Bias by Omission

The complainant, Art Toft, thought that merely reporting about the closing down of an activist group’s space because the building was being torn down was unacceptable. He believed it was biased not to mention the political positions taken by Beit Zatoun. He felt the article praised the organization. The politics were not relevant in this context.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a cbcnews.ca article regarding the closing of a community organization called Beit Zatoun. You brought your complaint to this office because you had not received a reply when you contacted CBC News directly about the article entitled After 1,000 events activist hub Beit Zatoun forced to close. You thought this article, about a community space closing because it was being demolished for redevelopment, was one more example of CBC News’ bias against Israel. You said the article “praised the activities that occurred at Beit Zatoun. You characterized the supporters of the organization as “left-wing, anti-Israel, BDS activists & in general, don’t care about a just peace in the Middle East.” Their positions on the conflict should have been included in this article, you stated:

For the sake of balance, how about spending some effort showing the true colours of these people, rather than whitewashing what their true agenda is.

But the CBC never has shown journalistic integrity when it comes to reporting on this conflict. I doubt if it will start now, but I’d be refreshing & morally & journalistically proper if you would.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer for CBC News in Toronto, Pras Rajagopalan, replied to your concern. He apologized that you had not received a reply to your comments at the outset. He explained that it is not always possible to answer all the mail they receive directly, but it is all read and “taken seriously.”

He told you he did not agree that the reporter “praised the activities of Beit Zatoun.” He explained that the piece was not an examination of the activities of the organization. He said regardless of how one viewed it, it was “a prominent cultural centre in the community” and that in this context any controversy it may have been engaged in was not relevant. He pointed out that there was some mention of its political positions:

Our story notes the organization was pro-Palestinian, is known for its activism, and it has hosted a wide range of events. It was a straightforward profile in which we talked to some of the people involved with the group and found out what it meant to them as a profile. And that's about it.

I accept that you would have preferred a story that also assessed whether this organization was responsible, or respectful in its treatment of Israel, and what controversies it might have been involved in. Fair enough. But the absence of this angle does not mean the story was biased.

He also stated that CBC News “takes seriously its responsibility” to produce fair and equitable coverage of the conflict in the Middle East. He pointed out that individuals have passionate views on the subject:

I can also tell you that no matter what we report, somebody will feel we got it wrong. Supporters of all sides are understandably passionate about the issue, and have strong feelings about which facts are relevant and which narrative should take precedence. And, generally, it is through their own personal prism that they assess our coverage.

REVIEW

The context of a piece and its purpose has bearing on what is required to ensure balance and fairness. It is relevant that in this case the story was about the shutting down of the Beit Zatoun space in the context of a major redevelopment project in mid-town Toronto. The closing of Honest Ed’s was significant news in the city, and this was another casualty of the development. When CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices talks about a reflection of a wide range of views held by a wide variety of Canadians, it will include views that are controversial, and views that others consider wrong or threatening. That does not oblige CBC News to provide every aspect and perspective of an issue in every single piece. Nowhere is that truer in something as complex and divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Beit Zatoun hosted some controversial speakers and it may have advocated some controversial positions, one in particular you are deeply opposed to. In a democracy, freedom of speech and association allows for the expression of those views. The frame of this story was the closing of the organization. Its purpose was not explored, but was broadly identified: it is described as an “activist hub”. Its founder described it as having “its roots in Palestine.” It is true this is not a very deep piece -- only its founder and someone described as having been involved with it for years are interviewed. There might have been people in the neighbourhood who were glad to see it go, but omission of the controversy in this case is hardly evidence of bias. The closing of the community organization was the most newsworthy part of this coverage, not the political positions held by it. There has to be some consideration of degree and relevance in judging whether omission constitutes bias. When views are passionately held, the perception often comes down to the coverage not featuring a preferred approach or narrative. The fact that the focus of Beit Zatoun’s advocacy was not mentioned or examined in any detail is not a violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman