Keeping Cool in the Twittersphere

The complainant, Lara Dutton, objected to a CBC online writer expressing opinion while using the @CBCToronto twitter account. She wanted to know what the consequences were for the employee. There was a violation of policy and CBC management dealt with it appropriately.

COMPLAINT

You complained about a tweet posted by a CBC News employee, Lucas Powers, as part of an exchange regarding an article concerning Toronto schools’ guidelines for Halloween costumes children could wear to school. Mr. Powers was using the @CBCToronto twitter account while engaging with tweeters commenting on the story. He divulged his name after a tweeter asked for his identity. You said “major news organizations should not use their accounts to profess opinion of individual reporters.” You wanted to know what the consequences might be for the tweets, and what guarantees there were that there would be no further bias.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Tim Richards, the Managing Editor of CBC Toronto, replied to your concerns. He agreed that it was not appropriate for a CBC employee to use the @CBCToronto twitter account to express his personal views on the issue. He told you it was a violation of CBC journalistic policy, and added that this was a “glaring reminder to all of our journalists about their obligations on social media.”

REVIEW

Mr. Richards informed you there was a violation of CBC policy, and he was right. The Journalistic Standards and Practices is clear in its prohibition of CBC news staff expressing opinion, no matter what platform it is on. Mr. Powers used the CBC News twitter account to engage in a dialogue with commentators who disagreed with Toronto school guidelines on Halloween costumes. Mr. Powers inserted himself into a discussion without identifying himself, using the @CBCToronto account. He chose to challenge people who believed their freedom of expression was being limited and disagreed with the guidelines. He asked:

Why does your celebration have to involve trivializing history and culture? Why is your celebration more important than people? Honest Qs.

The back and forth continued, with some posters challenging him. The tone became more confrontational and he essentially defended the school boards’ decisions. When asked for his identity, he gave it. It is the tone and context in which the questions were put that violated policy. If this was a forum and the interviewer was clearly there to ask provocative questions, that might be acceptable. However, in this case both its tone and context violated CBC social media policy:

We are consistent in our standards, no matter what the platform, in disseminating information. If we would not put the information on air or on our own website, we would not use social media to report that information.

When using social media as an information-gathering tool, we apply the same standards as those for any other source of newsgathering.

We bring these principles and values to bear in our personal use of social media as well.

You asked for a review even though Mr. Richards agreed with your complaint, because you had some questions about CBC policy going forward. You wanted to know how Mr. Power’s bias was addressed, and what discipline may have arisen from this incident. I am sure you will understand that matters of staff discipline are a management-prerogative and outside my mandate; it is also generally not made public. You said that Mr. Powers “openly flaunted there was nothing we could do about” his exchange with other tweeters. To the contrary, he informed them that they could take their concerns to this office, and fortunately you did so. Mr. Richards told me that both he and senior management dealt with the incident immediately after the tweets were posted. They carefully reviewed policy and expectations with the writer. This was done in a way consistent with CBC human resources policy.

It is my experience that CBC news management and staff take complaints seriously and draw the appropriate lessons from them.

You also asked how many CBC staff are in violation of Journalistic Standards and Practices. Every year, the office of the Ombudsman prepares an Annual Report which includes the statistics on the findings of the reviews. You can find that data going back to 2003 here.

You also asked what CBC policy is in regard to deletion of comments, especially those critical of CBC. I have checked with CBCnews.ca online staff, and to the best of their knowledge the entire exchange is still intact. The default of the Journalistic Standards and Practices is that content is not deleted unless there is a very compelling reason to do so. Instead, it is corrected and that is duly noted. The twitter exchange on this matter is still available. I am told by Jack Nagler, Director for Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, that the guidelines for twitter state that if there is an erroneous tweet, a correction is issued with a photo of the erroneous tweet to ensure openness. CBC policy is to note all corrections, a practice I strongly endorse. I agree that it is a required level of accountability and transparency. The policy does allow deletion in special circumstances, but it requires referral to a fairly senior level:

In the world of digital on demand, material may be accessible long after its original publication or broadcast. A dated story is not necessarily wrong. It is a reflection of the facts known at the time of publication. It can be an important part of the historical record.

But there may be times, in the light of new information, that archived material is substantially wrong. In those cases we review the material and take appropriate action that could include revising the original material, including a correction box or writing a fresh story.

Any changes to the original material will be noted to preserve the transparency of the process.

Decision to alter a story or its status should be done in consultation with the producer or editor.

Decisions to delete content should be referred to the Director.

There was a violation of policy. I trust CBC management will use this opportunity to provide clear guidelines to staff as they engage in a world where opinion and provocation are the norm.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman