The Role of Religion

In a story about conflict at a Montreal community college, the complainant, David Murrell, noted that another media outlet identified the religion of one of the students alleged to be involved. The college has been associated with students accused of attempting to join Islamic State. He thought those details were critical and that CBC had deliberately left them out. I found that in the context of this story, it was not critical or in line with a policy to avoid ethnicity or religion unless essential to the story.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about an article posted on the CBC Montreal news site on February 19, 2016. The article, entitled “College de Maisonneuve teachers’ union wants action over alleged library threats”, is about the request made by the teachers’ union that management deal with students who were alleged to have been abusive to library staff. You believe that the CBC reporters and editors responsible for the story “censored key facts.” You added that the story was deliberately sanitized and left out some critical information which had appeared in an article in La Presse, a French language daily in Montreal.

You cited information from the La Presse piece you thought should have been included in the CBC News piece:

-- that five Maisonneuve college students were stopped at the Montreal airport, and arrested, for attempting to join the Islamic State;

-- that one of the Muslim students arrested was involved with the recent fight mentioned in the CBC article, and that the fight was between Muslim and non-Muslim students;

-- that it was Muslim students which have taken over a floor in the library and who are harassing library staff.

You thought the absence of this information “deliberately refused to answer” who was involved and why it was happening. You cited the critical five “Ws” essential for good journalism. You concluded:

In fact, one would think that the CBC took the morning La Presse story, hastily rewrote it and published it at 2 pm, and purged the Muslim involvement for propaganda purposes.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Director for CBC Quebec, Helen Evans, replied to your concerns. She explained that CBC staff prepared the story based on information provided by a spokesperson of the College’s administration and the president of the teachers’ union. She acknowledged that the story detailed the threats, but did not identify the students who were involved. She explained to you why that was the case:

That is not because we purged, sanitized or censored the information, as you suggested, but simply because it was not something that we could confirm in our interviews for the story. We asked, but neither the union nor the administration would provide identifying information about the students involved. In fact, no one that we talked to at the school was prepared to identify the students.

She also pointed out that the La Presse story suggested Muslim students were involved but did not say so directly. She explained that it is CBC policy to only include details of ethnicity or religion when it is “pertinent to the story and we could confirm it.” She noted that the college had been in the news in the past because students there were alleged to have connections to Muslim extremists, and that some of those incidents were included in the La Presse story. She told you that the CBC news story provided links to coverage of some of those incidents.

REVIEW

The purpose of Ombudsman’s reviews is to determine whether CBC news and current affairs content fulfills the standards set in CBC journalistic code. You asked me to judge the story against an article in La Presse. I cannot do so, as it is not a benchmark, but rather another media organization’s rendering of a story. They have their own standards they adhere to. It is a good thing that there are a multiplicity of perspectives available, and clearly you avail yourself of them.

It is also the case that we are inclined to attend to that which reinforces the narrative or perspective with which we most agree. It is important to you that the past occurrences involving Muslim students be mentioned. That is reasonable, and as Ms. Evans pointed out to you, some of that history is provided via links in the story. The two related stories are “College de Maisonneuve asks for anti-radicalization help” and “Adil Chakouri allowed back to teach at College de Maisonneuve.” Your assumption that the absence of more detail in the body of the February 19 story is due to censorship is simply that – your assumption. And rather than censoring information about the problem of radicalization of young Muslims, CBC News has published and broadcast many stories on the issue, especially in the work done by reporter Adrienne Arsenault.

Ms. Evans explained to you that the writer of the story was unable to confirm the details you cite, that the conflict was between a group of Muslim students and others. CBC Journalistic policy has this to say about sourcing information:

Our commitment to accuracy and integrity means we try where possible to verify the information with a second source. And there may be times when more than two sources are required.

Our stories are based on information we have verified. Wherever possible, our stories use first hand, identifiable sources– participants in an event or authenticated documents.

The importance of second sourcing is influenced by the nature and quality of the primary source.

If the primary source is confidential, we will, to the best of our ability, attempt to verify the accuracy of the information through independent corroboration.

We will refer any decision to publish a story based on a single confidential source to the Director.

It’s true that there are times CBC news coverage has attributed information to publication in other media organizations. Ms. Evans pointed out to you that the La Presse piece did not directly say Muslim students were involved. CBC news staff would have considered another policy, which Ms. Evans mentioned. There is a policy on “respect and absence of prejudice,” which states, in part:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

Given the inability to confirm the details, the judgment to leave religion out of the story was a reasonable editorial judgment. As I have already noted, context for this confrontation at the school was provided through the use of links to previous stories that do include references to religious and radical links. The story presented the views of the union as well as the perspective of the college administration, which were the critical elements needed to achieve balance. There was no violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman