The Trump Effect on Marketplace

Marketplace ran a special edition probing the use of intolerant and hate speech in Canada to explore whether there had been an upsurge as there had been in the United States. They used an actor selling “white power” t-shirts to make the point. The complainant, James Callaghan, called it race baiting and completely biased. I don’t think it met the definition of race baiting but the technique was not appropriate in a current affairs programme.

COMPLAINT

You objected to an episode of Marketplace entitled The Trump Effect: Has it come to Canada? The broadcast was built around what the programmers call a “social experiment.” You thought it was “outrageous.” The programme set out to explore attitudes about race in light of events in the United States, where critics of immigration and racial groups had become much more vocal in light of the Trump presidency. An actor took to the streets of three Canadian communities selling t-shirts with three slogans - “White Power”, “Make Canada Great Again” and “White Pride Worldwide.” The host interviewed people who bought the t-shirts, as well as those who confronted the actor for doing so. The programme also presented data about the rise of racist activity on social media and provided background from researchers about racism in this country.

You referred to the simulated t-shirt sales as “BLATANT (sic) race baiting”. You said that there was never merchandise that included both the phrase “Make America Great Again” and “White Power” on them. You said that it is wrong to characterize the slogan “Make Canada Great Again” as racist.

You said that CBC News had crossed the line of journalistic integrity, and that an apology should be forthcoming from the “producer, the host and the CBC as a whole.”

Over 20 people complained about this episode of Marketplace. Most of them echoed similar concerns to yours - that it was “anti-white” and unfairly targeting people exercising free speech. There was a minority who objected to repeating racist slogans in the street and traumatizing people who were exposed to them. These complainants felt CBC News had no business creating this type of situation, but should stick to reality-based reporting.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, Director, Journalistic Accountability and Public Engagement, replied to your concerns.

He agreed with you that on the surface the phrase “Make Canada Great Again” is not racist. He said Marketplace included that slogan because of its resonance with President Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” He said that over the course of the U.S. election campaign, it did take on “racial overtones” due to some of Mr. Trump’s own statements, and “because of how they were understood.” The Canadian version could imply the same thing. He added while it could just invoke nostalgia for the past, it has also been used by groups in this country which are associated with racism and intolerance. He also clarified that while you were concerned that there were t-shirts with the slogans “Make Canada Great Again” and “White Power”, each slogan was on a different shirt.

He told you about the rationale for using an actor to simulate the situation. He said that “racism, intolerance and hate” can be “largely hidden.” He added that since people may not reveal these attitudes or opinions, using an actor selling t-shirts was a way of surfacing the views. He said the programme weighed the controversy of the technique versus the public interest it might serve. He identified a series of questions programmers hoped to answer:

Do Canadians share the sentiments the slogans suggest? Do they feel strongly enough that they are willing to pay for them? And presumably wear them? It seems some Canadians are, as we saw on the program. However, I should point out here that the program deliberately obscured the faces of those people who did. Perhaps even more interesting was the number of people and the strength of the convictions of those people in all the locations who approached the “salesman” to denounce his views and activity.

He stated the language used for the simulation was developed with the help of experts on hate crime. These experts were involved in the design of the experiment in terms of the behavior of the actor, the script he used and how to choose appropriate locations to launch their scenario.

He explained that before the programmers went ahead, they considered the CBC journalistic policy framework. There is no policy that directly deals with “social experiments.” He said this technique is used by academics, scientists and journalists who want to see how people react in a particular set of circumstances:

At their best, they have the ability to explain, at least in part, how people's thoughts and behaviours can be influenced by the presence of others. What Marketplace hoped to do in this instance was start a conversation and offer worthy insight into contemporary society and human nature at a time when feelings of racism and inclusion are very close to the surface...Please know that Marketplace approached this project with caution and care and hope that in the end it contributed to a conversation that is, and should be, of great concern to all of us.

REVIEW

You and other complainants referred to this programme as “race-baiting.” That is a phrase, like many others in public discourse these days, which has become quite fraught, and tends to be a term used by people with a conservative perspective. For example, Conservapedia, a publication started in response to a perceived liberal bias in Wikipedia, provides this definition:

Race baiting is a term for groundless accusations of racism made by liberals. It is a unique, deliberate and hypocritical focus on race in an attempt to discredit others as "racist"

A more dispassionate explanation can be found in the Merriam Webster dictionary, which defines it as “the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.”

The challenge here is that a journalistic programme created a situation. The premise behind it is that there is racism in Canada and people who support terms associated with racist and supremacist groups. This is based on fact and analysis. The programmers made it clear many times that the slogans they chose and the dialogue used by the actor, were carefully considered after consultation with experts on intolerant speech and hate crimes. The very slogan “White Power” makes the discussion about skin colour and race - that is not race-baiting. In the interview with James Rubec, he is asked which hashtag is most common in his research on the use of intolerant language on social media. One of the most frequently used hashtags was “#whitepower”. The programme used footage of real incidents of real intolerance and racism. There is no doubt, based on the data presented, that there have been racially-motivated attacks and racist statements in Canadian discourse. There is no violation of CBC policy in that regard. The analysis that led to this formulation was based on fact and reputable research by scholars in the field. The programmers made a decision to explore who might be attracted to these slogans and to test its prevalence in an unconventional and non-journalistic fashion - and that created a problem.

I spoke to Caroline Harvey, the Executive Producer of Marketplace. She explained the programmers felt it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get people to discuss their true feelings on camera. They believed the initial encounter had to have the cameras out of sight or people would not act authentically. They wanted to show Canadians that this sentiment and behaviour existed in our communities. They hoped to explore the perspectives of the people who did buy the t-shirt and to see if others would speak out against the sentiment. CBC Journalistic policy allows for the use of hidden cameras when there is a matter of public interest, and recording openly will not capture the behaviour. Similarly, policy allows for Interviews without Consent in particular circumstances:

We generally respect a person’s refusal to be interviewed. However, in the public interest we may choose to disregard the refusal, especially in investigative reporting or when a person plays a key role in an event of public interest.

In such cases we first try to persuade the person to be interviewed. If he or she continues to refuse and we consider it essential to record his or her reaction to our questions, we may confront the person, in person or by telephone, and record his or her statements without obtaining consent. A decision to confront a person who has refused an interview will be discussed in advance with senior editorial management. We will resort to this form of interview in the public interest, not simply for stylistic effect.

When we suspect a person of criminal activity or of obvious abuse, contacting this person to arrange an interview may cause that person to flee. We may then consider it necessary to confront and record this person without prior contact. This exceptional procedure requires prior authorization by the Director.

By definition, for the simulation to work, the cameras would have to remain hidden. The goal, according to programmers, was not to merely show that there are people who would agree with the sentiments being hawked, but to talk to them about why. Since they had to move quickly, the visual impact of the reporter jumping out of the car to talk to people was uncomfortable, and given the way it is usually used, conveyed a “gotcha” moment. I believe this was not their intent. Ms. Harvey pointed out to me that the interviews with people who bought t-shirts and spoke with the reporter were run in their entirety.

CBC policy on production states:

Form is important in information programming. Production techniques contribute to the meaning of our content and its impact. They help focus attention and can facilitate understanding. Our use of production techniques is consistent with factual accuracy and fairness in our reporting. This means we make judicious choices when information content is presented with music or visual effects that could affect perception or impact.

We are clear and open about the production methods we use, so the audience can put our images, sound and statements in their proper context. We advise the audience of the use of certain techniques, for example the re-enactment of a scene, the use of archival material in scenes of current events or the use of clandestine methods.

The programmers were diligent in advising the audience about the techniques used, but the technique got in the way of the stated journalistic goal.

There is policy on re-enactments, but that would involve the use of actors to recreate a situation that actually did occur. The relevant guidance from this policy would be the need to clearly indicate the technique being used. The programmers were diligent in their description and repeated warning that the actor hawking t-shirts was a fabrication. Mixing forms and techniques, the simulation coupled with an almost-signature Marketplace use of what was essentially an interview without consent, created the impression of entrapment. People confronted on the street with a reporter emerging out of a car is not conducive to thoughtful dialogue. I am also not convinced that there are no other means to get people to talk about those sentiments other than approaching them after they buy a t-shirt. It certainly did not require getting people to buy t-shirts to document the reality that there are people who support the sentiments behind them. The programme itself provided ample documentation from other sources and real-life episodes of racially-motivated attacks. The simulation technique worked against the clarity and depth the programmers said they were seeking. The segment held up a moment in time on streets in three communities. I do not think that it contributed to a further understanding of the underlying issues, and therefore is not journalistically justified.

The mixing of fiction and fact in a current affairs programme is high risk. There may be circumstances where the knowledge or understanding of an important public issue could only be achieved by the use of this technique. Management might want to develop some guidelines and a checklist for its use.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman