Balance and Opinion - Finding the sweet spot

CBC’s Trending feature published an article about a twitter attack on the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign photo showing him eating KFC with a knife and fork. The complainant, Taylor MacPherson, considered the piece opinion and questioned the value and purpose of the story. Using Twitter as a source was not the issue, but some of the language in the piece did cross over to opinion.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that an article published on the CBCNews.ca page under the “Trending” section was “rife with opinion and blatantly” and took sides in the United States election. You thought it inappropriate that such a piece should be published under the news heading. You also pointed out that the piece, entitled Donald Trump invites ridicule for eating KFC with a knife and fork, was based on a series of tweets which you did not think “constituted actual news.” You thought that was an inappropriate use of resources for the CBC:

I believe most Canadians would hesitate to tell you that they pay taxes so reporters can troll Twitter for "news" all day.

You were also concerned that the creator of the piece had “cherry-picked” the tweets featured to present a one-sided view of the reaction to Mr. Trump and there was no attempt at providing a balanced viewpoint. The issue at hand here was a photo of Mr. Trump eating Kentucky Fried chicken with a knife and fork, which invited many comments about the fact that the convention is to eat the food with one’s hands. You cited the first sentence of the piece to indicate that this was only opinion and not news.

The piece opens with the line "Another day, another reason why Donald Trump shouldn't have a Twitter account." This is clearly not "news" as it is labelled, and has no business being promoted as such.

You characterized this article as “an open condemnation of a foreign political candidate”, which is inappropriate. You said many Canadians support Trump and this reinforced their view of CBC as “left-leaning.” In further correspondence you added:

In the story your writer insinuates that Trump's "signature spin" is to lie to the public blatantly. In addition, the piece states: "Some Twitter users pointed out the photo was also a racist attempt at courting the black vote." What this should read is: "Some Twitter users pointed out the photo was, in their [incorrect, probably Ryerson-educated] opinion also a racist attempt at courting the black vote." Stating other people's opinion as fact is just as bad as labelling your own opinions as "news," and I would like to see a correction/retraction made to ensure that the public is aware of where CBC actually stands on this issue.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBCNews.ca, Steven Ladurantaye, replied to your complaint. He told you that he agreed that the “piece slipped too far toward opinion.” He also agreed that to start the piece by saying Mr. Trump should not have a twitter account was not appropriate. He told you he asked staff to rewrite the beginning and the article now starts with the sentence “The slogan isn’t ‘utensil lickin’ good for a reason.” He added that the story was “meant to be cheeky but it should also be fair.” He also said that it is important not to “take the tweets of a few and mistake them for the opinions of many.”

He also told you that the story was written by the “Trending desk” and that the purpose of the feature is to source stories from social media. It looks at what is attracting a lot of attention on Twitter and social media - trending - and features a sampling of the conversation. He said it is acceptable to use social media as a source of news.

Essentially, they try to capture the online conversations that are dominating feeds on any given day and put them into context for readers. I don’t agree that Twitter isn’t a source of “actual news,” though completely agree that not all stories sourced on Twitter (or any other social media platform) are created equal.

Mr. Ladurantaye agreed that the part of the story that dealt with the accusation that the piece was a “racist attempt at courting the black vote” did not accurately reflect the tweets involved:

While some Twitter users may have suggested it was pandering, that sentence actually suggests that eating fried chicken is an act of racial pandering. There is no evidence to support this claim…

He pointed out that there have been hundreds of articles about Donald Trump and the U.S. election campaign on the CBC news site, and that balance is achieved over time. He added that this was a light-hearted offering, and it seemed unlikely that “a story about a candidate’s eating habits will sway too many Canadians one way or the other.”

REVIEW

I note that Mr. Ladurantaye acknowledged that this piece violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in veering too far into opinion in its opening statement, and asked that it be changed. I also note that change was made before your complaint arrived at this office, and that Mr. Ladurantaye took the opportunity to review the matter with his staff. The new story reflects that change.

This is what CBC policy has to say about Opinion.

Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day.

When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.

When we choose to present a single point of view:

• it is clearly labeled, and

• it does not misrepresent other points of view.

Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.

The question here becomes a matter of selection process and the context in which the material is used. There is nothing inherently wrong in repeating what others are saying. In some ways social media is the new version of what we used to call “streeters” - random questioning of people in public places about some issue of the day. It must be presented for what it is - and not make claims for a broader reflection. The numbers of tweets are greater than the sample in a few interviews outside the mall, but it is not scientific measurement of public sentiment. So saying that “some Twitter users say…” is legitimate. In this case, the issue is not citing other’s opinions, but that it was not an accurate characterization of the tweets that followed. There is no implicit mention that there is racism, and the word should not have been used. The article reads:

Some Twitter users pointed out the photo was also a racist attempt at courting the black vote.

Mr. Ladurantaye acknowledged that this was not appropriate. It should also be changed as it does not meet CBC standards. While the trending section of the site is more feature-oriented and a little more relaxed, it should adhere to JSP.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the trending feature having a home on the CBC News site. To say that social media has no place in news coverage flies in the face of the reality of contemporary media and the role individuals and various platforms play. To be sure, it requires vigilance and verification, but there is no doubt it is a legitimate part of the news landscape and helps shape public discourse. I note “The New Ethics of Journalism, published in 2014 by the Poynter Institute has a chapter entitled “Storytelling in the Digital Age.” News that excludes this kind of material is a narrow interpretation of what news is. It is not the issue here.

The story, by admission of Mr. Ladurantaye, fell short in several respects. The choice to feature it was based on the fact that it was topical and truly was trending that day. You asked why there were not any supportive tweets put in to provide balance. I asked Mr. Ladurantaye and he told me that there really weren’t any. Twitter tends to attract those who are critical - it seems to encourage sarcastic observation rather than effusive praise. By its very nature this topic was less than earth-shattering. It was dealing with twitter users’ reactions to Donald Trump eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with a knife and fork. It would not have been the subject of an analysis column, or been featured in the “World” section. Its placement signals its context. Trending articles deal with newsy and sometimes serious topics but it can also be lighthearted and focus on matters of particular interest to social media users, like the offering on Emojis.

It is hard to imagine the degree of influence this would have on people’s views of Mr. Trump. If anything, the world of social media tends to be an echo chamber - like-minded talking to like-minded. I have more faith that members of the public inform themselves on something more substantial than an article like this. If this was the sole source of CBC news coverage, you might have a point. The “Trending” feature does appear on the CBCNews.ca home page, but it is also clearly delineated as a subsection - the same way there is a sampling from Arts and Entertainment, a section called “Offbeat” as well as the more traditional world news, politics, etc. All CBC platforms have devoted a great deal of time and space to coverage of the United States election and its candidates.

This article did not adhere to standards. CBC Managers have reviewed the story with the writers and editors involved to learn from its shortcomings.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman