Deadline vs. Duty: Taking the time to get all sides of the story

The complainant, Annette Lengyel, objected to a cbcnews.ca story about a Toronto-area teacher being investigated for part of an address she made at an Al Quds rally. She thought CBC News was repeating a smear campaign and had falsely associated her with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She thought CBC news had no business basing the story on a B’nai Brith news release about the complaint to the teacher’s school board. A teacher being investigated for public statements is a legitimate story in the public interest. I found that there was no merit to the accusation that the story condemned her. I did find that there was not sufficient effort to present her position, given the stakes.

COMPLAINT

You contacted CBC News directly to express your concerns about an article published July 13, 2016 on the CBCnews.ca site. The article concerned an investigation that had started into the activities of a teacher for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario. The teacher, Nadia Shoufani, had been a speaker at an Al-Quds rally held in Toronto earlier in the month, and the Board was investigating her based on some of her remarks at that event. One of your concerns was the source of the complaint, and the impetus for CBC News to cover the story. B’nai Brith Canada had put out a news release which led CBC to publish a news article about it. You thought the CBC story misrepresented what she had to say, merely repeated the accusations of the B’nai Brith news release, and that should have been made clear in the article:

Ms. Shoufani was a speaker at an annual public event that bears witness to long standing injustices, and was not acting in her capacity as a school teacher. Thus the nature of the attack against her--to go after her job by accusing her of being connected to terrorism--struck me as hateful and Islamophobic in the extreme, and the fact that the CBC was presenting a one-sided, uncontextualized story by repeating accusations against her by lobbyists for a foreign government who want to see her punished was shocking.

You also said that the article made it appear that Ms. Shoufani had “glorified terrorism” and had supported the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group the Canadian government has deemed a terrorist organization. You said that reading the article left the impression that Ms. Shoufani highlighted the PFLP, and this misrepresented the facts:

The teacher did not once talk about the PFLP in her speech, yet based on the inferences you make in your article, the reader would think that's all she talked about! This paragraph is very problematic and contains factual errors:

Nadia Shoufani, a teacher at St. Catherine of Siena Separate School in Mississauga, called Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer killed in 1972, a "martyr," and criticized the detention of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, a Lebanese militant imprisoned in France for killing two U.S. and Israeli officials.

Both are linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

"Palestine will be liberated. Glory to the martyrs," she said to a crowd at the International Al-Quds Day rally on July 2 behind Queen's Park in Toronto. "We have the right to fight back. We have the right to resist," she said.

You pointed out that “all Palestinians killed by Israelis are considered martyrs, and this is a fact that should have been provided, along with the information that “the Israelis have murdered thousands of Palestinian civilians”:

It was the misrepresentation of what Ms. Shoufani said, along with a lack of context that made this article so unfair, unbalanced and a smear campaign against an individual who was exercising her free speech rights.

The CBC has acted shamefully in indulging in clear bias, failing to tell the real story in a balanced way, alleging that somehow this teacher is connected to an "extremist group" by echoing those that accuse her, and joining this pack of wolves in attacking her. I would say that the teacher would have a case against the CBC for this unprofessional behaviour.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Pras Rajagopalan, an Executive Producer with CBCNews.ca in Toronto, replied to your letters of complaint. He told you that he thought CBC News “reported accurately and fairly” on the story. He pointed out that nowhere in the story did it say that Ms. Shoufani spoke about the PFLP directly, nor did it imply that she was connected to the organization. He added that the story was not directly about the PFLP or the men associated with it, but rather was focused on the complaint against the teacher.

He did not agree with your concern that the evidence against the PFLP was from the 1960s and 1970s and that the teacher was linked to these events by association:

The group is listed by the Canadian government as a terrorist entity. We were provided relevant background when we reported on incidents in the 70s and 2000s that the government says PFLP is responsible for. I don't believe we implied the teacher was guilty, either directly or by association; rather, we reported on the complaints made against her and the fact that she was being investigated.

He told you that the news team will continue to monitor developments in the investigation, and to report on them.

REVIEW

There are several parts of the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices that are relevant here. The first consideration is one of accuracy. Is the story factually correct, and does it adhere to the policy of presenting the information in a fair and even-handed way? Another consideration is the need to provide members of the public with the facts they need to form their own conclusions.

There is no issue of accuracy. The words ascribed to Ms. Shoufani were what she said. It provides several other quotes, and they do not distort the tone of the message she delivered. The story also provides a video of her speaking so that readers of the article could form their own judgments. You say there is an inference that she supports terrorism and is somehow connected to the PFLP. I do not think a careful reading of the article leads to that conclusion:

Nadia Shoufani, a teacher at St. Catherine of Siena Separate School in Mississauga, called Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer killed in 1972, a "martyr," and criticized the detention of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, a Lebanese militant imprisoned in France for killing two U.S. and Israeli officials.

Both are linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The explanation that both people she mentioned are linked to the organization is important to understand why there had been a complaint and investigation launched. In order to make sense of the story, it is necessary to cite the areas that were cause for concern to those who complained about it. The story further provides details that the PFLP is a group that the Canadian government lists as a “terrorist entity.” The details of some of its actions also provide more information for people to form a judgment.

Both the reporter and producer of the piece acknowledge they became aware of the case via news release from B’nai Brith. They then worked to confirm as many of the details in it before writing the story, adding more information as it became available. The story also mentions that the school board decided to investigate based on complaints from several sources, “including the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and B’nai Brith Canada.” The inclusion of that information provides readers with details that enable them to reach their own conclusions. You find it objectionable that CBC News used the B’nai Brith news release as the starting point of the story. Your own views of B’nai Brith are yours to hold, but CBC News is not bound by them. This is what was reported:

Bruce Campbell, general manager of communications and community relations for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, said Wednesday an investigation has begun. He said the matter was brought to the board's attention through a number of sources, including the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and B'nai Brith Canada.

"The board was made aware of this issue last week and is investigating," Campbell said. "Given the serious nature of the issue, we would look to reach a resolution as quickly as possible."

You raise another important issue in your complaint - that of the potential damage to the reputation of this teacher where no finding has yet been made. The fact that there is an investigation is legitimately public knowledge. It raises important issues about freedom of expression and the obligations of employees to their employers, and if that can impose limits to speech or activity. In the case of CBC journalists, for example, there are clear restrictions. It is on this aspect of the reporting that the CBC team might have done better. Responsible journalism dictates that serious effort be made to get a response from the subject of a story where accusations are being made within a reasonable period of time. I explored this question with the writer and producer. The writer tells me she sent Ms. Shoufani a Facebook message, and sent me a screenshot which indicates it was “seen” by the recipient. That was fairly late in the evening, and the story was published the next morning. The team went on to try other means to get Ms. Shoufani’s reaction or position after the initial publication. She chose, as is her right, to decline to respond. Having said that, there was no time pressure, and publishing within hours of the first attempt to reach her does not meet journalistic standards. In a case like this, when someone’s reputation is in question, more effort, including finding surrogates to put Ms. Shoufani’s position, is necessary. Taking a little more time to flesh out Ms. Shoufani’s position would have addressed the issue of balance and fairness more satisfactorily. I note in his response to you, Mr. Rajagopalan has committed to following up this story and reporting its outcome. He mentioned to me that they had just checked in with the school board for an update on the status of the investigation, although there was nothing new yet to report.

You raise the issue of context. You thought the piece should have more detail about the plight of Palestinians as a backdrop to the remarks. The focus and subject of this piece was that a school board was investigating an employee for public remarks made about a controversial issue, not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself. In the note the news writer, Muriel Draaisma, sent to Ms. Shoufani, she asked her if she thought it was fair that she was being investigated, and did she see it as an infringement of her right to free speech. The question of balancing rights and professional obligation is implicit in the news story, and it is why it is in the public interest to report on it at all. Providing more context around that question - for example, what the policy of the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board is on employees speaking publicly - might have made it more apparent and provided some more balance. I am told that the school board was not very forthcoming on any of the details. Balance and fairness can and should be achieved over time. CBC News has made a commitment to report developments in this story. It will provide opportunity to provide greater context, and on a more basic level to ensure that the outcome is known, which is an obligation of CBC policy. The article fell short of the policy requirement to “invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman