Fairness in Ford Nation

The complainant, Jacqueline Bell, thought that repeated use of the name of one candidate, Michael Ford, and references to the “Ford dynasty” on the day of a municipal by-election to fill the seat formerly held by Rob Ford, violated the need for balance and fair coverage. She was concerned this focus appeared to be an endorsement of a specific candidate. I did not agree. It was the Ford name that made this by-election newsworthy.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that CBC News coverage of the Municipal By-election in Etobicoke North gave unfair advantage to one candidate. You said:

...at every hourly CBC TORONTO newscast, there was an item outlining the fact that Michael Ford, who was running for councillor in a Toronto By-election, was the nephew of the former councillor and Mayor, Rob Ford, and was involved with Ford Nation. And the big question was asked if he would get the support to follow in the Ford Dynasty.

You felt that mentioning him gave him an unfair advantage because the other candidates were not mentioned. You said that later in the day a few were named, but there were 12 names on the ballot. You thought this was a source of “free advertising” and appeared to be an endorsement of a candidate. You asked:

Is that a fair election practice?

Does this not contravene some sort of elections act that prevents media campaigning on the day of the election?

If Michael Ford was to be outlined, shouldn't the other candidates been afforded the same courtesy?

You said you found the coverage “offensive and undemocratic.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Marissa Nelson, the Senior Managing Director for Ontario, responded to your complaint. She apologized for the tardiness of the reply. She told you that she did not agree with your assessment and that CBC News coverage of the by-election was “fair and accurate in all respects.” She provided you with an outline of what was carried on newscasts and local programming throughout the day. She provided the script of the segment that ran throughout the morning show, Metro Morning, up until noon on July 25:

The polls in Ward 2 - - Etobicoke-North - - are now open.

Voters are casting ballots in a by-election today...

To decide who will fill the council seat left vacant by the late Rob Ford.

There are a dozen people vying for the job - - and voting booths will be open until at 8 o'clock tonight.

For profiles on all the candidates, go to our website: CBC.ca/Toronto.

She acknowledged that in the early afternoon newscasts, a segment ran that framed the discussion around the legacy of the Ford family, and that the late councillor Rob Ford’s nephew, Michael, was a candidate. She also pointed out that the piece itself was balanced by the voice of a supporter and from someone else who would not be voting for him. She added that the piece ended with a mention of two other candidates by name.

She explained the stories were framed in that fashion because election coverage is about news, and the expectation is for equitable, and not equal, coverage:

What was newsworthy here was that the Ford family, which had held the Etobicoke city councillor’s seat for years, looked set to continue dominating politics in the Toronto suburb. Despite former Mayor Rob Ford’s years of scandalous behavior, area residents seemed prepared to vote for the disgraced mayor’s 22-year-old nephew largely on the basis of his name even though he seemingly had little relevant experience.

REVIEW

This is what CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has to say about covering an election:

Canadians expect us to provide a wide range of information and context so that they can make decisions during election and referendum campaigns.

We ensure that the facts and analysis we present on issues, candidates and parties is timely, accurate, fair and balanced over the course of the campaign.

We give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment. This does not necessarily mean equal broadcast time.

In this case, the leading candidate was mentioned by name on several occasions, particularly in the afternoon. That did not seem to be the case in the morning period. Ms. Nelson provided you the actual script run throughout the morning. While it mentioned the fact that the by-election was being held because of Rob Ford’s death, it does not mention any candidate by name.

Ms. Nelson also informed told you that at 3:30 p.m. a story that specifically referenced Michael Ford ran, but mentioned two other candidates as well. This is a transcript of that report:

SOUND UP OF STREETER:

Well, that is a popular name around here.

TREVOR DUNN:

At this Kipling Avenue strip mall the Ford name goes a long way. Rob Ford served as the Ward 2 councillor for more than a decade. The Ford family business is based here. Now Rob Ford's nephew Michael is hoping to become Ward 2's next councillor. Some voters like Matty Jama think he can do it.

CLIP:

Most people will know the name Rob Ford family being here for a while. And the legacy will go on.

TREVOR DUNN:

While Michael Ford may have the most popular name on the ballot, some people say he doesn't have the experience to win. Mohammet Mahmoud says it's an issue for him and his friends.

CLIP:

He's just a kid. He's 22 years old. He has no experience.

TREVOR DUNN:

There are 11 other candidates on the ballot including small business owner Jeff Canning and Community Development Worker Chloe-Marie Brown. Each hoping residents here will vote not for a name but for a break from the past.

That story ran at least once more through the afternoon period. CBC Toronto News also runs 90 second updates on the half hour throughout the day. It was during the afternoon that mention of Michael Ford running was most present. The news presenter read:

Voting is underway to fill former Mayor Rob Ford's old city council seat in Ward 2. The by-election could be a test of the ex-Mayor's legacy in the heart of so-called Ford Nation. Ford's nephew is running along with 11 other candidates. Rob Ford died back in March from a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Although not mentioned by name, there is a reference to Michael Ford. In other newscasts some of the other candidates were also mentioned. The use of the Ford name even when Michael was not specifically mentioned may have given the impression it was always used. News does not exist in a vacuum. News does not create the narrative, it reflects it. The reason for the by-election was the death of the former mayor. Before that, his brother, Doug Ford, had held the riding. Mentioning that another Ford was running was in context. It was accurate to say this election was about the Fords’ political staying power.

News is defined by what is new and what makes something noteworthy. It is unlikely that a municipal by-election in any other ward in the city would have received the same degree of coverage. The thing that made this newsworthy is that this was, in fact, the seat held by the late mayor, and that there was an attempt to keep it in the family. That might seem like an unfair advantage, but focusing attention elsewhere would be equally unacceptable - as it would paint a false picture of the reality on the ground.

Your concern about all the candidates being fairly treated is an important one. But the fact is, even during the campaign, the reality is that not all of them have an equal chance to win. CBC News ensured that listeners knew there were other candidates by drawing attention to information on the website. It would be neither effective nor practical to list all twelve of them each time, and as previously noted, Mr. Dunn and others did mention two of the other candidates on some occasions.

Had CBC News aired a profile of the lead candidate, or provided him air time on election day, that would be a different matter. The coverage on that day reflected the context and reality of the politics in the ward and the issue in the by-election. However, your concerns are an important reminder about how scrupulous programmers should be in looking at the big picture in their news coverage, not just one part of the day. The afternoon 90 second “news breaks” that run at the bottom of the clock did not have to mention the Ford candidate each time.

CBC policy on balance talks about a period of time and across platforms. Of course, during an election that time frame has to be condensed but those who wished to be informed had access to the information they needed to make an informed choice over the course of the by-election period. There was no violation of policy. I do note that the by-election in Etobicoke was on July 25th, and you did not receive a response until September. When it comes to complaints dealing with elections, I would ask CBC management to ensure a response as quickly as possible.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman