Equitable - not Equal - in Political Coverage

The complainant, Bruce Cox, thought the lack of mention of the provincial NDP, and its leader - in the context of a discussion of Ontario politics - was a glaring and biased omission. The context was a mention of the Liberal’s standing in a poll. It wasn’t the main subject of the political analysis segment on Here and Now. Balance can’t be judged in isolation - the NDP and its leader have been featured in some stories, and have been included in many others. However, the poll was attributed to the wrong firm, and there was no link provided, which is violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You had concerns about a segment on CBC Toronto’s afternoon programme, Here and Now. Host Gil Deacon had a discussion with Robert Fisher regarding the political scene in Ontario. Mr. Fisher is a regular contributor to the programme. His work is presented in print form online via the CBC Hamilton website, as well as being used by other stations in Ontario. In this particular March 10th broadcast, you challenged two things. One was that Mr. Fisher failed to mention the leader of the NDP, Andrea Horwath, in the course of the discussion. You consider this a pattern in Mr. Fisher and CBC’s Ontario political coverage. You found this instance particularly galling because Mr. Fisher referenced an opinion poll which placed Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals in third place in the 905 belt around Toronto.

THIRD PLACE TO WHOM? Mr. Fisher makes the point that Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is leading the Liberals in the polls outside Toronto but lets it slip that things are so bad for the spunky, perpetually underestimated, fantastic campaigner Kathleen Wynne that she is in THIRD PLACE in the 905!?!? But to WHOM? Or WHAT? Ms. Deacon is no help either, no riveting questions from this intrepid broadcaster.

You also questioned the reference to polls without providing information about the poll, including some of the numbers. You were uncertain about which poll Mr. Fisher was talking about; you thought that he had wrongly identified it on air. You believed it was actually done by the polling firm, Mainstreet Research.

Your overall criticism was that Mr. Fisher does not talk about the NDP in any of his analysis.

To suggest that this bi-weekly chat with Mr. Fisher is somehow a "Queens Park round up" is an affront to journalism. I would, and have, gotten a more balanced critique of Ontario politics at a Liberal policy convention. For the public broadcaster to consistently relegate the Ontario NDP to anonymity means the CBC relinquishes its reporting mandate and in fact becomes the "newsmaker". Consistent exclusion creates a two horse race with no room for challengers. What is startling is how despite the Fisher/Deacon worldview NDP leader Andrea Horwath still out-polls Wynne/Brown in approval ratings among Ontarians. This cannot be sustained of course if no one knows she exists let alone is running for Premier.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

At the end of April you received two responses from CBC. One from the Programme Producer, Carla Turner, and the other from Alan Habbick, Executive Producer at CBC News in Toronto. Ms. Turner pointed out the poll was a quick reference in the context of the discussion of the historic low popularity rating of the government. She told you the poll was conducted on February 15th and 16th by Nanos, with a sample of more than a thousand Ontario residents.

Mr. Habbick provided further and more detailed information. Both Ms. Turner and Mr. Habbick apologized for the long response time. Mr. Habbick explained there were two primary subjects in that week’s segment. One was speculation on whether Premier Kathleen Wynne would remain as leader into the next election and a controversy over the closing of schools which had come up in the legislature.

He agreed with you that it would have been better to have provided more data when referencing the poll:

You are correct that Mr. Fisher referenced a Nanos poll that looked at how the parties were faring in the 905 region, and he contrasted the large gap between the Conservatives, in first place, and the Liberals in third. Because we were referencing the specific poll, it would have been helpful for our listeners to have also included the specific polling number for the Ontario NDP. Our policy is to provide relevant information to our listeners to help our audience place a poll in the appropriate context. The lack of that information in our discussion obviously left you unsatisfied, and I have shared your comments with Here & Now's producers and Mr. Fisher as a reminder for the future when similar stories come up.

He directed you to an online version of this discussion, which made reference to all three political parties. He added that he did not think Mr. Fisher showed bias in favour of the Liberals, since he made critical comments in this segment, as he did in others. He directed you to other episodes of this feature which included references to Andrea Horwath, including one on April 7th entitled “NDP on the move, Conservatives on the defensive”, which focused on Ms. Horwath’s performance. He did not agree that Mr. Fisher neglected coverage of the NDP and its leader.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices defines balance and fairness in a number of ways. An important one is that balance and reflection of multiple perspectives is reached over a reasonable period of time. While Ontario is not in an election campaign period, the policy on election coverage has a principle that pertains here:

Canadians expect us to provide a wide range of information and context so that they can make decisions during election and referendum campaigns.

We ensure that the facts and analysis we present on issues, candidates and parties is timely, accurate, fair and balanced over the course of the campaign.

We give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment. This does not necessarily mean equal broadcast time.

Generally speaking, political coverage should be equitable which is not the same as equal. This was one episode of a recurring programme feature. Mr. Fisher appears on Here and Now on a bi-weekly basis to provide analysis and insight on Ontario politics. What is discussed is often driven by recent events. As you pointed out, it is a fairly lengthy feature, but it does focus on one or two things - and in this case it was speculation about the Premier’s political future. The introduction framed the discussion:

GIL DEACON

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has been fighting off criticism from the opposition. Now there are reports that people within her own party are discussing who might lead that party next. Political Analyst Robert Fisher will weigh in on whether the Liberals need a new leader before the next Provincial election in 2018.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she plans to lead the Liberals into the 2018 Provincial election, but that hasn’t stopped rumours and speculation that they might replace her. Kathleen Wynne’s popularity has hit a low point over issues such as hydro rates and most recently, school closures. Here and Now’s favourite Political Analyst, Robert Fisher, has been speaking with his sources about the future of the Liberals and perhaps what might be in store for Kathleen Wynne.

The poll was mentioned in passing, by way of showing how badly the Liberals were faring in the vote-rich area around Toronto. Mr. Habbick already mentioned that it would have been better to provide more details about the poll so listeners would have more information in order to better understand the situation. This was the exchange:

GD

She’s [Kathleen Wynne] an MPP right here in the City. How’s her popularity right here in Toronto?

RF

If you look at the numbers I’m using as a kind of a gauge here in the most recent Nanos Research Poll that came out last week and it was taken, if memory serves me correctly, February 15 and 16, so sort of before the big hydro announcement. Within the 416, the good news for Kathleen Wynne is that she and the Conservatives under Patrick Brown, and I use his name because virtually no one knows who he is, they are virtually tied. The difference comes in the all important vote-rich 905, where the Tories are at 47%, the Liberals at 21%. The gap of 26% is very significant and it is Gil, as you and I have talked in the past, and certainly in the last election, if you’re going to win an election you got to win in the 905 and right now the Liberals are clearly in third place in the 905.

Mr. Habbick is correct that it is not a violation of policy to have omitted to mention the NDP nor to have given their standing in this context. There is no imperative for equal mention. I note that in the online version of this discussion all three parties are referenced.

Mr. Fisher named a Nanos poll in this online piece and on air. You are correct that this information was wrong. In the course of preparing this review, I asked Mr. Habbick to provide me with a link to the correct poll. In so doing, he discovered that in fact it was a Forum Research Poll, conducted on February 15 and 16. The data was correct, the polling company was not. There is a corrected version posted online, with the correction duly noted:

The Liberals continue to lag in the polls. The most recent poll comes from Forum. Support for the Tories is about 44 per cent. The NDP at 25, the Liberals at 24. Forum took that and extrapolated what that would look like in the new 122 seat legislature. By 2018, there will be 122 seats in the legislature not the current 107. From them, you hear 84 Tories, 27 New Democrats and 11 Liberals. Eleven per cent happens to mirror the personal popularity the Premier currently has.

The questions you raised about polling are important ones. There is an obligation when dealing with polls to provide basic information about them. I don’t think it is realistic in a short radio reference to provide more than bare bones, but the information should be available online. I note this article has no link to the poll; if that had been done, perhaps the error would have been prevented. CBC policy on reporting of non-CBC polls requires, among other things, the obligation to provide information about them:

To help our audience place a poll in context, we provide relevant information about the methodology and size of the sample along with the results. Where applicable, we provide the margin of error.

CBC managers might want to remind staff of the need for this information.

At the outset, I mentioned that reporting should be equitable and not equal. A broad review of March and April CBC News programs and newscasts in Toronto indicates that the NDP and its leader are featured in a variety of reports. One of Mr. Fisher’s columns focused on Ms. Horwath and the NDP. Other columns of his through that period mentioned the fortunes and foibles of all three parties. Other coverage included mention of the NDP and gave air time to NDP members of the legislature. Mr. Fisher provides only a fraction of the political coverage. He is the only regular commentator and contributor. From a programming perspective, there is value to having a regular voice. However, CBC management might want to think about the value of having a range of commentators. Mr. Fisher does not take or advocate a particular point of view. Nevertheless, a range of voices enriches the commitment to diversity.

The online version of the March 10th column should have provided a link to the Forum Research poll. There was a factual error in attributing it to the wrong polling firm.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman