The Alberta Teachers’ Association released a toolkit for creating curriculum dealing with “sexual and minority genders.” The complainant, Greg Murphy, questioned the balance and fairness of an article about the handbook framed by the objections raised by a critic. He thought it misrepresented the document and distorted its meaning. There were other perspectives in the piece, and other articles on the subject. There was no violation of policy.
You found an article about a new publication created by the Alberta Teachers’ Association to help teachers develop curriculum and foster discussion of LGBTQ issues to have violated CBC Journalistic Policy on several counts. I note that you initially sent an email to this office on November 2nd, 2016, the day the article was published. Unfortunately we never received it, it never arrived, and it wasn’t until you inquired about it on December 19 that the process began. I apologize for the time lag.
You thought that starting with the headline, the piece entitled “Should Drag shows be used as a teaching tool in Alberta schools” generated controversy for the sake of it. You said the article used as its frame the criticism of one blogger, and ignored the substance and issues raised in the handbook. You added that beginning with this controversial notion of drag shows as a teaching tool, the article lacked the context needed and instead “presents it as indicative of the whole document.”
The document suggests using drag shows as an option to supplement cosmetology and/or drama classes, should the teacher feel that it would be appropriate for his or her students. At no point is there a suggestion that drag shows be used in any other context or to teach any other group of students.
You considered this a lack of nuance you saw throughout the report. You said that the article focused its attention on one blogger who was critical and did not provide enough information about the report itself.
It reduces a comprehensive document about inclusion to two or three specific ideas (presented without context), and serves to further stigmatize children and teens who already face intense discrimination and bullying, and the host of physical and mental health problems that follow. It legitimizes the “gay panic” narrative that leads to bullying and discrimination in the first place.
You also had concerns about the use of language in the article. Not only did it violate CBC Journalistic Standards relating to balance and fairness, but also its many provisions on the use of language, in particular the guidelines on “quality and precision,” “language level and good taste” and “respect and absence of prejudice”:
... it repeats the views of the blogger without attribution and functionally parrots the blog post, giving a national platform to Theresa Ng's intolerant and anti-government viewpoints.
You believe the article lacks balance because other perspectives regarding the Prism handbook are not referenced until quite far down in the story.
Ashley Geddes, Senior Producer Digital, CBC News Edmonton, responded to your concerns. He explained that the focus of the story was the 150-page Prism booklet, which had just been distributed to Alberta schools. He said that there was opposition to the publication, so the “theme of controversy, of opposing views” is the thread throughout the story.
The story’s first sentence says the booklet is being “slammed by critics”, for suggesting schools should stage drag shows and address students as “comrades”, rather than boys and girls – both salient issues in the mind of critics. The third paragraph adds more context saying the booklet is “just the latest in a divisive battle over LGBTQ rights for students, pitting advocates against religious and parental groups”
She explained that quoting from Theresa Ng’s blog was a device for representing the critics of the material because her concerns and objections are fairly typical of those opposed to the Prism initiative. In her blog, Ms. Ng cited the example of using drag shows as a way to teach cosmetology. Ms. Ng also voiced her objections to the suggestion of using comrade as a gender neutral term for addressing children, as well as other non-gendered language to refer to parents.
Ms. Geddes pointed out that there were other perspectives in the story - that of the Alberta Teachers’ Association head of the human rights and diversity division, as well as the Education Ministry chief of staff who spoke in defense of the initiative.
Andrea Berg, head of the ATA’s human rights and diversity division is also quoted at some length talking about how teachers had seen a need for help in creating a “welcoming, caring, safe and inclusive learning environment” for their students. She said it includes advice for teachers on “helping students come out and about their sexual or gender orientation”. It also offers advice on “dealing with homophobic and transphobic behaviour”, she said. And, she explained in the story that the “drag shows” that had drawn so much fire were only recommended as an “optional” activity.
The story concludes by quoting Alberta education ministry chief of staff Jeremy Nolais saying that although the booklet was created with a grant from the government, neither the government nor the minister “requires school authorities to refer to the Prism toolkit”
She responded to your suggestion that the story should have applauded this effort rather than providing a platform to an “intolerant view” by explaining that CBC News is obliged to provide a range of perspectives. She added that there were several other stories published on the topic and available on the CBC Edmonton news website.
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices addresses questions of balance and fairness.
In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.
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.
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You think this story lacked balance because its perspective is based on criticism of the document. I asked Ms. Huncar why, since the Prism toolkit was just about to be released, this theme was chosen for the first story on it. She told me that it had not been widely distributed yet, and it was the critics of the toolkit that had alerted the newsroom of its existence. She thought the opposition was a newsworthy element. She pointed out that there was a wider context for this as well - the issue of LGBTQ rights and creating a more inclusive environment in Alberta classrooms had been a very controversial and divisive issue for at least a couple of years. It is a valid journalistic choice to present the views of those opposed, even when they express them in strong terms. The question of framing is a nuanced one. You might not agree with framing the article in this fashion, but it did have a broader context, and it did include other perspectives and voices. If only the critic was quoted or present, you would have a point. A spokesperson for the Alberta Teachers’ Association is quoted at some length:
Andrea Berg, head of the ATA's human rights and diversity division, said the toolkit was created based on demand following a similar document released four years ago for elementary school teachers.
"The document came about as a result of demand from teachers in the field who saw a need in their classrooms on how to create the welcoming, caring, safe and inclusive learning environments," said Berg.
She pointed to the high rates of bullying, self harm and suicide among sexual and gender minority students.
Berg said it is hoped the document will help teachers cultivate safe and supportive discussions in the classroom. It includes advice for teachers if a student comes out about their sexual or gender orientation, as well as dealing with homophobic and transphobic behaviour.
The suggestion of staging a drag show "was recommended as an optional activity that teachers could choose to participate in or not," Berg said.
The headline referenced the use of drag shows as a teaching tool (“Should drag shows be used as a teaching tool in Alberta schools?) and you thought this distorted an understanding of the document from the outset. Headlines must be accurate, but they do also serve a function to get people to read further, and in a digital environment the pressure is even more intense. Your point that it might create the impression that this is a very radical document is a valid one - and from the perspective of its critics, it is. The Prism document does talk about drag in a particular context, which is explained further in the story. The second paragraph provides a broader perspective:
Those are just two of the proposals in a 150-page document from the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA). The "Prism Toolkit for Safe and Caring Discussions" aims to help teachers create classrooms and curriculum that are more LGBTQ inclusive.
I appreciate your concern that this focus distorts the understanding of the document, which had many other suggestions and tools. I agree it would have been a better service to readers to provide more detail, but its absence does not cross to a violation of policy. Balance and fairness cannot be assessed in isolation. Even looking at this article as a “one-off”, it does present more than one view. The policy points out that balance and fairness are to be achieved over time. I note, and Ms. Geddes pointed out to you, the next day CBC News published another piece. It noted both sides in its headline: “Alberta LGBTQ school toolkit praised as 'good start,' but called 'dangerous' by critic.”
Both of the headlines reflect aspects and perspectives on this matter. Coverage of an ongoing issue is iterative. I am told the next day the Edmonton Morning show and the province-wide noon show featured a number of guests who spoke in more detail about the document. The experience of transgendered people and the question of human rights were also addressed. That coverage also included critics who believe the toolkit takes away parental choice and violates their religious beliefs.
You also thought that there were serious violations of every aspect of CBC policy on language, especially “respect and absence of prejudice.”
Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights.
Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome.
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.
We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.
When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.
The overall policy on language cautions there should be sensitivity in language use and no gratuitous references to language some may find unpleasant and hurtful. There are no derogatory terms used in this piece. And while some may find Ms. Ng’s views objectionable, they are attributed to her. They are given a lot of attention in this piece, but the CBC language policies are not intended to deal with overall perspectives or ideas that might be offensive to some. CBC journalists are charged with presenting a range of views over time. This article fits into that context. There was no violation of policy.