Visible brands in news content

The complainant, Trevor Berry, was concerned about the fact that there were identifiable products in a series of photos illustrating a story on the economy. He likened this to product placement and thought it violated the prohibition of advertising in news items. Best practice is to avoid it, but there’s no need, by policy or by common sense, to purge every frame and photo.

COMPLAINT

You wrote that you were concerned that CBC had again used visible brands in illustrations of stories and thereby had “placed advertising in their news report photos.” The story you cited was entitled “Canada’s economy: 5 reasons not to panic”. The story has five illustrations, and one of them shows a credit card changing hands with the name Avion clearly legible. Another shows a McDonald’s sign in the background of a shot of a “help wanted” sign in a shop window. You considered this a breach of responsibility on the part of the team that published the article:

If the brands were not so professionally positioned in the images one might feign ignorance but these images clearly show brand names prominently in images that have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the article. These are simple random stock images and should have been vetted prior to public disclosure.

You added that with thought and planning it is possible to avoid the use of any marks or logos in the course of creating and editing content. You think it is important that news staff be made aware of the need to avoid the use of commercial signs or markings. You asked what safeguards have been put in place “to ensure that this kind of unintended exposure does not occur in the future.”

You accepted the assurance you were given that there was no payment for the use of this photograph. But you thought “that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen inadvertently.” You rejected the notion that some exposure is almost impossible to avoid, and that with proper oversight it can be done:

As I have been involved in professional photography I know exactly how much scrutiny each image is given, the thumb position on the credit card by chance is not only improbable it is scripted. The image is planned prior to shoot often including drawings and expected outcomes showing exactly what is expected. Each image is placed under close examination while eliminating unacceptable images in the proofs.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of CBCNews.ca, Lianne Elliott, replied to your concerns. She reminded you that CBC program policy prohibits all forms of advertising in news programs, including product placement. She wanted to assure you that companies whose logos appear in the photographs did not “pay CBC in any fashion and had no influence or control over the contents of the story.”

She added that in shooting in most cities in Canada, it would be almost impossible to avoid some company names or store signs being present in shots of urban environments. She noted that CBC policy acknowledges their prevalence and that they will show up incidentally in news stories. She said that four of the five photos used in this story were shot by an Associated Press or CBC photographer, and were selected “because our editors felt they illustrated specific aspects of the story.” She explained that the credit card photo was used to illustrate the high debt load carried by Canadians, much of it incurred through the use of credit cards. To illustrate the point, she added, the credit card had to be clearly shown. She also told you:

So while it is not advertising and the image was used only to illustrate an aspect of the story, it is also important that advertising adjacent to our news programs or images illustrating our stories do not create the perception that commercial interests are influencing our journalism. I regret you feel that is the case here, even though, as I have explained, I can assure you that it is not.

Nevertheless, in light of your concern, I have reminded our editors that care must be taken in selecting images to ensure that they cannot be perceived as advertising or promotion.

REVIEW

Your basic premise that wherever possible news footage should avoid prominent display of trademarks and commercial signs is a good one. It is a guide, it is not an absolute. The time and attention to ensure that not a single frame or photo bore any commercial information would take away from the more important part of journalism – capturing events as they happen, making them understandable and providing people with facts and information they can use to draw conclusions about issues or events.

This is what CBC program policies say about news and advertising:

Advertising on CBC/Radio-Canada services must not create the perception that CBC/Radio-Canada programs and Web services are being influenced by advertising or sponsorship messages scheduled in or adjacent to them. It must always be clear to audiences when products, services or points of view are being advertised.

CBC/Radio-Canada newscasts may not be sponsored. Advertising messages scheduled in news programs must be separate and distinct from the news components, and may not give the impression of news sponsorship or be mistaken as news items or bulletins.

Note it does not say that a product name can not be in a shot in the context of a longer news piece. While it is of course preferable to avoid prominent use of commercial signage, I am not sure of the value of spending a great deal of time and energy ensuring a shot does not have it. Perhaps the type of photography you did had drawings of expected outcomes – much of news is created on the fly. It would be nice to live in a world of absolutes, but we do not. The question becomes what is reasonable to expect, and what is reasonable to suppose about how people take in information. I cannot agree that the use of the photo of a McDonald’s sign in the background and the name of a credit card in a shot where the information being conveyed is that there is a transaction going on violates a principle.

You suggest airbrushing out offending material. The idea of airbrushing and altering news photos or footage raises another whole set of flags. News is what is real and what is around us. It is not accepted practice to alter the reality of what is recorded. You wouldn’t put a reporter recording a to-camera script right in front of a large store sign, if it was not relevant. But if there were store signs in the background, and it was appropriate to be on the street, then so be it. People are sophisticated enough to understand the context and pay attention to the information being conveyed.

Given the context and placement of the photograph in this piece, it would be pretty hard to imagine in what way it was a promotion or endorsement of McDonald’s. The very fact of it being in the background of the shot does not create an endorsement. The shot in question focuses on a “Help Wanted” sign – that is where the eye goes. The background, if noticed at all, actually tells me the help wanted is likely in some sort of mall, which provides some information about what kind of work is being offered.

There is no mention of advertising as such in CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. There is a statement about independence though. It is this:

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

You conclude that the images in this story somehow undermine that independence. As I read through the story online, I am drawn to the pictures for a quick glance and then move on to the rest of the text. The larger meaning of the photograph is what stays with me – there are jobs to be had, people use their credit cards too often.

I agree with you that editors and photographers should be mindful that commercial representation should be avoided. Ms. Elliott told you she did review this story with her staff. Citizens’ comments and complaints, as well as the Ombudsman’s reviews, are taken seriously and are discussed in the news department.

The use of these photographs did not violate journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman