Quoting in Context - Editing interviews accurately

The complainant, Frank Ramagnano, President of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, said he was unfairly quoted in a story about a female firefighter’s harassment and search for redress. He and other firefighters who wrote thought the story was unfair and condemned the whole fire service. There was no violation of policy but the complainant’s interview deserved more attention.

COMPLAINT

You are the President of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association (TPFFA) and you were interviewed for an episode which appeared on The National. You had several concerns about the piece that was aired and the article published on the website entitled Female Firefighter Accuses Toronto Force of Harassment. You said many of your members felt that “the story does a disservice to the over 3,000 dedicated men and women of our profession.” In fact, as you noted, this office did receive 21 complaints about this story.

The segment on The National told the story of Jamie Wilson, a firefighter who said she had experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination in her time with the Toronto Fire Services. Ms. Wilson’s case has been the subject of several reviews and there are outstanding grievances.

You said there were inaccuracies in the story and it did not accurately reflect the complexity of the case, the results of the independent investigation, or what you stated in your interview with CBC reporter Mark Kelley.

You took issue with the title of the piece on The National’s web page - pointing out that there was only one firefighter portrayed in the story, yet the title is in the plural. You also said that there is reference to a previous story which featured other firefighters. You thought this was a “disingenuous inference that these were also members of Toronto’s Fire Services.”

You also thought that there was a selective use of the independent investigator’s report to back up Ms. Wilson’s point of view. You said that there were other parts of the report that cast doubt on many of Ms. Wilson’s allegations, and addressed her credibility, and these were not included in the story. You also felt that the producer working with Mr. Kelley, Linda Guerriero, was hostile and confrontational in the course of the interview with you. You thought the material included for broadcast did not properly reflect what you had said:

I fully co-operated throughout the interview for over an hour and forty minutes, giving the entire history of this very complex story, despite an increasing aggressive and accusatory tone from Ms. Guerriero. It is disingenuous and misleading that the producer chose to use just 30 seconds of this interview where an offhand was used out of context to advance the predetermined views of the producer, prior to gathering factual information from all parties involved in this story.

You felt The National had completely taken the word of one woman, and that this created a false picture of the service and its members.

In an organization of over 3,000 individuals, there may always be personal conflicts but an individual situation is in no way indicative of the prevailing environment. This piece has done a great disservice in its inaccurate representation of Toronto’s fire service for the sake of a salacious, sensationalist story. The many Canadians, including those of Toronto’s fire service, who trust the CBC to present factual reporting in all of its stories have been let down by this inaccurately portrayed story.

You wanted the CBC to acknowledge the inaccuracies, and to revisit the story “with a more balanced approach.” You also wanted a copy of your whole interview, so that your members would understand the full context.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He told you that this story was framed as one woman’s experience, and was told largely from her point of view.

We make every effort to tell stories as fairly and accurately as possible. Perforce, Ms. Wilson’s story draws heavily on what she alleges. Our journalists rigorously checked the facts as we knew them and reported those that supported her as well as those that cast doubts. Throughout, we made it clear that these are allegations.

He acknowledged that the title of the story on the website, referring to firefighters in the plural was incorrect on The National’s web page, and when the error was noticed, it was corrected. He pointed out that in the television broadcast, and on the cbcnews.ca page, it was clear that the story was based on one woman’s experience. He referred to the introduction read by Peter Mansbridge who said “Tonight we go into the fire to hear one woman’s story.”

He told you that there was balance in the story and Ms. Wilson’s views were not the only ones presented. He pointed out Mr. Kelley did mention that the independent investigator downplayed some of Ms. Wilson’s allegations, while upholding others.

He said that while Ms. Wilson “indicated her union had been less helpful than she expected,” you are quoted as saying she was treated like every other member. He also said:

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER):

“like the investigator hired by the city, Ramagnano seems to minimize Jamie’s claim she was assaulted”.

You are seen subsequently explaining the importance of context:

FRANK RAMAGNANO (PRESIDENT OF THE TPFFA)

“[If] I punch my son no one would say it is an abuse. It all depends on the type. You have to be careful when you generalize in saying she was punched.”

You replied that you were just going by what the city’s independent investigator put in the report.

He also mentioned the team had tried to get the perspective from the Fire Chief or another representative of the Toronto Fire Services, but were not able to interview anyone.

Mr. Spandier also addressed your broader concern about your experience being interviewed by Mr. Kelley and Ms. Guerriero. He told you that your co-operation was greatly appreciated, but it was not uncommon to conduct long interviews, and to use very little of it on air. He explained it is up to the reporter to condense a great deal of information in a very brief period of time, and that is what had happened in this case:

Journalism is not a notably efficient process. Journalists often cast a wide net when they are preparing a story: They talk to a lot of people, and collect much information from many sources. Typically, interviews are recorded at some length in order to cover different aspects of story with the interviewee and then edited for the broadcast to highlight the most significant statements. Inevitably, some things are left out, others are explained by the reporter or by others in the story, but leaving things out does not mean the story is “disingenuous and misleading”.

He thought the segment provided enough information so that viewers could come to their own conclusions, which is the purpose of the reporting.

REVIEW

Mr. Spandier told you that this was a story told from the perspective of one person. That is made clear from the outset. Nevertheless, Ms. Wilson makes serious allegations, some have been proven, others not. In cases like this it is mandated by CBC journalistic policy that those who are accountable have a chance to reply. The focus is on the process that Ms. Wilson had to undergo to have her concerns addressed, and the role of the fire service leadership in providing a safe environment. Both, Mr. Kelley in his script and Ms. Wilson’s lawyer, make that point:

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER):

Even in 2016, many female firefighters like Jamie see themselves as fighting alone for one simple thing, respect. Her lawyer said the case should be a wakeup call for the union and the city of Toronto.

NIITI SIMMONDS (LAWYER):

It is not just the union's role to prevent systemic discrimination. It is the employer's job. What we want is for Jamie and the union to be working together to get the employer to change the work environment. Because they are the one with the power to make fundamental changes in the workplace.

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER):

Have you seen that?

NIITI SIMMONDS (LAWYER):

No.

The Toronto Fire Services Chief declined an interview, which is his right, of course. It meant that the piece went to air without that perspective, or a chance to address the systemic issues highlighted.

You were concerned that this story was a condemnation of all Toronto firefighters. I can understand the concern of the personnel that this kind of activity is alleged in their service, but there is nothing in this piece that generalizes it to all personnel. Ms. Wilson’s case has been long, convoluted and complicated. It is a common journalistic device to use one story to stand in for the many. If Ms. Wilson’s experience was the only one, you might reasonably argue this is an unfair representation of the fire service. I asked Mr. Kelley and Ms. Guerriero why they chose Ms. Wilson’s story - given how complex some of the issues seem to be. They told me that four other women from Toronto contacted them after the airing of the Fifth Estate piece about the treatment of female firefighters across the country. Most were too afraid to go public.

CBC policy strongly encourages making the identity of participants known, especially when it is something controversial. The other women had similar experiences, some with the same male colleagues. Ms. Wilson was willing to go public with her story, so hers was the case that was highlighted. Mr. Kelley also told me they had, as prescribed by policy, done due diligence in confirming as much as they could the substance of Ms. Wilson’s experience. In the script Mr. Kelley explains that while the independent investigator downplayed and dismissed some of Ms. Wilson’s allegations, he noted she confirmed Ms. Wilson had been punched. He also mentioned the investigator downplayed the intent of that punch. Mr. Kelley also reported that the investigator found serious violations of confidentiality and that the firefighters in the station involved likely talked amongst themselves in advance of their interviews. Subsequently, he explained that Ms. Wilson’s lawyer believed the report to be seriously flawed, and another investigation followed.

As president of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, you were interviewed about the support your union has provided to Ms. Wilson, and why it seemed to take so long for a grievance to be filed on her behalf. You thought the interview distorted your explanation of what had happened. CBC News has policy regarding interviews. These are the relevant sections in considering your concern about your portrayal:

When an interview is recorded, it may be edited before publication for length or to select the relevant passages. At our discretion, we may choose to rebroadcast an interview in whole or in part, post it online or make it accessible in website archives, or not be published at all.

Whatever the context in which we choose to use the content of the interview, we will respect the meaning of an interviewee’s statements.

I have watched the full interview you recorded with Mr. Kelley. The statements highlighted in the piece do not distort the meaning of what you had to say. On the matter of the long and drawn out process, you are presented on air saying:

MARK KELLEY

It took almost two years before a grievance was filed. We wanted to know why it took so long. We spoke to Frank Ramagnano, the president of the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association.

FRANK RAMAGNANO

The process has been long. It is extremely stressful, but as far as how the association has conducted it, we have not treated her any different than any other member.

In the interview, you state this in response to a question from Mr. Kelley:

MARK KELLEY

Do you think she has been treated fairly by this process?

FRANK RAMAGNANO

The process has been long. It has been extremely stressful but as far as how the association has conducted it, we haven’t treated her than any other member.

That is a succinct summation of your position. In the interview you provided a lot of background and context for why it has been long and complex, and expressed some concern about communicating with Ms. Wilson. It would have been a fuller reflection of the interview had the reporter at least provided a précis of some of the points you made, and provided a clearer counterpoint to the lawyer’s claim that pressure was required to file the grievance. It is part of the context that would add to viewers’ understanding of the complexity of the case and it would have been a fuller reflection or your explanation.

The second segment from your interview used had to do with whether or not Ms. Wilson was punched, and what the severity of that was. In the independent investigator’s report, she found that Ms. Wilson was punched, but downplayed the severity, calling it “playful”. Ms. Wilson’s lawyer stated that it was an error not to consider this a violation of the city’s Code of Conduct. You are asked what you think of it:

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER)

But like the investigator hired by the city, Ramagnano seems to minimize Jamie's claim she was assaulted.

FRANK RAMAGNANO (PRESIDENT OF THE TPFFA)

I punch my son no one would say it is an abuse. It all depends on the type. You have to be careful when you generalize in saying she was punched.

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER)

Are you suggesting you are not sure this was actually a serious violation, the fact she claimed she had been punched?

FRANK RAMAGNANO (PRESIDENT OF THE TPFFA)

I am going by the independent investigation, what they put in their report. I didn't investigate it myself.

There is no distortion of the meaning, nor was this taken out of context from the longer interview.

You had concerns about the conduct of the interview you did with Mr. Kelley and his producer, Linda Guerriero. You felt that Ms. Guerriero was aggressive and was badgering you because you were not providing the answers she was looking for. CBC journalists are expected to act professionally when they conduct interviews, but that does not mean they cannot ask forceful questions, and continue to ask them in seeking information, or challenging a point of view based on information they have gathered from other sources. It can feel unpleasant to be sure, but that is part of the process. I viewed the entire interview you gave to the team. In going back and revisiting some points when Mr. Kelley finished the body of the interview, Ms. Guerriero was performing due diligence. She was forceful but in no way inappropriate.

Another concern you had was the use of the plural “firefighters” in the headline on The National webpage. Mr. Spandier agreed and told you the error was corrected. While it is never acceptable to get things wrong, this clearly was an inadvertent error, since the title on the main CBC webpage, Female firefighter in Toronto alleges years of abuse and harassment at Toronto Fire Services, was correct, and the broadcast segment was introduced clearly as “one woman's story.” The reference made later in the piece to other firefighters’ experience was clearly delineated in that way. It is acceptable journalistic practice to provide a wider context to an individual story. In this case, the point being made is that while this is one woman’s story, and the focus is on the Toronto Fire Services, it is in no way a singular experience, but one played out in fire halls across the country.

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER)

Jamie's struggle has been played out in fire halls across Canada. A Fifth Estate investigation uncovered dozens of complaints from female firefighters who said they were harassed, bullied, physically and sexually assaulted by their male colleagues.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE FIREFIGHTER

I remember going into a fire during recruit training and one of the guys of my group turned my air bubble off. You know, you have no air.

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER)

When somebody turns your air bottle off, what message are they trying to send you, do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE FIREFIGHTER

We don't want you here. It was clear.

JENNIFER PERNFUSS (WORKPLACE CONSULTANT)

It is shocking that people are behaving this way.

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER)

Jennifer Pernfuss is a coach and consultant on respect in the workplace. She has been hired by fire services across Canada.

JENNIFER PERNFUSS (WORKPLACE CONSULTANT)

I am quite unpopular when I say that there is a beast within fire service. It is very harmful to both women and men.

MARK KELLEY (REPORTER)

What is the beast?

JENNIFER PERNFUSS (WORKPLACE CONSULTANT)

Well, in the extreme form it's violence against women. It is violence against men as well. In a less extreme form, there is forms of harassment, bullying and discrimination that is causing psychological and physical harm to members of our community, firefighters who are providing service to us.

The expert, Ms. Pernfuss, did not say Toronto Fire Services, but fire service, and is introduced as someone who has worked with fire services across the country. Her remarks and the introduction of other women are properly framed to provide broader context and show the problems in Toronto are shared elsewhere.

As I observed at the outset, this is a complex story, which is ongoing. While it didn’t violate journalistic policy, it would have benefited with more detail of some of that complexity, especially in regard to your interview. As this is an evolving ongoing story, I would expect that over time in further coverage, some of those details can be explored. As for your request for the full recording of the interview, most news organizations do not release raw footage. It is at the discretion of news management.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman