Quotation & Interpretation - The case of Senator Beyak and residential schools.

The complainant, Stanton Giesbrecht, thought a reporter went too far when he said the senator had stated that residential schools were “well intentioned.” He pointed out that she praised well-intentioned individuals, not the system, and this was an important distinction. In this case the statements were made in a larger context - her actual words are also quoted. It was a reasonable representation.

COMPLAINT

You took issue with the way remarks Senator Lynn Beyak made about positive aspects of Aboriginal residential schools were characterized in a CBC News online report. Senator Beyak stated that some of the people working there were well intentioned. Because of her statements, Senator Beyak was removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal peoples committee on April 5. There were several lines in the April 5 story you said were inaccurate. You rejected the sub-heading which stated “Conservative senator from northwestern Ontario said residential schools were ‘well intentioned.’” You thought there was an important distinction - that the senator was referring to people who staffed the schools, but not to the system itself:

This is not true in the slightest. Beyak has stated that some of the men and women working in the residential school system were “well-intentioned”. But contrary to articles at issue, she was not making reference to the intentions of the school system itself, only to some of the people in the system. This is basic Grammar 101. The two do not equate. It is apples and oranges, so to speak.

You thought other aspects of this article also took a generalization and applied it to a specific instance. The news article, referring to a statement put out by the senator on March 16, noted “[she] dismissed coverage of her comments as ‘fake news.’” You said that this was not so - that what the senator’s statement actually said is that we live in an era of fake news, and not referring to the stories about her remarks in the senate:

A general comment of living in an era of fake news does not point the finger at any particular reporting as fake news...It is simply a general comment (it is commonly said by many people that we do, in fact, live in an era of fake news) which does not inherently dismiss anything.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the Senior Producer who oversees the Politics page on cbcnews.ca, replied to your concerns.

He did not agree that CBC’s stories “mischaracterized” or “misrepresented” the opinions expressed by Senator Beyak. He told you the story you referenced, published on April 5, was the culmination of weeks of reporting on the matter. He said the ongoing coverage, written by reporter John Paul Tasker, had been clear about her actual comments:

In the first story, Mr. Tasker says in the first sentence that Senator Lynn Beyak was referring to the “good deeds” accomplished by “well-intentioned religious teachers.” In the second paragraph, he quotes directly from her remarks to the Senate, again, placing the “well-intentioned” in context: that she was referring to teachers and administrators of the Indian residential school system.

In our second story on this issue, on March 9, he notes that she spoke of the “good deeds” and the “remarkable works” of teachers and administrators.

In a March 27 story, he notes again that Beyak said, “Teachers and administrators at the residential schools were ‘well intentioned’ and they ‘didn’t mean to hurt anybody.’”

Those references are obviously not mischaracterizations; they are her own words.

It is in an April 5 and an April 6 story, when we are recapping the story so far as Senator Beyak was dealing with criticism, that we say she “defended the residential school system as ‘well-intentioned.’”

He added that the people who ran the system is what constituted it. He pointed to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which stated that harm far outweighed any positive aspects. He stated that in addition to the statement reported in March, Senator Beyak made positive remarks about residential schools “writ large” in January during a Senate session. He pointed out that it was the senator who took the opportunity, during the discussion of a motion on the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in prisons, to speak positively about residential schools - even though it was not the subject directly under consideration:

Senator Beyak used the opportunity to, as she says in her own words, to “present a somewhat different side of the residential school story.”

Taken together, her remarks are, plainly, a defence of the system.

He also did not agree that the reference to fake news was taken out of context, or that she was making a valid observation about the general state of reporting. He noted that these remarks were made within the context of reaction and criticism to her residential school statements. They were in a statement issued from the senator’s office on March 16, sometime after the initial reporting and in the midst of calls for her resignation from the Aboriginal Affairs committee. Mr. Carter told you it is hard to see the remarks in any other context, as most of it references the outpouring of support she has received and that in the era of fake news, it was good to know that others took the time to do their own research.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has accuracy as a core value, but journalists are not stenographers and their function is not to only provide verbatim coverage. There is another core value that pertains here - Impartiality - which states:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

Reporters are required to synthesize information and put it in some context. It is the entire statement that should be considered. In this case, the context of the remarks - how and where they were made - is also an important consideration. You are right that Senator Beyak said there were well-intentioned individuals. She also said that she has met many Aboriginal people who say they owe their lives to the residential schools, and on several occasions on public record she spoke about those who said they had good experiences, while acknowledging there was abuse. The context of those remarks in the senate proceedings in January and March 2017 are relevant here. The first time the senator raised the issue of residential schools was on January 31st, 2017 during a session of the Senate Indigenous Peoples Committee. Ms. Beyak took the opportunity to raise the issue with an historian who had presented an overview of the relationship between settlers and indigenous people, and how it changed from the early days of colonization. She talked about the “best of intentions in residential schools, citing the work done by nuns and priests. Her focus was on the individuals, but it is a literal reading to see it as exclusively to be what she was referring to. Senator Beyak took the opportunity to twice put on public record that while there was harm in the schools, more emphasis should be put on the good. In both cases neither the Truth and Reconciliation Commission nor the schools were the actual subject of discussion. This is part of the Hansard transcript:

The best of intentions were in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They didn't mean to hurt anybody. The fathers and sons and family members of the nuns and priests, to this day, have to bear the reputation as well, and nobody meant to hurt anybody. The little smiles in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are real, the clothes are clean and the meals are good. There were many people who came from residential schools with good training and good language skills, and of course there were the atrocities as well.

Later at the same hearing, she mentioned that she was “disappointed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report in that it didn't focus on the good.”

Her remarks, which prompted the first CBC news story in March, were similar.

I want to present a somewhat different side of the residential school story. Far too many indigenous people, especially women, are incarcerated in Canada today and, like everyone in this chamber, I seek to find solutions.

Today I will take a broad look at several timely indigenous issues that are before us. I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports. Obviously, the negative issues must be addressed, but it is unfortunate that they are sometimes magnified and considered more newsworthy than the abundance of good.

Your reading of the transcript led you to a narrow interpretation of her comments. Using professional judgment, Mr. Tasker used the phrase she defended the system as “well intentioned” in his coverage, while also citing her specific remarks. Doing so allowed readers to draw their own conclusions. You dismissed Mr. Carter’s point that Ms. Beyak had opportunity to clarify or defend herself as the controversy and criticism - including from her own party - grew. Senator Beyak did put out a statement, the one that you said was also mischaracterized when she talked of fake news.

Reading the statement in context, it is reasonable to understand and associate it with the coverage or her remarks:

As stated in her original speech, Senator Lynn Beyak counts indigenous people among her colleagues, advisors and friends. Many of them, support her suggestions of a national audit of all dollars flowing in and out of reservations, and talks with grassroots indigenous people. Until we know how much we spend, how can we know if we are funding adequately and if we do not ask indigenous people what they want, how can we provide it?

In this era of fake news and exaggeration, Senator Lynn Beyak is especially grateful to those who have taken the time to do their own research and to deeply and respectfully engage. She acknowledges the honest and ethical journalists who wrote, and the intelligent well-informed citizens who are not intimidated by voices who seek to stifle debate.

Mr. Tasker also had an opportunity to interview the senator briefly on March 27, and asked her specifically about the “fake news” comment. This is the exchange:

QUESTION:

when you said fake news, what did you mean by that?

ANSWER:

When people take sound bites, instead of the whole story. If they'd read my whole speech from the start, there wouldn't have been a story.

The line in the news story of April 5 that reported she “dismissed coverage of her comments as ‘fake news’” is a proper representation of Senator Beyak’s statement.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman