Spin Cycle: It should come out in the wash

An analysis piece about the future exploitation of oilsands oil prompted John Darlow to complain that it was not analysis, nor an attempt at sorting out the truth. He thought it laid out facts to appear to support the position of an NDP candidate who said some of the oil might have to stay in the ground in order to achieve climate targets. I did not agree.

COMPLAINT

Early in August an NDP candidate, Linda McQuaig, spoke about oilsands development in the course of a panel discussion on the CBC News program Power and Politics. On the August 7th edition of the program she said that “the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we are going to meet our climate change targets.”

The statement brought condemnation from Conservative candidates and further clarification from her own party. On August 11th, CBCNews.ca published an analysis piece about the controversy under the title “Spin Cycle.” You were concerned the article affirmed Ms. McQuaig’s position by falsely linking two different ideas:

McQuaig stated that the reason to leave the oil in the ground was to meet environmental targets. The article states that the oil could be left in [the] ground because it’s too expensive to extract. The subheading and article are framed to falsely support McQuaig’s view but saying oil sands production should be limited to meet emissions targets vs oil be “stranded asset” oil due to costs are very different things. This article lends credibility to McQuaig’s view where it shouldn’t.

You questioned the “spin cycle” format because that would imply analysis and an attempt to get at the truth. You did not think that was in any way achieved:

I just feel the whole spin/rinse thing to be a further representation or promise that what is being presented is the truth. I think the article is not that and borders on innuendo and possibly the desire to just spin something in a different direction.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, who is a senior producer in the Parliamentary bureau and responsible for the online content published there, replied to your concerns. He explained that “Spin Cycle” is the title of a series of analysis pieces planned to run during the federal election campaign. He explained the purpose of the series is to examine “competing political statements on an issue.” The articles seek to get beyond the “message spin” and provide a range of expert opinion on the matter at hand. In this case, he explained:

... we were taking Ms McQuaig’s comment as a jumping off point and considering it as well as the counter-spin (from the Conservatives, mainly) that her point of view threatened the economy of Alberta and Canadians’ jobs, etc.

He said that two previous articles about Ms. McQuaig’s statement and its fallout “cover[ed] the environmental side of the issue.” He noted that there were prominent links to those stories in the body of the “Spin Cycle” piece:

Our Spin Cycle was not intended to go over this same ground, and although we acknowledge that Ms McQuaig’s stated rationale was environment sustainability, the piece makes clear that we are focusing on whether her statement had validity regardless of the reason. In other words, despite the denunciations that came in response to her remark, even oilsands proponents have said that most of the bitumen will be left in the ground - for a host of reasons, including environmental.

I think the subheading of our story tells that story clearly.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for accurate reporting, defined as seeking the truth in matters of public interest, and for the use of “skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.” Furthermore, the value of Impartiality dictates that “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” As Mr. Carter explained it, that is what the Spin Cycle analysis piece set out to do.

The piece was clearly labeled “Analysis/Spin Cycle.” It was entitled “Will all of the oilsands be developed?” and its subtitle, which you found problematic, was “Toronto Centre NDP candidate not the only one to suggest some oilsands ‘may have to be left in the ground.’” Headlines are tricky – they compress a great deal of information and are written with the goal of enticing readers to actually read the article. But they should not be misleading. I see your point that one could think others also think they will not be developed for environmental reasons. However, that is not inaccurate – there are others who believe that for environmental reasons not all of the oilsands might be developed. There are other reasons as well, and those are explored as the article branches out from Ms. McQuaig’s statements to the broader examination of the issue. There is no inaccuracy here, and there is no endorsement of her view. The article explains the reasons why others think there won’t be full exploitation of the resource. That is not an endorsement of her reasoning.

To put this all in context, the whole episode began on a Power and Politics panel which had actually been convened to comment on the first leaders’ debate, which had been held the night before. In that forum, Ms. McQuaig stated that “oilsands may have to stay in the ground”. Her Conservative opponent, Michelle Rempel said that this would kill jobs at a time when the industry was going through a period of instability. The host of the program, Rosemary Barton, pushed Ms. McQuaig to clarify her position and she stated:

Some of it may have to. We’ll know that better once we properly put in place a climate change accountability system of some kind. And we’ll know that better once we have a proper review process for our environmental projects like pipelines . . .

The CBCNews.ca analysis begins by reviewing some of what had been said, including follow-up NDP statements to clarify the position. There were also links to previous articles, both in a box beside the body of text, and within it. That was characterized as “the spin.” The reaction to the statements from other parties was also noted, and that was characterized as the “counter-spin.” For example, the article quotes Stephen Harper saying that the NDP has a “not so hidden agenda” and that the party “is consistently against the development of our resources and our economy.” There is more than one view presented here.

The article then goes on to provide a wider view of the issue. It does go beyond the environmental issue and is clear that it does so. The thrust is that for whatever reason, only a fraction of oil is likely to be extracted:

McQuaig’s comments certainly ignited criticism from other parties, and clarification from her own party, but she isn’t alone in arguing the oilsands resource is unlikely to be fully developed.

The oilsands contain 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, but right now about 168 billion barrels are deemed recoverable with today’s technology. Without new developments, the vast majority of the oily bitumen in northern Alberta will stay in the ground... While McQuaig was talking about environmental policy, her comments touch on the broader issue of stranded assets.

The article then goes on to explain “stranded assets” and what some of the factors are that create the conditions that a resource might not be available.

The analysis lays out the position of various parties, and then provides a much broader context to think about the future development of assets and some of the challenges and factors any government of the day may face.

The article ends with what is dubbed “the rinse,” a synthesis of the arguments presented. This kind of analysis, based on research and expertise, is within the boundaries of policy. The “spin, counter-spin, rinse” metaphor shaped the format of the article. It might be a bit awkward but it does not make it biased. The information conveyed is based on facts. It affirms the notion that not all of the oilsands will be developed and provides a range of reasons why this is so. In that sense, you can see it as “lending credibility” to Ms. McQuaig’s statement. It does not necessarily endorse her position – that oil will not be developed to meet emission control goals. That is one factor in the equation, and other credible sources endorse it. The article found that there are many reasons why that is the case. It leaves citizens with more information to form their own conclusions.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman