Covering Syria

The complainant, Marjaleena Repo, thought the Power & Politics treatment of events in Syria was too one-sided. The context was analysis of changes in U.S. policy, what it might mean and how it might affect Canadian policy. The context did not require presenting other overall views and characterization of the conflict.

COMPLAINT

You were dissatisfied with an episode of Power & Politics which had three different segments concerning the recent bombing of Syrian civilians and the United States’ response. U.S. naval vessels launched missiles at the airport where the attack was thought to originate. You called it “incredibly biased, one-sided reporting and interviewing.” You said the host and the guests on the programme all agreed that Syria was guilty of recent chemical attacks, and that Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad should be removed from office. You stated it was also necessary to include commentators and experts who disagree with those positions and who would question U.S. foreign policy on Syria:

... no one mentioning the obvious fact that the attack on Syria, a sovereign nation, by the USA was a unilateral illegal act that breaches that United Nations Charter, no one expressing concern about this act endangering world peace.

There are many competent people in Canada, United States and elsewhere, scholars, experts on Syria, journalists, knowledgeable about the country's history and the players in the crisis that has lasted for six years (misleadingly called "civil war" when it actually is a proxy war, financed by several foreign nations, Saudi Arabia and United States among them), who could provide a coherent counter-perspective on the crisis and the recent chemical attack. It takes little effort to locate them, when there is will, but that will appears to be completely missing from this programme.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Amy Castle, the Executive Producer of Power & Politics, replied to your concerns. She told you that there was a particular framework for the coverage of Syria in this particular broadcast and said the purpose was to explore the “international implications” arising from the U.S. missile attack a few days earlier. She told you that the first interview was with retired Colonel Peter Mansoor with a focus on understanding what was guiding U.S. foreign policy and what actions might arise from it in this new administration. She informed you Col. Mansoor had served in Iraq as Executive Officer to U.S. General David Petraeus, who was then Commander of a multi-national force stationed there.

She noted the purpose of the segment, involving two international affairs experts, was to provide “context and analysis” regarding statements made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier that day. She added the “focus of the discussion was on how Canada should respond to U.S. actions in Syria.”

She provided a lengthy list of other people who have been interviewed on the programme on various aspects of the conflict, ranging from opposition critics and featured international reaction from Turkey, Russia, France and Germany.

She also told you that the programme and CBC News generally would continue to seek out a range of views.

REVIEW

As Ms. Castle pointed out to you, the context for this programming was the implications of the recent U.S. attack on a Syrian airfield for what was believed, but was not verified, to be a chemical attack. It was not a broader discussion on the war in that country. The context and focus of the discussion were not whether the U.S. policy was correct, but rather about where it might lead and if it represented a new approach. The guests were asked to explain the thinking and likely strategy of both the U.S administration and how Canada might respond. The coverage started with a conversation with Washington-based reporter Lyndsay Duncombe, and framed the rest of the coverage that day:

ROSEMARY BARTON

Prime Minister Trudeau seems to have hardened his language a little bit on Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime. Meanwhile, the world is watching for any hints out of Washington that could indicate anything about what the trump administration will do there next.

Joining me from Washington with more is the CBC’s Lyndsay Duncombe. What more do we know about the White House plans for Syria at this stage.

The next segment featured an interview with retired General, Peter Mansoor. Ms. Barton’s introduction framed it as an analysis of likely next steps as well:

ROSEMARY BARTON
So could we see more military action against Syria? what options are available to the U.S.? Joining me from Toronto, retired Colonel Peter Mansoor. He worked for General David Petraeus. It’s not going to be surprising that i want to talk about Syria and what’s next. What did you make of the strikes last week and whether we can read into anything of this administration’s foreign policy in relation to that?

The question of whether there were chemical weapons used in the attack came up explicitly in the third segment of the interview with two foreign policy experts. While once again most of the conversation was about foreign policy and strategy, Ms. Barton asked “Could Canada have an effective role in the international response to last week’s deadly chemical attack?” There has been no independent verification, as there have been in other instances, of the use of these weapons. CBC coverage at the time of the attack on Khan Shaykhun, a rebel-held town in north-western Syria, gave a variety of perspectives, including the Syrian president’s denial that chemical weapons were used. In this regard, it would have been more accurate for Ms. Barton to remind audience members that while this was suspected, it had not yet been independently verified.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices does not consider balance a matter of equivalence, or the necessity to treat all points of view with equal weight and treatment:

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.

The conflict in Syria and its international implications is a story now in its seventh year. Coverage of the conflict has been challenging because of the limited access to the country and the extreme danger to reporters on the ground. CBC news staff tell me they have made numerous requests for visas and for interviews with President Bashar al-Assad. Last Fall, CBC journalist Margaret Evans was able to get into Syria under the auspices of the Syrian government, and present their point of view. Journalists have developed a range of contacts in the country and use their best judgment about what is verified and what can be reported.

Your reminder that there is a need for critical voices in the overall coverage is a good one. Over time there have been interviews with other politicians critical of Canada’s approach, as well as the perspective of other countries involved in the conflict. The JSP also gives journalists latitude to use their “expertise” and professional judgment in the creation of content. As in most conflicts, there are many competing narratives. Professional judgment and expertise enables reporters to make decisions about the appropriate weight to give them. As this conflict continues, news management should be mindful of presenting dissenting views and perhaps, more importantly, in a war so hard to cover, to ensure that members of the public are told what is known for certain, and how information is verified.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman