The Dangers of First-Person Narratives

The complainant, Dan Jones, thought that a series on the high cost and difficulty of renting in Toronto was tainted because it started with a first-person tale of the reporter’s own problems. He saw this as a conflict of interest and a slippery slope to reporters choosing issues important to them. Journalists are also citizens - and this issue is clearly in the public interest. The reporter’s story was only one in a series that included many perspectives, but it does highlight the danger of perception of conflict when the reporter starts in her own tale.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that CBC News was in violation of conflict of interest rules when it allowed a reporter to create a series of stories about the costs of rent in Toronto. Shannon Martin began the CBC News Toronto series by recounting, both on the evening news broadcast and on the website, her own story of being forced to vacate her apartment because she could not afford the large rent hike. You thought she was seeking public support to make the case to policy makers to do something about the situation. The series was self-serving in your view. You questioned how she could possibly be objective and saw this as a “slippery slope”:

If the reporter found another source and used that in her initial report, would that be more acceptable?... This here sets a slippery slope as any grievance, such as high car payments, utilities and such, the reporter could use their own experience as the first point of reference.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The acting Executive Producer at CBC Toronto, Rita Tonelli, responded to your concerns. She told you that ordinarily news staff would reach out to a member of the public to tell their story to illustrate a broader issue. In this case, they decided to use the experience of one of their own reporters. She said this was “unusual but not unprecedented.” She explained:

Reporter involvement is a stylistic storytelling device embraced by many news organisations in an effort to engage readers and audiences.

She noted that Ms. Martin mentioned in her story that she would seek answers and accountability about the high cost of rental accommodation. It was framed in the broadest sense, on behalf of the many people who are experiencing the same difficulty in the Toronto housing market, and not as a way to find redress for her own particular situation. The purpose of using Ms. Martin’s experience to kick off the series was to look at the broader issue of housing and to seek accountability from policy makers. She added that “pocketbook issues” affect all citizens, including the reporters. She stated there is no inherent conflict of interest when a reporter, who has lived the same experience as many Torontonians, explores the issue:

Reporters, like the rest of us, have these expenses too. Does that affect their impartiality? Would a reporter who uses the TTC, for example, be in conflict if assigned a story about fare increases? We think not. If anything, it makes them better reporters, in tune with the trials of daily living.

REVIEW:

There are two issues you raised in your complaint; they are related, but are distinct. You felt the reporter was in a conflict of interest because she began a series on issues in the Toronto housing market by telling her own story. The related concern you raised is that it’s a “slippery slope” and that reporters should not be covering stories that have an impact on their own lives. Reporters are also citizens, and they are encouraged to be aware of the challenges and issues other citizens face, especially if there is a bearing on public policy or safety or accountability. If the trigger for pursuing and investigating a story comes out of one’s own experience, that is perfectly acceptable. If Ms. Martin was the only person who was facing a precipitous rent hike, or affordable housing was not a prevalent concern in Toronto, that might be a different issue - that clearly is not the case. The investigation into the subject is a legitimate pursuit, even by this reporter whose own experience is relevant. There is no policy prohibition of the use of first-person narrative as a story-telling device. In the online version of her report, No fixed address: How I became a 32-year-old couch surfer, after the first few lines setting out her position there is a prominent call for others to come forward:

I'm 32 years old, work at my dream job and have an amazing circle of family and friends who love me. Life is pretty great.

There's just one thing — and I can't believe I'm about to admit this to you, but here goes.

Right now, I live nowhere in particular.

I'm a couch surfer.

Tell us your renting woes by joining our Facebook group, a forum for conversation and insight.

Both the online and radio pieces provide responses from experts who put her own personal experience into a broader perspective.

However, as you point out, there are risks when reporters use first-person narratives. There may be times when it is appropriate - but it can lead to a perception of Conflict of Interest. The body of the work in this series, No fixed address, prepared by Ms. Martin and her colleagues, fulfills CBC Journalistic Standards to be balanced and represent a range of perspectives. Hers was not the only tale of rental woe presented in this series. I spoke with one of the producers and he explained that the decision to allow Ms. Martin to tell her own story was based on the knowledge there were many others out there, and it was a compelling technique to get others to share their story. Taken in the context of the whole series, it is clear that this was not an exercise in solving an employee’s problem, but a means to examine an issue of interest and relevance to many others. Having said that, looking at the Conflict of Interest rules for CBC, there is still a danger of a perception of conflict of interest. The first part of this Corporate policy states:

No conflict should exist or appear to exist between the private interests of CBC/Radio-Canada employees and their official duties.

Employees must not use their positions to further their personal interests.

The use of the first-person narrative in this case might create the appearance of an attempt to further one’s own interests. The continued coverage obviated that concern, as did the request for other stories and the commitment to explore the issue further. Given the level of response Ms. Martin received and the number of similar experiences she discovered, the wiser choice would have been to do that research first. In that circumstance, sharing her own challenges would have been entirely appropriate. The problem in this case is a potential perception of conflict. The remedy would not have been to pull Ms. Martin from the story, but to have incorporated her own situation into a more broadly-based story including others’ experiences.

I do not share your concern that this is a slippery slope. Her reporting, along with others, documented the depth of the challenge of affordable housing in Toronto, and presented a range of views on solutions, as well as seeking accountability from the public officials who set policy. Members of the public are left to form their own conclusions. The series was in the public interest providing information and insight about a matter of public policy; the producer of the series pointed out that the use of Ms. Martin’s personal story was for the purpose of providing this public service. I would have preferred it to have been part of, but not all, the initial story telling.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman