Pride and Point of View - Finding balance on an ongoing story.

The complainant, Dr. Alan O’Connor, thought some radio news reports about a proposal by a city councillor to defund the Pride Parade because of the organization’s decision to ban police in uniform was one sided and lacked context. The hourly radio reports formed part of more extensive coverage which featured other views. Balance was achieved over a reasonable period of time.

COMPLAINT

You had concerns that on two separate occasions, on hourly newscasts on CBC Radio One, there were news items that were one-sided. A story with the same information appeared on the cbcnews.ca website on March 28 which also lacked other perspectives. The online piece, entitled “Toronto councillors want to deny Pride funding over police ban” - as well as the radio report - were deficient in your opinion because they only presented the view of the city councillor John Campbell and “no other people were allowed to speak.” He was able to characterize Black Lives Matter as bullying, again, without any opposing perspective. You also suggested that CBC news compile a list of contacts within the gay community so that there would be several people or organizations that would be available to comment:

Instead you only gave Mr. Campbell’s point of view. He was permitted to define the protests of Black Lives Matter as “bullying”. He is not a member of the gay movement but he was permitted to define the core value of that movement as “inclusivity” (rather than, say, social justice).

Councillor Campbell had announced he would put a motion before council to withdraw funding to Pride Toronto because of the organization’s decision to exclude Toronto police from this year’s parade and festivities. You questioned the newsworthiness of the story since there was only one politician quoted, and he claimed the support of 4 more, out of a council of 44 members. At the very least, you suggested it would have been prudent to delay publishing until other perspectives could have been included in the coverage:

Why was the story so important that it could not be delayed for an hour? The "news" is that a member of city council claims he has five other members (out of a total of 44) who agree with his proposal to defund Toronto Pride. Why is this even news? ...The real concern here is that CBC News may be defining a good news story as one that gets a lot of reaction on Twitter. That is not what most of us want from our public broadcaster. It is not about creating controversy. It’s about responsible journalism.

The second story that caused you similar concerns aired on an hourly newscast on April 19. This one involved the call by representatives of the Toronto Police Association to withdraw funding from Pride Toronto. You wondered if CBC News would treat any other group in the same “unbalanced way”:

On the 1pm Toronto newscast today you had an item in which you reported and used tape from (I believe) a spokesperson for the police union calling on the City of Toronto to defund Pride Parade.

You did not balance this with a critical perspective from someone who might point out that the police union always takes conservative positions on social issues (why not call John Sewell).

You did not balance this with a spokesperson for the gay community who might point out that individual police officers may participate in the parade out of uniform and with a homemade banner. Just like the rest of us. And have more fun.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The acting Executive Producer for CBC News in Toronto, Rita Tonelli, replied to your concerns. Before I get into the substance of her response, there is some confusion to be cleared up. Ms. Tonelli referenced a story done by reporter Makda Ghebreslassie, which indeed ran earlier that morning. However, you specifically cited the 10:00 am newscast, and while it too only featured the voice and perspective of Councillor Campbell, it was actually presented by reporter Greg Ross. I have spoken to Ms. Tonelli who apologized for the error, but the issue and reasons for the single perspective are similar. She said the lead reporter on the story, Makda Ghebreslassie, tried for two days to get a comment from a spokesperson from Pride Toronto but they “were either unable or unwilling” to provide one. She said that there was also an effort to interview a city councillor who opposed the motion. The reporter was unable to do so in time for the morning news run, but she was able to get a response from some opposing councillors. Ms. Tonelli pointed out this dissenting view was included in later coverage, including an update of the web story. She explained that editors frequently have to weigh the “shortfall in voices” in a piece against deadline pressures to assess whether one should withhold publication or go with what is available, and to continue to update the story. She explained the factors taken into consideration:

Is an elected official's initiative to deny city funding to a high profile organization worthy of coverage in of itself, especially since it is controversial, and has the backing of other council members?

- was Pride Toronto given enough time to formulate a response to an issue of public policy?

- will the story likely have "legs", i.e. spawn reaction and develop over the course of the day, inviting other voices to come forward?

She told you that while you suggested a broader context from people who have historical knowledge of police behaviour as well as that of the Pride movement, that in this instance it was not a factor to delay publication:

I'm not suggesting to you that context doesn't matter. It is exceptionally important to CBC News. Rather, and simply put, our radio morning newscasts are intended as a quick digest of the news of the day. Context interviews, while immensely valuable on many other CBC programs and platforms, would not have been Makda's priority chase that morning.

She cited CBC journalistic policy on balance, which calls for the presentation of a range of views over a reasonable period of time. As well as the opposing city councillors, subsequent coverage included voices from the LGBTQ community. She added that the next day the Executive Director of Pride Toronto, Olivia Nuamah, appeared for a 5 minute interview with the host of the evening newscast, Dwight Drummond. She said that while some of the initial pieces did not provide a range of opinion, the coverage within a two-day period did.

REVIEW

Ms. Tonelli correctly characterized CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices as requiring balance over time. This is the wording:

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 policy does not spell out what a reasonable period of time is. Journalists might consider the value of getting the information out there, how extensively it has been covered or whether this is a relatively unexplored issue. CBC News in Toronto has provided ongoing coverage on this controversy.

It is always preferable to include the range of relevant reviews as quickly as possible, if not in the same news item. However, there are other legitimate forces that drive decision-making. Ms. Tonelli outlined some of them. You asked why this was news at all. The question of the presence of Toronto police at Pride festivities, and all the issues that lie behind it are indeed both a matter of controversy and a subject in the public interest. A new development and one that will be controversial is newsworthy. Making citizens of Toronto aware that there was a move to deny Pride Toronto its funding is something worth reporting. In this case, after talking to Ms. Tonelli and Ms. Ghebreslassie, I learned that this was a story that CBC was working on exclusively. One could argue that this reinforces your position that the reporters should have waited until someone from Pride Toronto or others who are knowledgeable could be included. This is a valid point, but there is always a danger that one would lose exclusivity on the story. Like it or not, that is a news value. The other point to be made here is that after due diligence if representatives of alternate views are not available, it makes sense to publish the story and put it on the public record to prompt other responses.

After talking to Ms. Ghebreslassie and seeing her emails, I conclude that she did perform due diligence in seeking out other voices before publication. You rightly asked what was done. After the story was assigned, she phoned, then emailed, and then phoned again to ask for an interview with the head of Pride Toronto. She then went to interview other city councillors and later dropped by the Pride Toronto office to try to get comment. She emailed other Board members and asked them to respond or to intercede with the executive of the organization. She began the process on March 27 and continued the next morning. The team kept approaching spokespeople for Pride Toronto and were able to secure an interview with the Executive Director on March 29. In the interim, Ms. Ghebreslassie provided other perspectives via other city councillors and members of the broader community. As new information became available, the web article was updated. You also rightly pointed out she could have gone to secondary sources to provide that perspective, which she did by going to other people in the community whose views were included in later televised reports. If this had been a longer treatment, the historical perspective would have been more important. The form and format do determine depth - another reason why balance and fairness are achievable over time.

In their book “The Elements of Journalism”, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel talk about the search for truth in journalism and what it means in this context - to create as accurate picture as possible through an iterative process. What they observe describes the situation here as well:

“An individual reporter may not be able to move much beyond a surface level of accuracy in a first account, particularly if that account is written in real time as part of a blog port or an alert. But the first account builds to a second, in which the sources of news have responded to initial mistakes and missing elements, and the second account builds to a third, and so on. (p58)

The reports on radio news in the morning were brief items putting one position on the record. The same was true of the early online news account - that was updated with other perspectives and the version now available is more balanced. Ms. Tonelli was right when she talked about looking at the individual components in a broader context. The coverage began earlier that morning and included an interview with Councillor Campbell by Metro Morning host Matt Galloway. Mr. Galloway first asked Mr. Campbell why he was calling for the withholding of the grant and allowed him to state his position and to say that he would not go forward if he felt useful dialogue was going on. Mr. Galloway also asked some challenging questions which encompassed the perspective of those who would oppose Mr. Campbell’s views. In an interview format, it is easier to do so rather than in brief news reports that can provide balance over time. Here is part of the exchange:

MATT GALLOWAY

But months later there was the AGM [of Pride Toronto] in which the decision was officially made and the vote was held. We spoke to –she was then the new board member, Akio Maroon and she said, and this is a quotation, we cannot have the same people who are beating us, harassing us, who are responsible for violent encounters with us, dancing with us in revelry in uniform with their guns on their side while being paid to participate. Do you understand again, the context that decision was made in and understand the rationale from a community that says they have been stigmatized, targeted by police for years, and there’s history of that , and yes the police have tried to make amends over time, but they say there is still enough uncomfortable, uncomfortability (sic) within the relationships between the community and the policy they don’t feel police should be part of it.

JOHN CAMPBELL

So that Board member is one board member and the Board would not have taken that decision on its own in that context. They were not about to say we are excluding police because relationships on the street have deteriorated to such a point that we don’t feel that we can have them participate. Had the Board made that decision, I wouldn’t be doing this because they would have done that freely but instead what they did is they acceded to these tactics which were pressure tactics that were hoisted on them and really that’s the reason why the Pride organization has come to this point with the police department.

MATT GALLOWAY

There are a number of people who are listening who are in the community who perhaps were at the meeting yesterday who perhaps would say, with respect a city councillor but still with respect, why would you have any right to believe that you can be involved in helping to make decisions that affect that community, that you are not part of the community , that you are outside of that –why would you have any –

JOHN CAMPBELL

No No - but I am elected as a representative of citizens, and I believe as a representative of the citizens you have to stand for what you believe is right, and if the city of Toronto just passes on this money as if everything is okay, we are condoning the actions that took place last year and we are condoning the treatment of the police department ..I am sure there are many out there who feel the police department is not treating them the way they probably should be. I know the police department tries hard to do its job every day , it’s in many ways a thankless job –I think city council needs to stand by the police but at the same time city council has a responsibility to all these other communities. So really all I am trying to do is let’s take a second look at this and let’s try to bring these two parties back together. It’s good we are having the discussion now rather than the last moment.

Two days after this interview, Mr. Galloway ran part of an interview with the Executive Director of Pride Toronto, Olivia Nuamah, which had been originally broadcast the night before on CBC Toronto’s supper hour newscast. Taken as a whole, CBC News gave appropriate consideration to a range of views in a reasonable period of time over its various platforms. I would put one caveat on this - the afternoon radio news dropped a story they had run extensively all morning. As there appeared to be at least some other material available by then, it is curious that it was broadcast only on television and not included in the radio newscasts.

The brief radio news report you also questioned, broadcast on April 19, was part of ongoing coverage of the issue of uniformed police presence at the Pride parade and festivities. In this case it was a statement from the president of the Toronto Police Association asking that the grant be pulled. In the context of the ongoing coverage of this issue, there is nothing wrong with providing news coverage of his statement. There is no obligation to match each brief account with other views so long as those other views are appropriately reflected over time. I find that to be the case in this instance.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman