Pictures vs. Words

The complainant, Luanne Roth, had concerns about a bar graph in an article explaining how to follow election results on the CBC news site on B.C. election day. It showed the Green Party ahead of the NDP. Her concern was this graph, pictured on a cellphone, would unduly influence strategic voters who would think the Greens were stronger than the polls indicated. There is no mention of party standing anywhere in this piece, and the context is quite clear. It’s a reminder that copy editing covers pictures too.

COMPLAINT

On the day of the recent British Columbia provincial election, CBC News published an article informing readers how they might follow the election results after the polls closed. The headline said: “Where to watch, read and listen to CBC B.C.’s election coverage.” The piece provided information about how to obtain results on all of CBC News’ platforms. The first illustration showed a hand holding up a mobile phone with a graphic of “British Columbia Votes” and a green, orange and red bar graph. The green bar was slightly larger than the orange one, and the red bar at the bottom was the longest.

You were disturbed by the photo of the graph because you believed it would benefit the Green Party. You thought that those viewing the image would believe the party was poised for a breakthrough and would be sure to vote Green - rather than strategically - something that was an important aspect of this election. You thought the image violated CBC News’ commitment to balance, and was even more egregious because it was published on election day.

You believe CBC News management did not acknowledge the gravity of their error. You wanted an apology and an indication of the sanctions of those responsible for it, and what would be put in place to prevent it from happening again.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Wayne Williams, the News Director in British Columbia, responded to your complaint. He explained how the bar graph came to be published in the form you saw online. He said it was developed by taking a photograph of an animation created for television. For the broadcast, the lines representing each party moved to show the dynamic changes while results were coming in. It just so happened that the photo caught it as the green line was larger than would be expected based on their standing in the polls. He agreed programmers should have been more careful and caught the discrepancy. He did not agree that this would have a “measurable” impact on the outcome of the election.

REVIEW

The outcomes of elections and the decisions people make about voting are complex. To prove that one thing could or did affect the outcome is difficult at best. Mr. Williams acknowledged they should have caught the misrepresentation of the Green support. Dedication to accuracy is a core CBC value. He told me he has discussed this with the team involved, and the fact that you drew this to their attention will make them more vigilant going forward. This was a copy editing error and a reminder that images, as well as text, need close attention.

I looked carefully at the news story online. There is no text or context that would lead one to believe the image was a portrayal of the state of the polls going into election day - there are several images and text on that page. This was not a bar graph on its own; it is featured on a screen of a telephone. The cutline on the photo is “on mobile, desktop, tablet and TV.” Given that this is a story clearly about watching results and there is no reference to party standing, the position of each party is not what comes to mind. You are clearly a very careful and observant reader; I am not sure that would be true of many users of news sites. The graphic did not violate the policy of fairness. In the strictest sense it was not accurate, but it did not purport of giving the impression it was a reflection of public opinion polls or a projected outcome.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman