Using hyperlinks: Journalists beware, it may be online convention but it can be seen as endorsement

The complainant, Mark Wright, thought CBC in New Brunswick was providing free advertising to one of its regular columnists. The author of World of Work broadcast on radio, and had a column online. The online column linked directly to his company. There’s nothing wrong with using experts, but the concern about appearing to endorse one person or company is well founded.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned about an ongoing feature, entitled “World of Work,” which is broadcast weekly on the CBC Moncton morning show, and published as a column on the CBC New Brunswick website. You believe that the feature is paid advertising for Peter Battah, who is the head of a human resources consultancy. You pointed to the fact that the CBC New Brunswick page provides a link to Mr. Battah’s company page. You also pointed out that the article published on the CBC page is the same as the one that appears on his personal blog page.

You had several issues with this arrangement. You said that this was free advertising that is being subsidized by the taxpayers, as CBC is a public corporation. You pointed out that not only was it unpaid advertising, but that it “provides the inevitable effect of endorsing the commercial services provided by the company.” You thought this was unfair to any of Mr. Battah’s competitors and that they should be provided equal time.

You were also concerned that CBC employees might benefit from this arrangement. You wanted to know “what steps and procedures” were in place “to ensure that this arrangement does not involve payment of any kind (whether monetary or otherwise) to CBC employees.” You asked if this arrangement violated the “Charter of the CBC”:

Is it within the Charter of the CBC to allow the owners of private companies to write articles in their field of expertise on a regular basis? For example, would it be acceptable for the owner of a local Automotive Mechanic Workshop to write a column on car problems (remembering that it would be made clear that his or her "expertise" in the field is inextricably related to that private business)? Would a local lawyer be able to write a column on legal issues in her or his specific field of expertise - again making clear in the column WHO that lawyer is and WHICH private law firm they work for? In the event that you take the view that it is in fact acceptable to have such experts talk about their field on a regular basis then why allow them to essentially advertise who they work for or the company they own?

Finally, you also questioned the “newsworthiness” of the articles online or on the morning radio program.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Darrow MacIntyre, the Executive Producer of News for New Brunswick, replied to your concerns. He told you that CBC does engage freelance contributors, and that doing so was a common practice in “reputable media organizations.” He explained that “doing so provides the public with additional, informed perspectives from outside the media organization.” He cited some other examples, such as a car maintenance expert who regularly contributes to Maritime Noon, financial experts who provide advice about money management, and gardening centre owners who provide lawn and plant care advice.

He told you in this case Mr. Battah’s company name is mentioned not to provide profile. Rather it is given “in the interest of openness” and to make sure members of the public are aware of his credentials. He agreed that a regular column could provide a business benefit, but there was an opposite risk if the content displeased or gave offence to a listener or reader.

He also told you that no CBC personnel benefit in any way from the agreement. He explained that all CBC employees are bound by a code of conduct and a conflict of interest policy, which is routinely reviewed with staff. He said they are aware that this would be an extremely serious ethical breach.

He also addressed your question about the newsworthiness of the feature:

News value is a highly subjective matter. What one person considers newsworthy may not seem so to another. In the case of Mr. Battah, it was determined by CBC staff that his insights were of public interest and value. I should point out that, based on the popularity of his column, many readers and listeners seem to agree.

REVIEW

You have raised some important issues in your complaint. The answers are not entirely straightforward. As is often the case in these matters, there is more than one competing value or need at play.

The value of openness is an important one. You question the practice of using the owners of private companies as contributors to CBC. The issue you raise, however – that it provides an unfair advantage and the appearance of endorsement in using a business owner – would equally apply if the expert were an employee. If you are looking for someone to speak to a specific area of knowledge, informing the audience of the person’s credentials and his or her affiliation is an important piece of information. To honor the need for full openness, it is necessary to provide a contributor’s affiliation, whether it be his or her own company or a company he or she works for. In fact, CBC policy on identifying interviewees and those providing opinion is that it is critical to mention the affiliation. The reasoning is so that members of the public can fully understand the person’s perspective.

The issue then becomes the frequency that a contributor appears. The practice of using regular contributors has a definite programming value. The person builds a relationship with the audience. There is a consistency in the presentation. But there is a balancing act here. You are quite right that the sustained use of the same person, whether it is a human resources consultant or a financial analyst, risks the appearance that CBC is endorsing the person or the company. It risks undermining the fundamental CBC journalistic principle of independence, another important value:

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

It is mitigated by the fact that CBC editorial staff supervise Mr. Battah, approve the topics he presents and review the copy before it is published. However, the column that appears on the CBC New Brunswick website is the same as the one that is published on Mr. Battah’s personal blog page. This is blurring the lines to an unacceptable degree. CBC management might want to think about providing some rotation and other voices on this topic to avoid the perception of endorsement.

You asked me to specifically look at the question of the link on the CBC New Brunswick page to Mr. Battah’s company. There is CBC policy regarding the use of hyperlinks:

We enrich the experience of our online users by providing links from our news stories to other sites.

The links reflect the pertinent views on an issue. Links should reflect the journalistic principle of balance.

We take care that the sites we link to are legally sound, and we take into consideration matters of taste.

We give users enough information about the site we are linking so they may decide whether they wish to do so.

It is not very helpful in this instance. I am aware and somewhat sympathetic to the position that it is the convention of the internet to provide links, and that they do not necessarily imply endorsement. I think other CBC policy, like the one that makes a commitment to the independence of its journalism, would put limits on that practice. I agree that providing a link directly to the business can be perceived as an endorsement, especially because Mr. Battah appears weekly on radio in addition to his column. Relying on a stable of regular contributors, especially on more than one platform, runs the danger of creating that impression. That doesn’t mean the practice should be banned, but in this case eliminating the link to the contributor’s company would be appropriate. I would also urge CBC management to revisit this policy and provide further guidance to commercial links.

You also wondered why a World of Work column should exist at all, and questioned its “newsworthiness.” Mr. MacIntyre suggested that what fits that definition is subjective. That is true. I would go a bit further – a CBC morning program and CBC website provide a mixture of news and current affairs, as well as information that is useful in a more general way. Newscasts are generally filled with information that is current, has impact on lives or is just highly unusual. Editorial judgment goes into assessing what stories are covered and in what depth.

There is a much broader category of material that legitimately has impact on people’s lives and may be of interest. Providing a weekly column on issues pertaining to the workplace falls within a definition of current, or public, affairs. I reviewed a couple of months of columns. In their tone and the information they present, there is nothing promotional or that directly links them to a specific company. The columnist is using his knowledge and expertise to comment on things as diverse as “acts of kindness” in the workplace to current thinking on performance management. The content itself is not at issue here. It is the reliance on one person for all the coverage of this area, and the direct link to a specific company, that violates the need for independence.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman