News, defined and refined

The complainant, Craig Pichach, asked a very good question: What’s appropriate for a newscast. In this case he thought an exchange between host Susan Bonner and Michael Enright was opinion and questioned the value of the format. In both the format and content, I found no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a question-and-answer session between World at Six (July 26, 2016) host Susan Bonner and Sunday Edition host Michael Enright who was reporting on the nomination of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. You said that the interview “was not news.” You found it opinionated and biased:

In my opinion a "veteran" reporter hijacked our national network turning it from a beacon of investigative journalism to his personal soapbox.

You said you expected to hear about substantial issues -- such as possible internal corruption, media bias, the speeches and delegates at the convention. You added that the quality of the report, and labelling it as news, was “deeply disturbing.”

You were particularly offended that Mr. Enright referred to Ms. Clinton as a “wonderful person” and used adjectives like “warm”. You said this was clearly opinion, and if it was to be considered analysis, then Mr. Enright should have provided the facts to back up this characterization.

Is the statement that Hillary Clinton is a "wonderful person" true? The CBC News Editor notes that "One of the key issues around the Clinton nomination is her "likeability" factor" which seems to contrast the report. If it is not true then why was it reported on CBC World At Six? I would like to know if this report was true or not as I would like to depend on the World At Six for the news.

You rejected another part of the response from the Managing Editor of CBC News who told you that World as Six occasionally did broadcast analysis and personal observations from senior news correspondents. You questioned whether World at Six was the best vehicle for this type of analysis, as it is a news programme, and you suggested that if there were to be such analysis, then it should be far more clearly demarcated and labelled. You added:

That being said I would argue that declaring an individual a "wonderful person" without facts is not analysis. I would also argue that declaring an individual a "wonderful person" without the context of a personal story or having been asked for their personal opinion is not a personal reflection.

I submit this review request with the goal of keeping the World At Six a fact based news broadcast. I would hate to see our flagship news program reduced to gossip program declaring individuals wonderful versus not-wonderful.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC news, Paul Hambleton, responded to your concerns. As I have noted, he explained that World at Six has a mandate “to deliver the news and provide context and analysis where possible.” He told you that the program provides a range of coverage, including analytical pieces and “personal reflections”, as part of ongoing and comprehensive coverage of important stories like the United States presidential campaign. In this particular case, he noted that Mr. Enright’s comments were “billed as thoughts from one of our veteran journalists.” He added:

It's not uncommon that we seek such assessments from our senior reporters who take a step back from the day's news to offer insight based on their knowledge and experience.

In this instance, Mr. Enright reflected on the significance of her nomination, offered some thoughts on the kind of person she is, and reflected on the events of the previous few days. One of the key issues around the Clinton nomination is her "likeability" factor: Despite all she has achieved and her experience in politics, she still struggles to win over voters. That was one of the issues Mr. Enright focused on.

He pointed out that Mr. Enright is a very experienced journalist who has covered many campaigns. He also said that there had been a full report on the latest events from Philadelphia at the beginning of the newscast. Mr. Hambleton added that he was confident that taken as a whole, the coverage of the U.S. presidential election overall had been comprehensive over the previous days and weeks on World at Six and other CBC News platforms.

REVIEW

You raised one broad and interesting issue -- what is the nature of news and what is appropriate on a “newscast” - and a more particular one about the exchange between Michael Enright and Susan Bonner. The same policies are relevant to both your concerns. The commitment to impartiality not only states that there is an obligation to refrain from promoting a particular point of view in matters of public debate, it also has this important reference:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.

The statement about accuracy also goes beyond getting the facts right:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We 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.

The idea of having a question-and-answer exchange with an experienced journalist as part of a news package is hardly radical or unacceptable. Journalism is more than the recitation of the facts. As Mr. Hambleton mentioned, it is important to provide context to help citizens understand events. To be sure, there is an obligation to truthfulness, but good journalism aspires to go beyond that. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of several books on modern journalism, make this observation in their 2010 book “Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload” explain the “Journalism of Verification”:

The journalism of verification thus puts a high value on completeness: answering questions that the facts of an event may suggest and attempting to put these facts in a complete context so that they can be understood as they happened.

They are making an important distinction between analysis, a full examination, and of events and opinion. CBC policy is clear about expectation of news staff:

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

All of this provides a framework for examining the particular interview you found so objectionable. I have listened to it more than once -- and I agree that Mr. Enright used words like “wonderful person”, and adjectives like “warm”. But they were said in a particular context that changes the intent and understanding of what was said. The interview began this way:

SUSAN BONNER:

Back to Philadelphia now and the Democratic National Convention.

Tonight delegates are doing something that has never been done before … celebrating a woman as candidate for President.

CBC Sunday Edition host Michael Enright is in Philadelphia and joins me now.

SUSAN BONNER:

Michael, this is the first time ever that a woman has received the nomination. What’s the meaning of that?

MICHAEL ENRIGHT:

Well, it’s an extraordinary historic event in the life of American politics. You don’t get the feeling though that history is burdening down on some of the delegates - they are taking it almost as a matter of course that women, in these days, can become president of the United States. I think it’s extraordinary and I think that the candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is an amazing woman as was outlined last night by all the various speakers in the arena, including her one-time opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, who was very fulsome in his praise of Hillary Clinton.

This was live radio on a bad phone line. Mr. Enright’s phrasing might have been more precise, but I take him to mean that based on what he heard about her from the speeches at the convention, she was an extraordinary woman. He was not pulling the judgment out of thin air. In so describing a woman, whether you would vote for her or not, who has been Secretary of State and is about to be the first woman nominated for president by a major party, is hardly making it up based on no evidence. The context of the conversation is about that historic nomination and arises out of the events at the convention. The host of the World at Six probed Mr. Enright’s statement, and didn’t take it at face value. She pointed out that Ms. Clinton was not very popular. You were concerned that this issue of “likeability” was contradicted by the assertion that she was “wonderful.” You don’t have the benefit of listening to the exchange again, but fortunately I do. There seems to be a misunderstanding. Because Ms. Bonner raised that very point when she talked about the fact that Ms. Clinton was so unpopular, and Mr. Enright, when asked for the reasons, supplied some. In the course of doing that, he used a range of adjectives he said had been used to describe her - some positive, some not. He used the phrase “described as...” When he said this, there was a crackle on the phone line, and you may have missed it, leading to the impression this was solely Mr. Enright’s view. He was repeating others’. This is the exchange:

SUSAN BONNER:

And yet Michael, she remains one of the most unpopular choices in presidential history. People say they do not trust her, even after these very high profile very emotional endorsements, including the one that came from first lady Michelle Obama. What is behind that mistrust do you think?

MICHAEL ENRIGHT:

Well I think the former first lady has put it well herself. She said she is a very well-known unknown person that people don’t really know who she is, who the real Hillary Clinton is. And secondly, she had said that everyone else is offered a margin of error, not me...she is described as warm and cunning and vindictive and smart and generous and compassionate - I guess fully human would be the way to describe her. But it’s odd that people are not rejoicing the fact that there is going to be a woman president in November probably.

The conversation was an appropriate endeavour on World at Six. Its content did not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman