Playing Fair: The court may have decided in favour of one side - that doesn't mean the other side shouldn't get a chance to explain

The complainant, Wendy Coles, thought an interview on the Kitchener-Waterloo Radio One morning show was one sided. She was right. It wasn’t fair to one party in a dispute because she was talked about but her position wasn’t presented, and it wasn’t fair to the audience who didn’t have the information needed to form a judgment about what happened.

COMPLAINT

In late August of 2014, Craig Norris, the host of The Kitchener-Waterloo Morning Edition (the local Radio One morning program) interviewed Danielle Forbes, the Executive Director of National Service Dogs. She was interviewed because a small claims court deputy judge had just rendered a decision involving the charitable organization and one of its volunteers, a Waterloo resident.

There had been an ongoing two year long dispute over the future of the dog the volunteer had been “fostering.” She was concerned the dog had serious medical problems and was not suited to be a service dog or to fulfill other functions provided by National Service Dogs and did not turn it over to the organization. The staff at the organization believed they needed to get the dog back and assess how it might be placed. In cases where there is agreement the animal is not suitable the “fostering” volunteer trainer is able to keep the dog.

In January of 2014, the court forced the caregiver to return the animal, pending the completion of the court proceeding. In May the case was heard in small claims court and in August, the deputy judge presented his findings. He found in favor of the National Service Dog Training Centre, based in Cambridge, Ontario.

You felt the interview was completely one sided and unfair to the volunteer who was part of the suit. You said the program should have made some attempt to contact Tammy Hall, rather than talk about her with the head of the Service Dog organization:

Not only was there no attempt to contact Ms. Hall for her side (the defendant in this long drawn out case they refer to in the interview) but both Mr. Norris and Ms. Forbes actually put words into Ms. Hall's mouth by suggesting that she went through with this court case (in which SHE was sued) because she was “attached” to a dog. If Mr. Norris had done his homework he would know that Ms. Hall was advocating for a sick dog.

You pointed out that in the course of the court hearing evidence was presented that supported Ms. Hall’s position. You felt that people hearing the interview would think that Ms. Hall “was willing to rob a child of a necessary companion dog because of her ‘attachment.’”

You were not satisfied with the reply you got from the Executive Producer of CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo, although he conceded they “could have done better” in this interview. You felt there needed to be further action to remedy the situation and asked me to review the matter. You thought the characterization of Ms. Hall slandered her. You thought many important details of the case were not included and should have been:

First Mr. Norris asked an incredibly leading question and then Ms. Forbes started to say that perhaps he should ask Ms. Hall …and then she went ahead & answered for her anyway. If anyone had taken the time to speak to Ms. Hall they would know that merely being attached to the dog had nothing to do with why she allowed herself to be subjected to a court case to begin with.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer at CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, Pras Rajagopalan, responded to your concerns. He pointed out that the court had found in favor of the service dog charity. He told you:

The purpose of the interview when it was assigned was to understand what the outcome means for National Service Dogs and what’s next for the dog, Gabby. The person best qualified to answer these questions was Ms. Forbes, who as executive director could articulate what the ruling means for the National Service Dogs. She also had custody of the dog and so could tell us what the charity’s plans were for Gabby.

He said the interview provided answers to those questions – that Gabby, the dog in question, would not be suitable for work as a service dog but would be used as a companion dog, a different function. He said Ms. Forbes also explained the significance of the court decision.

He also told you that in two respects, “we could have done better.” He agreed it was not appropriate for Craig Norris to ask the interviewee, Danielle Forbes, the Executive Director of National Service Dogs, about Ms. Hall’s motivation or state of mind.

He also said that it was beyond the scope of the interview to ask Ms. Forbes to describe what had happened in court. He added: “We only heard Ms. Forbes’ version of events and not Ms. Hall’s. It was not an appropriate question in the context of this interview.”

When you asked what further steps might be taken in light of the fact that he agreed the interview was flawed, Mr. Rajagopalan told you he had taken your concerns seriously, and that he had “discussed the matter at some length with Mr. Norris to ensure we do better in the future. He felt no further action was required.

REVIEW

The Executive Producer, Pras Rajagopalan, told you that he and his team could have done better. I agree with him. CBC Journalistic Policy is clear when it lays out requirements for balance and fairness over time. It is important to provide enough information and context so that members of the public might come to their own conclusions. The host of the program, Craig Norris, begins the interview this way:

It’s been called a precedent setting legal case and it took 2 years to resolve. Gabby, the Golden retriever is finally back with the National Service Dogs. That’s after the woman who volunteered to train her didn’t want to give her back. The fight went to court and the judge ruled that the dog rightfully belonged to the charity. Danielle Forbes is the Executive Director of National Service Dogs. She joins me today on the phone.

It would not have taken a great deal more time to at least give the woman’s stated reasons for not wanting to give the dog back. That would have at least provided some understanding of the two positions presented in court. A significant part of the interview is taken up with the court decision and what the two sides were saying. Mr. Norris asked what Ms. Hall’s reasons were for keeping the dog:

Craig Norris: Tammy Hall, what was her argument to keep Gabby?

Danielle Forbes: She didn’t feel the dog was suitable for our programs and should be released and um, you know, all of our volunteers that foster our dogs, we rely on them to do the socialization to do the basic obedience and they provide very valuable feedback to us on how the dog is doing. They come to puppy classes that we run weekly and semi-weekly for the older puppies -sorry semi-monthly for the older puppies. But we have to kind of work in partnership with them.

We get to monitor the dogs all the way through the process. But at the end of all of that, the dogs all come back for assessment by our professional trainers and for inclusion in one of our four programs. We have 2 service dog programs, our canine assisted intervention program and what we call companion dog program. And so yeah, we rely on all of our volunteers to honor that commitment, right; to take the dogs through the first crucial 18 months of their lives and then bring them back to us so that we can assess them appropriately and make sure that they’re assigned a job that they’re suited for and for the odd dog that isn’t suited for any of our four programs, we do release them and offer them back to the foster families.

Craig Norris: So just in 30 seconds, so we could just be clear on this, this is what this is, this is what Tammy Hall was – essentially she was a foster family for Gabby, who would just give the dog basic socialization skills and teach it very basic obedience like you said.

Mr. Norris came back to this point and asked: “So Ms. Hall – this was just simply a matter [of] she became too emotionally attached to Gabby?” The interviewee basically agrees but does mention one would have to ask the woman herself.

By spending this much time on the controversy, the program violated the principle of Fairness, as laid out in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:

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.

It is perfectly valid to ask Ms. Forbes about how the training program works, where in her opinion this dog might fit in, and what may have gone wrong from her perspective. It is acceptable to ask her opinion of Ms. Hall’s reasons. The fact that the judge ruled in favor of the organization does not take away the need to apply the principle of fairness – as clearly, in this case, there was more than one side to the story. The motive and reasoning of the other party in the dispute is never clearly expressed or properly explained. If the interviewer had been able to put the other position more forcefully that might have been helpful, but this interview presented a one-sided view.

Even though the news aspect of this event is long over, as the court decision was released six months ago, with a little creative thinking, programmers can come up with a way to honor a commitment to ensure relevant perspectives are presented over time. The CBC policy actually states a reasonable period of time, a time frame not clearly defined. That has always been the concept embedded in this policy, but as one of the revisers of the Journalistic Standards and Practices (full disclosure) I can tell you the thinking was and is, that it is important to allow editorial and journalistic judgment to come into play here. In this case, perhaps the programmers could consider checking in on Gabby, the dog in question, and use the opportunity to supply the required balance.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman