on the account shortly before the story aired, the account had been taken down. He acknowledged that he was aware there were some CBC people following the site, but because he was focused on the political aspect of the story, he did not mention them. I think he should have in the interests of full disclosure and transparency.

You do raise an interesting point about what it means to “follow” in the context of Twitter. You felt because essentially that is a passive activity, it was another reason it was unfair and a targeting of the Conservative Party. Ms. Allen acknowledged that the piece would have been stronger if the script had provided that extra bit of context, and I agree. She also pointed out that the statement from the PC Party spokesperson made that point. The statement said:

This account is one of more than 2100 Twitter accounts followed by the caucus and party accounts. The caucus and party accounts have never shared, retweeted or favourited any tweet by the account in question. Following an account is not an endorsement of its views. We believe in engaging Islanders and fostering debate on public issues and do so regularly through social media.

CBC Journalistic policy defines fairness and balance as providing a range of views. In this case the view of Ms. Crane, that the very act of following is a kind of participation in the negative behavior, is balanced by the point that following in the context of Twitter is not necessarily an endorsement of a statement.

While you saw these reports as a deliberate attempt to smear one party by selective use of the facts, it can equally be seen as an examination of the modern phenomenon of anonymous and unpleasant commentary. Some of us might believe that those in the public spotlight need thick skins because it comes with the territory; others might argue, as Michelle MacCallum, the anti-bullying advocate does, that there is a need for civil discourse and that the use of social media to attack public figures is not acceptable. She does not single out any political party or specific politicians but rather refers to “prominent politicians.” The reporter chose to focus on party rather than individual politician’s accounts. And again, did not see the same ones you cite. You may dispute this fact, but there is no reason to think the reporter is lying.

The framing of this piece was around political cyberbullying. It was built around the experience of one politician who was the target of nasty tweets at the time the story was done, but the context was the broader issue. You may conclude it wasn’t worthy of coverage, but that is not a violation of CBC journalistic policy. Equally, you concluded that there was no point mentioning the party accounts because following an account is not participating in it – also a reasonable conclusion and one others may have concluded as well when they saw and heard the party explanation. You considered the website satiric. From what I could see from the tweets about Ms. Crane shown on screen, I wouldn’t necessarily label it that way. But satire is even more subjective than news judgment. News pieces should lay out facts so people can draw their own conclusions.

The piece would have been stronger with a little more context and it should have mentioned CBC staff’s own involvement. But on the whole, it did not violate policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman