Controversy vs. Controversial

John Carpay, President of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms and spokesperson for a Christian school in Alberta, thought coverage of a dispute between the local school board and his school was biased and rejected the description of the school as controversial.

COMPLAINT

You are the Counsel for Cornerstone Christian Academy and President of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. You complained about two news stories published on the CBC News Edmonton website. They concerned a dispute between the Academy and the Board - which supervised it. The dispute had several aspects, and part of the complaint was that the position of the school was not properly represented. The Battle River board had requested some Bible verses be removed from a student vision statement and that the school refrain from studying or reading particular scripture that “could be considered offensive to particular individuals.” CBC covered the dispute in stories published on June 15th and 30th.

While the school agreed to remove the lines from the student vision statement, they did not agree to the second request. After a contentious meeting on June 15, the school and the Board met privately. There appeared to be resolution on the issue of autonomy. The Board asked for an addendum to its agreement with the Cornerstone Christian Academy Society that required both parties to seek agreement of the other before releasing communications between them, and to consider communication not publicly disseminated as private. There were other provisions, including mention of the way the Society interacted with school board staff. You characterized this proposed amendment as a “gag order” which school officials declined to sign. You say that was the reason that the school board terminated its agreement with the school you represent. One of the complaints you had with the coverage was the news story about this turn of events. You felt it ignored the issue of the gag order, and the article did not make clear this was what motivated the Battle River School Board to end the agreement. The story was entitled: Alberta school board serves notice it will stop operating controversial Christian academy.

You questioned why the school was characterized as “controversial.” You thought this was a pejorative term and could equally be applied to the school board and its conduct and role in the dispute. You requested the headline be changed:

For CBC-Edmonton to characterize this school – but not the school board – as “controversial” is blatant editorializing, and has no place in a news story. Further, as you know, the headline of a news story is often the only thing that many people read, so the headline’s contents are even more important than the story itself.

Your characterization of the school belongs in an opinion editorial, not in a news story. Although this highly biased headline has now been viewed by thousands of people, causing damage to the reputation of Cornerstone Christian Academy, I request that the word “controversial” be removed from the headline.

You noted it was the school board which created the controversy by making its demand that the Christian Academy refrain from studying certain Bible verses. You also pointed out that saying the school is at the centre of the controversy and not the Board “pre-supposes that there is nothing controversial about a school board demanding that a religious school refrain from reading and studying its sacred text in its entirety.”

You pointed out an error in both stories - the Bible verse the school board found objectionable - and the school agreed to remove - which was not in a student handbook, as was initially reported in all three stories. It was, in fact, in a vision statement.

Your other concern about the June 15th story was that it was biased and relied too heavily on the Head of the school board to define the nature of the dispute. You pointed out she was quoted as saying that the Board did not intend to restrict the school’s religious teaching. You noted there was documentation that the Board had told the school they could not teach Bible verses which some might find offensive. You felt the views of the school were not clearly or properly represented because they did not mention at all that the meeting was to discuss the issue of Bible study and any limits that could be placed on it.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

You had correspondence with various news staff involved with the story. Ultimately, Paul Moore, Executive Producer at CBC Edmonton, replied and addressed your concerns about inaccuracies in the June 15th news story and your request that the word “controversial” be removed from the June 30th news story. You thought the word implied bias against the Cornerstone Christian Academy. He acknowledged that there was an error in the June 15th news story when it referred to a student handbook. The document under review by the school board was a vision statement, and both stories were corrected to reflect that fact. He stated that the stories were otherwise accurate, and reflected both sides of the dispute.

He did not agree with you that describing the school as “controversial” was opinion and not fact:

As I wrote in our previous email exchanges on this matter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary something is controversial if it gives rise or is likely to give rise to public disagreement.

Our stories clearly detail how the public disagreements in this case have focussed on the school. We report on how the conflict “started over Bible verses and ended with [a] dispute over [a] ‘gag order’.” There are, of course, two sides to the conflict and we fairly present the positions of, and give adequate opportunity for comment from, both the Battle River School Division and the Cornerstone Christian Academy. But the school division has not had any similar issues with other schools in its jurisdiction, so the centre of the disputes in question – the convergence of the conflict -- is on the Cornerstone Christian Academy. The disagreement is about and solely pertains to what is presented to students at the school.

He also did not agree that the word “controversial offers no value judgements while maintaining journalistic accuracy and fairness.” There was no judgment about the position taken by the academy or the school board.

REVIEW

You cite several issues with the CBC coverage. You also pointed out an inaccuracy in the initial coverage. You think the June 15th story failed to reflect the ongoing concern of the representatives of the Cornerstone Christian Academy - that the Battle River School Board had asked the school not to read or study Bible text that some individuals might find offensive. There was a secondary issue, from your perspective, about some Bible text referenced in the school’s vision statement, but that had been resolved by the time of the meeting.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for accuracy and clarity to help users of the news to draw their own conclusions about the issues at hand. Mr. Moore agreed that the text in question was mischaracterized as a student handbook, but was rather a vision statement. The news staff followed procedure to correct the copy and note the change. The original inaccuracy did not live up to CBC standards.

Aside from the inaccuracy dealt with, the June 15th story contained the relevant facts. The story mentioned that “the board was planning to update the public that the academy had agreed to refrain from using the scripture.” The news release that prompted the decision to cover the story came from your organization. That news release emphasized concern about the freedom to teach any part of the Bible - that too was reflected in the body of the news story:

The meeting of the Camrose school board Thursday was supposed to be about getting one of its schools to abide by the board's request to drop a questionable Bible verse from its vision document.

But now the relationship between that school and the board is up in the air.

Parents and supporters of the Cornerstone Christian Academy packed the meeting of the Battle River School Division board after they were invited by Deanna Margel, the Christian Academy's chairperson.

She was worried the school board would eventually try to dictate what Bible verses the Academy could teach.

Both positions were reflected in the headline, and the sub-head: Camrose school board, Christian Academy no closer to resolution over contentious bible verse was the headline. The sub-head states: “‘That’s a violation of freedom of expression and freedom of speech,’ says Christian Academy chairperson.” While there were two separate issues, they were both part of the dispute. The reporter, Travis McEwan, was at the meeting. CBC chose to attend it based on the news release put out by your organization, Justice Center for Constitutional Freedom. He did not have access to the school board email you referred to in your complaint to me. Based on what he knew, he accurately reflected the concerns and perspectives of the protagonists in this situation. It is true reporters have to ask questions. It is also true that the telling of an ongoing story, of getting at the whole picture, is an iterative process. He provided me a copy of the remarks made by the Head of the school board. From your perspective, parents were there over concerns for their rights. From the perspective of the Board, the fact that this had become an issue to be aired in public was problematic; that is reflected in the story. It may not be the framing of the story you would prefer, but it is legitimate and fact-based. The details of the disagreement about what can and cannot be taught were not clear at the time. The two sides had drawn their positions. Based on her public remarks, Ms. Skori believed the school had been following “the obligations of the law and to present a broad perspective on all issues.” The representatives of the school believed the private communication you referenced, and its mention of ensuring not reading or studying verses which some might find offensive, was an attempt at censorship. That view is reflected in the June 15th article.

You believe the follow-up story does not adequately reflect your position that the school board ended its agreement with the Cornerstone Christian Academy because the school rejected a proposed amendment to the agreement between the Board and the school. In fact, the chronology is fully laid out:

The decision to close the school next year is the latest move in an ongoing battle between the board and the school society, which has 160 students in kindergarten through Grade 12.

Trustees voted in favour of the move at a special board meeting Thursday.

The Battle River board had wanted Cornerstone to remove the word "quality" and a Corinthians scripture citation from its "school vision and purpose" document.

Battle River's lawyer had also "indicated that any scripture that could be considered offensive to particular individuals should not be read or studied in school," Battle River board chair Laurie Skori wrote in a May 27 email to Cornerstone chair Deanna Margel.

Cornerstone's board later agreed to make the requested changes to its school vision and purpose document. As well, the Battle River board promised not to censor the reading or teaching of the Bible at the school.

Then, on June 24, the Battle River board proposed changing its master agreement with Cornerstone to prevent either board from going public with any internal matters without written permission from the other board.

Cornerstone saw the proposed change as "a gag order, which we believe is inappropriate in the context of interactions between a representative parent society and a public school board," Margel wrote in an email to Battle River trustees on June 27.

Two days later, the Battle River board said it will no longer operate the school.

There is no inaccuracy or lack of balance in the presentation of the facts that led up to the termination of the agreement.

You also objected to the headline which described the school as controversial. You rejected Mr. Moore’s explanation that it fit the situation based on the dictionary definition of ‘giving rise or likely to give rise to public disagreement.” You stated that the action of the School Board similarly created a situation that led to public disagreement. I don’t think this is an indication of bias. However, to be scrupulously correct, I agree that reference to a controversy - rather than a description of one party as controversial - would have been better. The use of adjectives, unless they are concrete descriptions, often raises this kind of issue. It is an important reminder that it is better to describe something rather than capture it in an adjective.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman