Journalistic Truth -- One Piece At a Time

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, thought a story on The National about Liberal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef was a journalistic failure. He considered it a “cover-up” to counter criticism of the minister and the entire Liberal government. He asked why details of Ms. Monsef’s life story were reported as fact when a contradiction had just been revealed and there was no way CBC journalists knew for sure it was true. The story focused on reaction to the revelation while other coverage explored other perspectives. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You had concerns about The National’s September 22, 2016 coverage of a controversy over the birthplace of Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions. That day the Globe and Mail ran a story stating that contrary to what Ms. Monsef had said in the past; that she was born in Iran and not Afghanistan. You had several objections to the segment that The National carried that night. You thought that the tone of the report lacked “skepticism”, that it took at face value Ms. Monsef’s statement that she did not know that she was born and spent some early years in Iran. You thought the tone should have been far more questioning. You wondered how CBC journalists could simply repeat Ms. Monsef’s version of her life story and accept that she did not know until this story broke, where she was born.

I would also put forward that just because members of Canada's political parties are all treating her as a victim; it is not the role of television journalists to necessarily follow their lead.

You found other shortcomings in the report. You said that there was no mention of the fact that Ms. Monsef was a cabinet minister, and that she was “portrayed as a sad little girl” rather than a minister who had “major responsibility over our lives and future.” You added that the framing of the story made it sound like there was very little criticism of this event, and that the only two Members of Parliament quoted were members of the NDP rather than a member of the Conservative Party, which is the official opposition. You added that Tony Clement, a senior Conservative MP and contender for leadership of that party had much harsher criticism of Ms. Monsef. You noted that he was calling for Ms. Monsef to resign from cabinet and for an investigation into her explanation for the discrepancy in her birthplace.

You were concerned that the rest of Ms. Monsef’s narrative - that her family were refugees and that her father was killed in the Afghan conflict - was repeated without any doubt. You wondered why the entire narrative was accepted without question, in the absence of any proof. You thought this treatment of the story showed bias in favor of the Liberal government:

Overall, the CBC report seemed to be more of a cover-up or one tailored to reduce criticism of Ms. Monsef, in particular, and the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau as a whole.

You thought that CBC journalists should be exploring and reporting on all the details of Ms. Monsef’s story.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He pointed out that particular segment on The National followed a day of coverage on radio, News Network and on-line. He said there had been coverage of various opposition members, Tony Clement among them, over the course of the day, and that Stockwell Day, a former Conservative party leader, had participated in a discussion on CBC News’ political programme, Power & Politics. He explained that there were few new developments in the story since it had initially broken in the Globe and Mail that morning, so the editorial decision was taken to focus on the muted political reaction, which news staff considered unusual.

He also noted that the story did make reference to the fact that Ms. Monsef was a cabinet minister and it included footage of her being sworn in as a minister. The segment also mentioned that the rest of her story had not changed. He added that television news reports are brief and cannot include all the details of a story.

Even complex events and their significance must be conveyed quickly and clearly and, of course, fairly. Inevitably some things are left out, but that does not mean the story is “biased” or an example of poor journalism. By definition, news is about what is new. Enough basic information about a story is included to make that clear, but reporters cannot reasonably be expected to include all the information available in every story.

He also informed you that if there are further developments in this story, CBC News is committed to reporting them.

REVIEW

You question the journalistic responsibility to ensure that everything reported is “true” when you cite the repetition of Ms. Monsef’s narrative of life in Iran and Afghanistan, and the family’s search for safety in Canada. You go to the heart of some complex journalistic issues. Journalists, and CBC journalistic policy are committed to seeking out the truth - by accurately reporting the facts and providing a range of perspectives to create a context about those facts. In “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel they say “‘journalistic truth’ means more than mere accuracy: “It is a sorting out process that takes place between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers, and journalists.” (p.55) You are very critical of the perpetuation of what you see as a “victimhood” of the minister. You are entitled to draw that conclusion based on the facts that are known. Neither the Globe story nor any of her critics have disproved the other details of Ms. Monsef’s story - that her father was murdered, and that the family was forced to flee. Reporters are obliged to present the facts that are known at the time with any relevant context to help citizens make their own judgments. It is not a static process, as was the case of this story as it developed through the day. Kovacs and Rosenstiel go on to say:

The truth is a complicated and sometimes contradictory phenomenon, but it if is seen as a process over time, journalism can get at it. First by stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation or self-promoting bias and then by letting community react, in the sorting-out process that ensues. As always, the search for truth is a conversation. (p.58)

The information about Ms. Monsef’s birthplace and her explanation for the disparity had just been made public that day. It was the beginning of the process. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP) states that balance is achieved over time. Over the course of that day, and subsequently, CBC News published a range of views. You specifically cite Mr. Clement as an example of a “more strident” reaction to the day’s announcement. It may have been tougher than the MPs quoted in Mr. Cochrane’s report on The National, but it is a matter of interpretation whether it was strident. As you quoted:

“It’s a very strange story and there has to be more of an investigation” into whether a “false affidavit” was used as a statement of declaration for Monsef to be granted Canadian citizenship, he said.

“I’m not saying that she misrepresented, I’m just saying that there was a false affidavit somewhere that was signed that we have to find out what the circumstances were around that,”

It is not a violation of policy that this particular viewpoint was not in The National’s piece. It was reflected elsewhere in the coverage, through comments from Stockwell Day and Michelle Rempel. Mr. Clement was quoted in subsequent coverage. The editorial decision was made to focus on political reaction, rather than the revelation itself, because the feeling was that there was not much new to report after the day-long coverage. There is another relevant section of the JSP that states:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

In the judgment of news staff, the overall political reaction was not as raucous or critical as it might have been. CBC News teams approached individual MPs as they arrived or departed the House of Commons. The incident was not raised in Question Period that day. It was that news angle they chose to pursue. The script clearly indicated she was a member of the cabinet. As Mr. Spandier stated, there was a visual reminder with the use of her swearing-in ceremony and in the very first line of Mr. Cochrane’s script:

Normally when a cabinet minister's story isn't true, the opposition will attack. But not today.

Later in the report he referred to her as “Maryam Monsef, the democratic reform minister.” In fact the whole premise of the story was that a sitting cabinet minister is getting off lightly when a contradiction in her very public story was brought to light. That hardly framed it as a “victim” narrative. The report also clearly laid out what had been revealed and the questions it raised:

She and her sisters were born nearly 400 kilometres away in Iran—something Monsef says her mother didn't reveal until last week after the "Globe and Mail" investigated. "She told us she did not think it mattered. We were Afghan citizens, as we were born to Afghan parents, and under Iranian law, we would not be considered Iranian citizens." None of this changes the fact that Monsef was a refugee, nor that her parents fled Afghanistan to escape the violence. Nor that her father was killed near the Afghanistan/Iran border in 1988. What does change is the country of her birth—something that wasn't discovered when she was vetted for a cabinet post. Despite that, the government insists Monsef was put through a rigorous vetting process that included both CSIS and the RCMP. And, Peter, Monsef's office tells us tonight that the minister is in the process of updating her official documents, including putting her newly-discovered birthplace on her passport.

There is no journalistic violation in repeating the details of her family’s experiences in Iran and Afghanistan. There had not been any indication in the Globe story that those details were untrue. One of the consequences of this revelation is that Ms. Monsef’s story undoubtedly will be under even more scrutiny. Her explanation that her mother had never set the record straight was appropriately reported. It is up to you and others, and the ongoing work of journalists, to substantiate that explanation. Your push for probing deeper is a sound one, but its absence in this piece does not condemn the coverage. Reporters can only report what they know at the time of publication. It is the start of the process of getting at a deeper truth or understanding. The Ottawa bureau chief, Rob Russo, has told me they are actively pursuing the story because it does raise many issues. He informed me that:

We have dogged Monsef several times in different locations - including twice sending a crew to her home riding of Peterborough - to ask her questions she has refused to answer. That pursuit hasn't always led to stories, but we won't stop asking questions.

This reinforces the point I made to you at the outset - that it is not reasonable to expect the full truth to emerge within hours of facts materializing, and what is reported is what is known at the time.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman