The impact of error - Assessing the damage

A CBC News Network story wrongly identified the gun used in the Orlando shootings, and said it was the same as the one used at Sandy Hook. The complainant, James Scorgie, pointed out the mistake and said it was a serious matter as it could influence gun laws in Canada. I agreed an error had been committed but disagreed on its impact.

COMPLAINT

On June 20, 2016, CBC News Network aired a report about a lawsuit brought by the families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting which left 26 people, mostly children, dead. There was a hearing to determine whether the families could sue the manufacturer and distributor of the AR-15 rifle used in the massacre. The newsreader mentioned that the same weapon was used in the Orlando nightclub shooting in June of this year. You pointed out that the weapon in that mass killing was not an AR-15 but, in fact, was another weapon, the Sig Sauer MCX. You were concerned that this error may have been deliberate and that “false news influenced law in this country.”

By saying that the ar-15 was used in both the Sandy Hook shooting and the Orlando shooting, CBC is giving viewers a bias against one particular firearm. Not sure if this is ignorance or intentional. There was a petition recently presented in the House of Commons in Canada to make the ar-15 non-restricted. As you can see this mistake has implications right now in Canada.

You added that CBC News must understand “the magnitude of your responsibility to report the news correctly”.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC News Network, Jennifer Harwood, replied to your complaint. She acknowledged that an error was made on air. She explained that when she investigated, she discovered that the written copy was correct, but that the newsreader had inadvertently said that the AR-15 had been used in Orlando. She noted that “in a live television setting people occasionally misspeak, and that is what happened here.” She told you that she shared your email with the news staff and ensured that copy was carefully checked thereafter.

She pointed out that CBC News Network provided coverage of the petition you mentioned in your complaint. She noted that there had been an interview on Power & Politics pertaining to the petition presented to Parliament asking that the AR-15 be unrestricted.

REVIEW

A commitment to accuracy is one of the underlying principles of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. It is unfortunate when it is breached, as it was in this case. While this was a violation of policy, it is hard to know what else could be done to ensure accuracy in reporting. As Ms. Harwood pointed out, this was human error. In hours of live coverage, it is bound to happen. As she also pointed out, the script, as written, made some distinction between the weapons used at Sandy Hook and Orlando. She ensured that there had not been a failure to catch an error in the copy.

Connecticut is also the venue for a major gun-related lawsuit.

A judge is hearing evidence today to decide whether makers of the A-R 15 rifle can be sued for their role in the Sandy Hook attack.

Families of the victims are hoping the case can proceed to an actual trial in 20-18.

Four years ago, a lone gunman killed 20 children and six adults at the school in Newtown, Connecticut.

He used an A-R 15, very similar to the weapon used in Orlando.

This was a brief news report on the morning of June 20th. Later in the day, there was another brief story, which made no reference to Orlando at all:

And gun control is also the subject of a major lawsuit.

A judge is hearing evidence today to decide whether makers of the A-R 15 rifle can be sued for their role in the Sandy Hook attack.

Families of the victims are hoping the case can proceed to an actual trial in 20-18.

Four years ago a lone gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.

It is one of the worst mass murders in modern U.S. history.

CBC News also provided coverage of the lawsuit on its website. The article, entitled: “Sandy Hook shooting lawsuit against AR-15 in court today” was error-free. It also provided links to stories about the AR-15, including one entitled: “AR-15 rifle should be legal for hunting, Canadian man says”. Of course, the online version can provide more context and background than a brief television copy story. The coverage should be looked at as a whole. There is another important principle enunciated in CBC journalistic policy and it is this:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The concept is that it is not just one story, but ongoing coverage from different perspectives that enable Canadians to obtain information and make judgements about issues that matter to them. Using that same concept, I disagree that the impact of one error in one short morning news item on CBC News Network distorts and unduly influences coverage of an ongoing story. You are correct to hold CBC News to the highest standards, and an error is an error. It is my view that you overestimate its impact.

I note that Ms. Harwood told you she shared your email and ensured extra vigilance be exercised in dealing with this topic. Your intervention has helped to make staff mindful of the need to get it right. That is an appropriate remedy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman