Assuring Accuracy

Time pressure is a daily reality of journalism. A complaint from Nicole Babineau of Dexel, a firm with development proposals before the Halifax Regional Municipality, is an illustration of the cost. She complained about two errors in a story about her firm’s projects in a CBC Halifax TV news piece. Assuming has no place in reporting. Fact checking does. There was a violation of policy in the errors themselves, and a further problem with the corrections.

COMPLAINT

You are part of a development team working in the City of Halifax. One of your development proposals, Spring Garden West, was mentioned in a CBC Halifax evening newscast on December 7, 2016. You were concerned that there were two errors about your project. You contacted production staff at CBC Halifax to tell them that a graphic was incorrect, because it placed some proposed new towers in the wrong location, and erroneously reported that four heritage homes would be destroyed. You informed Ken MacIntosh, Executive Producer of News and Current Affairs, that the buildings would be restored should the project go through.

You were concerned that the reporter on the story, Pam Berman, did not do any fact-checking before she aired her report. You explained she was at an event where these projects were featured, and could have approached the owner of the company behind the proposal at any time. You added that correct information was also available online. You noted that fact-checking is a basic standard in journalism, and felt this report fell short.

Our team takes great pride in what we do, along with so many other developers in the city. It is upsetting that so little research was done for this report. I am not a journalist but I do think it violates the professionalism standard between the news and viewers can be repeatedly exposed to the wrong information and a simply, whoops is acceptable.

You acknowledged that the news team committed to correcting the errors on the following day’s broadcast, but in doing so, they actually made another mistake. Rather than saying the heritage homes would be restored if the project went ahead, it was reported that they had already been restored. That error was corrected a week later.

You expressed frustration with the professional standards of the newsgathering and reporting. You also said that there has been an erosion of public support for the project because of these errors.

We have been working extensively on this proposal for 18 months, we did a 6 month public engagement as well and with 1 report, our public credibility has been shot.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Nancy Waugh, the Managing Editor of News for CBC Atlantic, replied to your concerns. You also contacted and heard from the host of the programme, the executive producer and the reporter.

Ms. Waugh told you that she “regretted CBC News had failed to meet your expectations.” She explained the TV report of the open house, where citizens were able to review over a dozen development proposals, was an “overview of the meeting rather than an exploration of any individual development proposal.” Your project was not the focus, but one of three examples used to illustrate the boom the municipality is experiencing. She disagreed with your assertion that the reporter did not fact-check, pointing out that she actually spoke to a city planner, some citizens who were present, and one of the developers. She noted that the reporter apologized to you and took responsibility for her errors. The reporter, Ms. Berman, explained to you that in the case of the demolition of the homes she made an assumption, and was incorrect. The error in the placement of the proposed new buildings on the map was the result of a miscommunication between Ms. Berman and the graphic artist.

Ms. Waugh said that the news team let you down by compounding the error. In doing as CBC policy demands, issuing a correction the next night, another error was made. She stated said “This for me is where we let you down.”

Ms. Waugh told you that Ms. Berman had a very heavy workload that day and that may have contributed to the errors:

I note that on this particular day, Ms. Berman also presented a seven minute live piece on radio as well as a shorter report for our radio news service. We ask a lot of your reporter. Your email to us is a reminder of what can happen when we ask too much. While it’s easy to see how a mistake can slip through, the fact is mistakes can cause confusion and worse.

REVIEW

The fundamental commitment of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices is accuracy. You are correct that this did not meet journalistic standards. There were three errors: one was the placement of the new development on the wrong side of the street in a graphic representation. The second had two improper iterations: in the initial report the journalist said buildings would be demolished. The correction run the next night corrected that fact, but created a third error by reporting the buildings were already restored.

A correction now to a story we aired last night. The story incorrectly stated that four Heritage homes would be demolished to make way for the Spring Garden West Development between Robie and Carleton. Those four homes have actually been restored and will be maintained. A graphic showing the proposed location of the Spring Garden West Development also showed the wrong location for the build.

There seemed to have been a failure of checks and balances. I discussed what happened with the reporter, the executive producer and the managing editor. Ms. Waugh told you in her explanation to you that the focus of the story was the meeting itself and the interest generated by the open house put on by the municipality. That may have been the case, but the decision to use several development proposals, yours among them, meant there should have been due diligence paid to those projects. While a developer’s perspective was present in the piece, you are right to question why no one from your project was interviewed. Ms. Berman told me she did check the Municipality website for each of the projects, and from the way the information was presented, she “assumed” the buildings would be demolished. That may have been a reasonable assumption from what she saw on the website, but reporters should never assume; they are obliged to use their skills to verify as fully as possible.

There is no dispute that the errors occurred. It might provide some insight to consider some of the contributing factors that led to the errors going undetected. News management might want to review their processes and systems to ensure there is enough time and attention to detail.

In this case, some basic decisions about the segment to be aired were made by the assignment desk before the reporter even had a chance to attend the event. Your proposal, as well as two others, was chosen to illustrate the range of development projects that would be on display at the Halifax Regional Municipality’s open house. This was done earlier so that the graphic used to illustrate where the new buildings would go could be created for the reporter’s return from covering the actual event. The graphic was prepared but the information about the project was not verified. The reporter explained when she did get to the event there were so many people present she did not spot anyone from your team. She was under time pressure, and did not stay at the venue very long because she had a great deal of material to prepare for afternoon radio programmes, as well her television report. In retrospect, she realized that even though the piece broadly focused on the building boom, she should have paid more attention to the examples she had chosen. It was not responsible to mention specific developments without verifying the details.

Because of the other work she was doing, Ms. Berman told me she did not see the graphic until 5:30 p.m. Because she was still working and under time pressure, she did not catch the fact that the new buildings were placed on the wrong side of the street. The time pressures and the fact that some of the material was prepared before the event led to some bad choices. Every newsroom faces time and resource pressure as more is required of staff to provide material for a multi-platform universe. It is an ongoing challenge to find the tipping point where accuracy and thoroughness can be compromised. With the best of practices, errors will happen; that is why the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices does have policy about making corrections:

We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.

The fact that a situation has evolved so that information that was accurate at the time of its publication is no longer accurate does not mean that an error was committed, but we must consider the appropriateness of updating it, taking into account its importance and impact.

The form and timing of a correction will be agreed with the Director, in consultation with the Law Department where applicable.

In the first instance, the policy was followed. In the second instance, correcting the new error about the timing of the restoration of the heritage buildings, it was not. When they were made aware of the new mistake, it should have been corrected the next day. That correction was not aired for a week.

We have a correction to make about a story we brought you last week.

We reported that four heritage homes have been restored as part of a proposed development on Spring Garden Road in Halifax.

In fact, the homes have not yet been restored. That work would only happen if the development proposal is approved.

In reviewing your correspondence with the staff at CBC Halifax, there was an openness and acknowledgement that the work fell below standards. The on-air corrections were clear and straightforward. It would be helpful if supervisors ensured all staff are familiar with the requirements of the corrections policy. While the policy provides some latitude as to remedy, it does require consultation on the director level. This did not occur after the second error.

The story of the building boom and the proposed changes in the Halifax municipality is an ongoing one. Having brought attention to your proposals, CBC News staff might want to keep an eye on its progress and appropriately report on developments.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman