Headline Peril -- Hype vs. Accuracy

CBC News in Montreal published a story about SNC-Lavalin and illegal political contributions they had given to the Liberal and Conservative parties over a 7-year period. The complainant, Beverly Akerman, thought the headline featuring Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre made it sound like he knew about the payment to his riding association when he was an MP. I agree that the headline implied guilt and there was a violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that a CBCNews.ca article highlighting illegal contributions to political parties made by SNC-Lavalin singled out one Member of Parliament even though many other riding associations and Liberal Leadership candidates received payment as well. Elections Canada had recently informed the recipients the contributions were not legal. The article was titled Denis Coderre’s riding association received illegal funds from SNC-Lavalin while he was Liberal MP.You thought this unfairly targeted Mr. Coderre, currently the Mayor of Montreal, in a “pre-election period.” You noted the next municipal election is just a year away and it felt like a “political smear campaign.”

You stated the article also featured a large photo of Mr. Coderre, with the words “illegal funds” above it. You thought it left a clear impression that he was guilty. You asked since there were other riding associations mentioned, why those MPs were not named as well. You noted the cumulative effect of the story on other platforms contributed to the impression Mr. Coderre was culpable.

What I find incredible is the way Denis Coderre's name is highlighted, creating the suggestion that he did something wrong in his riding having accepted $1000 of this amount. Meanwhile, none of the actual SNC-Lavalin miscreants are named, and no other politician singled out (leadership campaigns are mentioned, but way down in the story)!

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC Quebec, Helen Evans, responded to your complaint.

She explained the story was based on information from the Commissioner of Elections Canada about the illegal contributions made by SNC-Lavalin employees and senior executives to various political parties between 2004 and 2011. She told you CBC Montreal found out which Montreal ridings were involved. She added that the information released did not provide a lot of detail, but one of the Liberal associations which received money was in Mr. Coderre’s riding at the time he was a Member of Parliament for Bourassa. She thought this noteworthy.

We specifically noted it in the story because we feel this information is in the public interest, especially since Coderre is now the mayor of Montreal.

She disagreed that the article suggested or stated that Mr. Coderre knew anything about the $1,000.00 donation. She pointed out that as well, a follow-up story quoted him saying he had no knowledge of the contribution.

She explained that the SNC-Lavalin staff involved were not named because that information was not made public by the Elections Canada Commissioner. She also explained why another riding, Outremont, was mentioned but the MP was not named:

We do not know if the donation was made to the Liberal riding office while the riding had a Liberal MP. We could not further identify other MPs or candidates who’s riding offices received illegal donations because, as we say in our story, the Commissioner of Elections Canada office would not narrow down the dates of the donations any further than the 7-year span provided.

She noted the article also named the Liberal leadership candidates who received funds from SNC-Lavalin. She explained the news team could only report the details that could be confirmed, and while Mr. Coderre was featured because of his current office, there was no intention to imply he was guilty or to single him out.

REVIEW

You had two concerns about the stories regarding SNC-Lavalin’s illegal political payments: the article was biased because of its focus on Mr. Coderre and it implied he was aware of the SNC-Lavalin contribution. This touches on fundamental principles of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices -- fairness, balance and accuracy.

You questioned why Mr. Coderre was singled out and featured so heavily in the story. The fact is that public figures are accountable. Since he was the MP for Bourassa at that time, it is appropriate to point it out, especially since he is still in a position of power. Ms. Evans explained why, while other riding associations were named, he was the only MP mentioned - the news team was working with limited information. That fact is reflected in the article:

The federal elections commissioner would not provide the names of those who made contributions or the specific year when the contributions were made, citing an ongoing investigation.

In the absence of such details, it was only possible to identify Coderre, the sole Liberal to serve for the full period between 2004 and 2011 in the aforementioned ridings.

The article also mentioned the Liberal leadership candidates who were recipients of these donations: Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion. It is in the public interest to know who received these donations.

The article itself made it clear that the wrongdoing sat squarely with SNC-Lavalin. In the text, there is no implication that Mr. Coderre knew the grant was illegal - rather that he was the MP at the time:

When Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre​ was a Liberal MP, his riding association in Bourassa received $1,000 in illegal donations from SNC-Lavalin, the federal elections commissioner revealed Thursday.

His Montreal-area riding association was one of several Liberal and Conservative riding associations that received illegal donations from the engineering giant.

Where the article falls down is in the headline. The purpose of a headline is to attract readers in a very compressed fashion. I understand using the name of a well-known Montreal figure would attract attention for a report on the Montreal news page. However, the headline cannot sacrifice accuracy. I think it did so. Without reading the article, the sentence “Denis Coderre’s riding association received illegal funds from SNC-Lavalin while he was Liberal MP” is too ambiguous, and left the impression that he was implicated directly. The headline created a false impression and violated CBC policy. I recommend it be amended to reflect the fact there is no evidence Mr. Coderre knew of the origins of the thousand dollar contribution to his riding association.

I note that the next day CBC news staff ran a piece with his denial of any knowledge prominently headlined Denis Coderre says he knew nothing of illegal funds sent to Liberal riding association while he was MP.” CBC journalistic policy on balance refers to achieving it over a reasonable period of time. However, when there is a question of reputation, it is important to seek a response from the individual affected, and give him a reasonable time to reply. In fact, in this case the story was published first, and then Mr. Coderre was approached for a response. I strongly urge news management to remind reporters and editors there are times, in the interest of fairness, the subject of a story should be approached before publication, and a reasonable time given to get a response.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman