Quote context

The complainant, Ian Roberts, was interviewed in his role as Director of Public Affairs of Marine Harvest. The company was sponsoring a soccer club, and one of the players protested because she thinks fish farming is wrong. He thought he was misrepresented in the story. I found the context of his answer did fit its use appropriately. But some sloppy editing meant early versions of stories were published with errors.

COMPLAINT

In October of 2015 CBC News in Vancouver published a series of stories about the dispute between a Vancouver Island soccer association and a 14-year-old member of an elite team. The Upper Island Riptide Association had worked out a corporate sponsorship with Marine Harvest Canada, a fish farming company. You were contacted because you are the Director of Public Affairs for the company.

The player, Freyja Reed, and her mother Anissa are activists who are against fish farming, and specifically the activities of Marine Harvest Canada. They publicly criticized the soccer association for accepting the sponsorship. Their activities were in contravention of the club’s rules, and ultimately Freyja Reed was barred from playing.

The first story, entitled Vancouver Island teen soccer player ‘muzzled’ over voicing opinion about sponsor, was published October 23, 2015. You had specific concerns about this story and subsequent ones, and an overall concern that the work by reporter Duncan McCue and producer James Roberts misrepresented the situation, and implied your company was behind the confrontation with the Reeds, and that was entirely false.

You were interviewed for the October 23 story two days before. You were contacted on that day by CBC News staff, and agreed to be interviewed, even though it was quite short notice:

After the interview I expressed my disappointment that both Marine Harvest and the Riptide were given little notice for this interview - considering that the CBC crew has spent a good part of the day with the Reed family at their home.

You said you found Mr. McCue was aggressive and returned to the same points over and over again. You were under the impression that you had been contacted to do an interview about the issue of corporate sponsorships and community sport, in the context of objection from a small number of participants. You felt the stories did not focus on the issue of the sponsorship and the conflict with this family, but rather with Marine Harvest. You point out that it is the club, not the sponsoring corporation, which is responsible for discipline and setting a code of behaviour for players and their families. You think these stories did not make that nearly clear enough:

I believe it is not one specific omission, misrepresentation or incorrect headline that resulted in many viewers of the CBC reports to be misled about the reasons for the Riptide program’s disciplinary actions against Freya Reed and also be led to believe Marine Harvest directly influenced Riptide decisions. The pattern was repeated throughout the seven day reporting of the event.

When the story was published you contacted the reporter and producer because you thought a quote attributed to you was incorrect:

Upon first review of the story, I immediately noticed an incorrect quote attributed to me under my photo caption. The statement suggested that “Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts says he believes it’s legitimate for the soccer association to ask parents not to ‘speak ill’ of the team’s sponsor.” I had never said parents, or players, cannot speak ill of Marine Harvest, and this was confirmed in the transcript provided to me by James Roberts.

The quote was changed, and a clarification was provided. You think the clarification is unclear and does not provide the necessary openness for readers to understand what was wrong in the first place.

About a week later, dissatisfied with many aspects of the coverage, you asked to see a transcript of the interview and to get a copy of the interview recording. You were shocked to discover that the recording of the interview had already been deleted. You found this “concerning”:

As I had first contacted James Roberts on October 23 with errors and accuracy of his reporting, I would have expected that because CBC was very aware that this was a contentious issue and given the admission to error made on the first day it would wish to maintain an accurate record of its interviews about this story.

You explained you wanted a transcript because you wanted “to confirm the context of each response.” In the October 23 story you are quoted as saying that “You can find another program to play in or choose to do a different sport.” In the context of the piece as written, you said, it sounds as if this statement is directly addressing Freyja and Anissa Reed. But in reality, you added, it was in answer to a more general question and that should have been made clear. In fact, you said, you refused to answer specific questions about Freyja Reed’s future with the club:

Duncan McCue asked me several times in our interview about “what Freyja can do if she is no longer allowed to play soccer for the Riptide?” to which I responded every time “I will not speculate on Freyja’s future.”

However, I did respond to a question which asked “What if someone refuses to play on a team that you sponsor -what choices do they have?” I responded if someone refuses to play on a team, they have choices. You can find another program to play in, or choose to do a different sport.

You received negative feedback over this quote and you believe the full context should have been provided because, as published, it distorts the meaning and intent.

You thought the story was misleading in another way. You said based on communication from the soccer association, the Reeds were prohibited from criticizing the club and the sponsorship agreement it had made. However, the stories state that the family was being forced to stop any of their activities campaigning against and criticizing the activities of Marine Harvest. You point out the club’s email states that the Reeds had to refrain from “sideline chatter about your views of Marine Harvest at games, training sessions or any Riptide event.” The issue was criticizing the club, not fish farming or Marine Harvest outside the soccer context.

At the end of October, the club asked Freyja Reed to leave. This was covered in a story initially entitled “Vancouver Island teen soccer player kicked off team by fish farm sponsor.” You pointed out this was incorrect. The headline was changed to “Vancouver Island teen soccer player kicked off team over fish farm sponsorship.” You pointed out that there was no acknowledgment that there had been an error in the story until a month after it was published. And you thought the correction notification published Dec 2 was not adequate.

You had one other concern with this story. It states that you declined comment on the club decision. You said you were not contacted by CBC for comment in this instance.

Your experience with the two stories in which changes were made is that the way in which it was done lacked “accountability and transparency” in admitting errors. You thought there should be much more detailed explanations and greater clarity.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of News at CBC in British Columbia, Wayne Williams, responded to your concerns about the errors and “misrepresentations.”

He told you that after you had phoned about your concern about the accuracy of a statement attributed to you, he reviewed a transcript of the interview and the next day (October 24, 2015), the quote was changed. He told you:

Instead of saying that you “believed it was legitimate for the soccer association to ask parents not to ‘speak ill’ of the team’s sponsor”...the paragraph now says: ‘Marine Harvest says it was unaware of Reed’s concerns until contacted by CBC, but Roberts invited the family to contact the company. He adds that he believes it’s legitimate for the soccer association to ask parents not to ‘speak ill’ of the club and its policies.

He noted that the story also included a clarification “advising readers that we had changed the quoted material and identified the change.”

He responded to your request for a full transcript and access to the interview recording by telling you that “it is CBC News policy not to provide reporters’ notes, field tapes or transcripts or any other material used in the preparation of our stories.” He added that this practice is common to most news organizations. He added that he had reviewed the notes that were available:

Nevertheless, in light of your concerns, I did speak with both the reporter Mr. McCue and producer James Roberts and reviewed the brief partial transcript of the interview they made at the time. (The raw tape of the interview was deleted from our servers after one week, as are all such tapes). I am satisfied that the story accurately reflects your comments and is faithful to the context in which they were made.

He acknowledged that the original headline on the October 29th story was incorrect. He added that as soon as news staff realized the headline “didn’t match information in the body of the story, we corrected it.” He told you this occurred about two hours after its original posting on the CBC News website. He also acknowledged that the Corrections box, required by CBC policy, was not added at this time, and was only included on December 2.

REVIEW

The story you object to is headlined Vancouver Island Teen soccer player ‘muzzled’ over voicing opinion about sponsor. One of the over-arching issues you have with it is that this is not a clear representation of the situation. You say the issue was not the Reeds’ activities or speaking out against Marine Harvest, it was speaking out about the soccer club and the sponsorship agreement. It is clear that the family certainly believed they had been asked to cease any criticism of Marine Harvest as well as the team sponsorship. The headline certainly frames it that way although placing the word “muzzled” in quotes attributes the statement to the Reed family. Within the body of the story it refers to the club’s position and the dispute over the sponsorship. The story begins this way:

Freyja Reed has two great passions: soccer and wild salmon.

That’s why the 14-year-old says she was shocked to discover her elite soccer team’s newest sponsor: Marine Harvest, the biggest operator of open-net fish farms in B.C.

Now, the goalkeeper claims she’s being pressured to stop protesting the company’s activities.

Later in the story, Mr. McCue reports:

But the association required both mother and daughter to stop all “sideline chatter” or social media discussing their views of Marine Harvest, and Reed agreed.

If they didn’t remove a Facebook page created to oppose the Marine Harvest sponsorship, they were told Freyja may have to play elsewhere. “This email will be considered a ‘strike one,’” wrote the Riptide Steering Committee.

“Someone asks me why I’m not at the fundraiser and I’m not allowed to talk about it?” says Freyja. “It's odd and awkward to say that with people I trust and I play soccer with.”

The association declined CBC’s request for an interview, but pointed to its parental code of conduct, which states any parent who engages in “negative comments in social networks, texts, emails, websites blogs, correspondence, bullying, gossip, misinformation, intimidation or any other such activity as related to soccer is subject to discipline.”

You thought this was not an accurate portrayal of the statement made by the club and that Mr. McCue should have been clearer that the family was not being prohibited from speaking in any venue, but just those related to the soccer program and events, and the issue was a breach of the parental code. You don’t think that’s clear in the story and the memo should have been quoted to give proper context.

The memo from the club reads in part that “In keeping in line with our governing bodies the Riptide Parent Code of conduct specifies that negative commentary about the programming at the field or on social media is subject to discipline.”

The reporter only had a written statement to go from, and did not get a direct response to questions he asked about the Reeds’ activity. It is the right of anyone to decline to be interviewed. The club provided a written statement. For reporters, that creates a dilemma – they are obliged by policy to provide an opportunity to reply to criticism to achieve balance. But reporters are not scribes. In the absence of a face-to-face interview there is no opportunity to probe, clarify and seek accountability.

You rightly cite the need for balance and even handedness as CBC core journalistic values. In this case, the position of the soccer association is presented, and there is a quote from a parent who is in favor of the sponsorship. In the course of an interview there may have been opportunity to clarify the limits being placed on the Reeds.

Elsewhere, the story reports that the Reeds are to stop all sideline chatter. The email from the club says:

All Social Media linking the Marine Harvest sponsorship to the Riptide program stops. All social media posts are to be taken down.

There will be no “sideline chatter” about your views of Marine Harvest at games, training sessions, or any Riptide event.

CBC Journalistic policy also states that “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” In other words, the reporter weighs what is known and lays out the facts in a context, and with some interpretation. The reporter accurately portrays the family’s understanding of the prohibition, and there is evidence they were not to speak against Marine Harvest. It is not entirely clear where the exact line is, but both the club’s view and the family’s are represented. The overall point is that the Reeds were breaking club rules, and they felt those ruled violated their right to speak out.

The line between the two activities – criticizing the company and criticizing the sponsorship – is blurred and very much a grey zone. This story and the subsequent ones document the dispute between the Reeds and the soccer association over Freyja’s opposition to the Marine Harvest sponsorship. The focus is that dispute. It is clear it is the soccer association that is calling the shots and making the decisions. I do not share your concern that Marine Harvest is put in a bad light and is portrayed as “pulling the strings.” In fact the article states clearly that: Marine Harvest says it was unaware of Reed’s concerns until contacted by CBC, but Roberts invited the family to contact the company.

Which leads to another major concern you had with the article. You felt you were misrepresented and misquoted. Indeed, Mr. Williams agreed with you that the original statement attributed to you was not accurate and it was changed. The error was a violation of policy as it was inaccurate, but it was corrected in a timely fashion.

One of your biggest concerns is that you were quoted out of context. The story says this:

Marine Harvest says it was unaware of Reed’s concerns until contacted by CBC, but Roberts invited the family to contact the company. He adds that he believes it’s legitimate for the soccer association to ask parents not to “speak ill” of the club and its policies.

“You can find another program to play in or choose to do a different sport,” says Roberts.

You weren’t fully satisfied with the first part of the quote, and you asked Mr. McCue to clarify it to read “believes it’s legitimate for a parent to be expected to respect the soccer club’s code of conduct, which includes personal behavior while at practice and games.”

The quote used is not inaccurate nor is it materially different to the one you asked for in your email after publication of the story. As I mentioned, CBC reporters are able to use their judgment. There is also a core value of independence. Mr. McCue was obliged to correct the error in which the story said it was legitimate to ask parents not to speak ill of the sponsor. He was not obliged to change the quote entirely if he judged the one he used reflected what you said.

The second part of the quote was the most problematic for you. You said it was taken completely out of context. Mr. McCue asked you many times in the course of the interview about Freyja Reed specifically. When you were asked what choice she had if she couldn’t play for Riptide Soccer, you clearly stated you would not speculate on her future. You declined to comment on the Facebook page in dispute, as you had not seen it.

Both CBC and you agree that you were asked a question about choices a person would have if they refuse to play for a team that Marine Harvest sponsors, and you agree you answered: “We all have choices. You can find another program to play in or choose to do a different sport.”

You explained you were not talking specifically about the Reeds, and it should not have been construed that way. Mr. McCue provided a transcription of that part of the interview:

01;01;40;26 Again I don’t know what the details of the FB site were. If it were about the club that her daughter is participating in, and enjoying the benefits of, then I think the club has every right to ask the parent not to not speak ill of the club they are participating in.

01;02;08;01 You know it’s disappointing that

01;02;14;25 It’s certainly disappointing that one parent out of thousands that we sponsor throughout the year is opposed to our sponsorship and I would encourage that mother to contact us to ask questions about our business to see if we can satisfy her concerns. And if not, she has choices.

01;02;32;10 And the choices are? You can find another program to play in or choose to do a different sport.

Context does matter, and the context of this interview was the dispute between the soccer club you sponsor and the Reeds. When you see the comment in context, it is not a stretch to apply it to the Reeds. There is no violation of journalistic practice in the framing or use of this quote.

You cited the CBC journalistic policy requirement that individuals and organizations be treated with openness and respect. Mr. McCue’s persistence in his questioning is the mark of a reporter doing his job. The fact he kept asking you the same question indicates he felt he thought he needed a fuller response to do justice to the story. It is your choice if or how you answer, but I do not consider, by your account or his, that there was a lack of respect in the encounter.

A number of your specific complaints have merit. There was a violation of policy in the story entitled “Vancouver Island teen kicked off team over fish farm sponsorship”. Mr. Williams acknowledged the first headline, saying that Ms. Reed had been kicked off by the sponsor was wrong, and it was changed within minutes of discovering the error. Nevertheless it was a serious error of fact.

The second violation of policy was the failure to note the error, as is prescribed in the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:

Any changes to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.

I note that Mr. Williams ensured that error was also rectified. Since this story had problems with accuracy, and there were some problems with the quotes in the story of October 26, CBC News managers might want to review the editing and vetting process in place for its online material.

You also stated that you were not contacted by anyone at CBC for comment, although the story states:

Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts declined to comment on the decision.

It is true you were not contacted by anyone at CBC because while CBC put its own headline on the story, it is a story that was prepared by the Canadian Press, which is noted at the top of the story. While CBC is responsible for all the material it publishes, it is not reasonable to expect them to fact check from a reputable news service like CP. It is understandable you made the assumption that it was a CBC story, as you had been dealing with them a week earlier. I confess I did not notice the Canadian Press byline right away as well.

You raised some interesting issues about the way CBC news online acknowledges changes and errors. You point out that the change of the inaccurate quote is noted as a “clarification” and only notes the altered quote. Where is the accountability and transparency you ask? I think you have a point. If the first quote was wrong, why is it a clarification and not a correction? The digital world is a permanent and ubiquitous record. CBC News management might want to look at the style and guidelines for noting corrections to stories to make it clearer and more obvious as to what the error was, and why it was corrected. There is an expectation of openness in the digital world. There is also the practical consideration that in the time until the error is caught, the erroneous information can be widely circulated and quoted.

Finally, you also pointed out that by the time you asked for a copy of the interview recording it had been deleted, and you questioned that practice. Leaving aside the question about turning over notes or raw materials, the suggestion that material be held once there is a complaint about a story is a good one. Again, news management might want to consider something like this in the context of dealing with corrections and clarifications.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman