Transparent Reporting

The complainant, Emil Bizon, considered a report on Aleppo put together and broadcast from Beirut was misleading because the reporter was not in Syria. He also wanted disclosure of the provenance of the video used. It is not practice to label wire service video, but the greater the transparency, the better.

COMPLAINT

You questioned the provenance of a report on the situation in Aleppo as a ceasefire was declared, and citizens of the city were waiting to leave the area. The report aired on The National on December 17th, 2016. You wondered why the news segment was presented by a reporter in Beirut, and who had provided her the video and the text. You thought CBC should let viewers know the source of the images.

You suggested that CBC look for reporters who speak Arabic and have spent time in Syria. To use material from other sources and report from another city is misrepresentation in your view:

If the CBC is not able to report from an overseas event and uses some other source than it should not give the appearance it was doing the investigation. That is misrepresentation. The sources should be identified.

You added that the material CBC uses in its Syrian coverage is often “grossly biased to the point one would think they came from the CIA.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your concerns.

He told you the report was prepared by Rebecca Collard, who is based in Beirut and occasionally does some reporting for CBC. He explained how she put the segment together:

She prepared the script, using material provided by news agencies to which CBC subscribes.

CBC News is not in a position to maintain reporters across the world, and in this case, Ms. Collard reviewed a number of media sources in order to put together the piece from Beirut.

REVIEW

Covering any war zone is challenging; covering the ongoing conflict in Syria has been even more so. It is extremely dangerous for reporters, and some areas are simply “no-go” zones. It is too dangerous to enter some rebel-held areas, and the Syrian government is selective in the granting of visas, and while in government-controlled territory, there is rigorous oversight of reporters’ activities. Reporting on Aleppo is a case in point. It was too dangerous for reporters to go to rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. CBC reporters who were in western Aleppo in November told me they had government minders with them as they worked. Journalists rely on third party sources -- with varying ability to verify the information. Reporters who have been in the country build up networks of contacts. There is also an obligation to let the audience know how the material was obtained. In the case of the story you cited, it was from Reuters, a respected news agency. There are techniques to authenticate video as well. It is conventional practice to use agency footage without attribution. However, in the case where the agency may have obtained some of it from third parties, it might be useful, and indeed CBC policy leans in the direction of disclosure. The reporter Rebecca Collard told me that Reuters’ footage, which includes citizen-generated material, comes with this statement:

This edit contains user generated content that was uploaded to a social media website. It has been checked by Reuters’ social media team and reviewed by a senior editor. Reuters is confident the events portrayed are genuine.

CBC News has its own policy about the incorporation of user-generated material into news stories:

Material that originates from a non-CBC source is clearly identified as such. Before text, image, video or audio is published, its provenance and accuracy is verified. In exceptional circumstances, it may be difficult to authenticate a contribution. There may be times where because of timeliness or if it is in the public interest, we decide to publish without full verification. We are clear with the audience about what we know. The decision to publish material without full authentication must be referred to the Director.

There is one other relevant policy here as well, and that is found under the policies on production:

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.

The use of agency material put together by a reporter in a different location is not ideal journalism, but it is accepted practice, using authenticated material and other sources in situ to verify as far as possible. That procedure was followed here. The script is quite careful in how it framed the information and made reference to the source of at least some of the images, particularly the video that shows people fleeing from gunfire:

Buses arrived today to a checkpoint in western Aleppo, preparing to try once again to evacuate the people from the eastern part of the city. Thousands are still stranded there. This is said to be the moment yesterday when the ceasefire broke down. The video posted online shows people running through the streets past buildings leveled by air strikes. Some carry belongings. Others carry children as they flee the gunfire. “This is the place where buses were supposed to move civilians out of Aleppo,” he says. Right now they're being targeted with bullets. Both sides, the opposition and the government, blame the other for the breakdown in the agreement. But today they said they had reached a new one that would see the evacuation recommence and include four other towns. However, at sundown, residents in eastern Aleppo sent messages saying help had not yet arrived.

Ms. Collard was also careful in her phrasing - referring to the moment “said to be” when the ceasefire was broken. She also does not say who may have broken it.

I am told by CBC management that news agency video is considered appropriately verified. That is reasonable - wire service reports are used in reporting all the time. It is a general practice for any other video obtained to go through a verification process. If it is not possible to do so and it is of great interest, it may be aired if it is supported by other verifiable and credible evidence. In that case, it will be labelled as “unverified video.” All of this is a reasonable process and practice.

As for your concern about misrepresentation, there was no attempt to cover up the reporter’s true location; she signed off from Beirut. The CBC policy on verification pertains to user-generated content. This material came from a non-journalistic source, but was verified by a reputable news agency - it leaves it in a grey zone. It is a good reminder that complete transparency is important, especially when there are so many competing narratives and agendas. It may be appropriate to use material; it is an aid to the audience to judge it by knowing how it was acquired. CBC News management might want to think about how to identify this kind of material more clearly.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman