Balance and Opinion

The complainant, Peter Labrie, objected to an opinion piece that was anti-Trump. He thought it was partisan and its premise ludicrous. He is entitled to his take on it, but by its nature opinion argues for a point of view. He further noted that there was no balance within the CBCNews Opinion section when dealing with Donald Trump. Overall, the pieces cover a range of perspectives on issues raised by a Trump presidency.

COMPLAINT

You considered an opinion piece by Scott Reid, entitledLet us hope for a Donald Trump disaster and published on the CBCNews.ca Opinion page was a “poorly structured Liberal rant against Trump.” You thought the piece was “gratuitously partisan” and wondered why anyone would care about Mr. Reid’s view of a Trump presidency. You questioned how Mr. Reid arrived at a percentage of misstatements and untruths uttered by the new U.S. president:

Really ninety-six percent? Where does that data come from? Reid just plucks it out of the air. That really is an outright lie.

You objected to the notion that it is, in any way, in Canada’s best interest to wish for the Trump regime to fail:

The premise of the article is ludicrous: If Trump fails, the USA fails. Why would we, Canadians, want our most important ally and neighbor to fail? If the USA does poorly, Canada does poorly, too. Nevertheless, Reid explains that our American neighbors must fail because that would support Reid's myopic worldview. Who cares about Reid's worldview?

You said CBC had given up on its objectivity to adopt a particular political agenda. You questioned any notion of balance over time by citing the last 10 pieces published in the Opinion section which dealt with President Trump and stated that 90% of them were “hostile to President Trump.” This proved there was no attempt at editorial objectivity.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Steve Ladurantaye, Managing Editor @cbcnews, responded to your concerns.

He emphasized that the column was published in the Opinion section of the site and explained that writers are encouraged to share their perspectives. He noted that it would naturally follow that not everyone would share those views or agree with the approach.

He noted that in publishing opinion there was an obligation to provide a range of views over time and referred you to another column which took an opposing point of view - Why Canadians had better wish Trump success.”

He also gave you some information about the citing of a 96% rate of shading the truth:

...you mention that the writer just pulls the 96 percent number out of the air. But it’s actually sourced to fact-checking site Politifact, a reputable source of news that has won a Pulitzer Prize. The organization found only 4% of what Trump has said in public as of the column’s publication was 100% true.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices lays out specific policy about Opinion:

Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day.

When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.

When we choose to present a single point of view :

• it is clearly labeled, and

• it does not misrepresent other points of view.

While not every piece is explicitly labelled as a “single point of view”, logically, when an individual is invited to write about his or her perspective, it will be from that point of view - that is the purpose of opinion pieces. The wider issue is the obligation to provide a range of perspectives over time. This is what JSP has to say about that:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

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.

As Mr. Ladurantaye pointed out to you, this was clearly labelled as an opinion piece. You may reject the views and premise presented, but it does not make it in violation of CBC policy on that count. The policy is vague about what time frame is reasonable for achieving balance. There is no correct answer, but the general approach is that the more controversial the subject, the closer together the range of views should be. It is a little more clear cut when dealing with news and current affairs programmes and sections of the website, because the volume of material is so much greater. In this case, in many ways, we are in uncharted territory. One challenge many media organizations have faced is finding credible writers to produce material in support of the new President. His style has been polarizing and divisive, his disregard for facts challenging. Journalists have an obligation to report and explain that state of affairs. As his presidency unfolds, it might become easier to find people in support of his policy objectives.

You cited ten opinion pieces which dealt with Trump over roughly a ten-week period. The articles all dealt with some aspect of the American political scene, not simply President Trump. For example, the article When faced with Trump’s extremism, the media falter is as critical of the news media as it is of Trump. These are nuanced looks at various issues, and while they may point out some of Mr. Trump’s more controversial behaviours and statements, there is discussion and critical examination of American society or institutions as well. They are more complex than a simple pro/con approach. As Mr. Ladurantaye told me “if you read all those columns together you'd find that most of them weren't actually about Trump, but rather how to deal with the uncertainty he has caused in the world or reckon with his style of governing.” For example, the column Advice for Trudeau in dealing with Trump: Play nice, is a reflection on the best diplomatic approach to protect Canada’s interests. There are a couple that speak in favour of the new administration - Why Canadians had better wish Trump success and Here’s a thought: Trump knows what he’s doing. Balance is not equivalence - for every one critical thing said, there must be a positive one. That is not the meaning of the policy. It talks about “relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.” I think it is fair to say that whether one supports the overall vision, the language and the style of this administration has raised a level of opposition that is unusual.

The other issue you raise is that you see an imbalance in the presentation of views, and asked about journalistic “objectivity.” Objectivity is not a term used by journalists or media scholars - rather the goal is balance and fairness. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain in their book "The Elements of Journalism", it is a misunderstanding of the principles of journalism to think that at its core there is a completely neutral voice. They explain that when early twentieth century journalists embraced notions of “objectivity” they meant that while the journalist was not objective, acknowledging we all have bias or perspective, the method he or she used could be. It is the discipline and transparency of the method that makes for excellent journalism. It means that the trap of equivalence, assigning all views the same weight and value is not the goal of good journalism. As they put it, “the familiar, supposedly neutral style of news writing - is not a fundamental principle of journalism.” (p.103)

These concepts are applicable in this situation in the broadest sense -- in that we are not dealing with reporting but rather a part of the website put aside for the expression of opinion, and largely staffed by freelance writers, not CBC staffers. The article you cited was not in violation of CBC journalistic policy. You raise some broader issues about balance over time. I reiterate that balance is not equivalence - the style and loose regard for facts generated by this administration means it will come under critical scrutiny. There has been a clear attempt in the Opinion section to balance that out with more favorable perspectives. It is a practice that should continue.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman