Truth Over Time

The complainant, Mary Spensley, disputed the accuracy of a story about an LGBTQ teaching tool created by the Alberta Teachers’ Association. She was also concerned that hostile politicians were using the information to attack the toolkit. The CBC News stories were accurate, and journalists cannot refrain from reporting controversy because of the way it might be used.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that CBC News coverage regarding a resource guide for the Alberta Teachers’ Association was misrepresented in a news article published in November 2016. It was entitled Should drag shows be used as a teaching tool in Alberta schools? It addressed the controversy around a newly-published guide and toolkit. The ATA described the document as a guide to “safe and caring discussions about sexual and gender minorities.” The lengthy document provided suggestions for activities in the classroom, as well as language that would be more inclusive and acknowledged fluid gender identification. One of the words suggested, instead of “boys and girls” was “comrade.” You think words were taken out of context, “thus twisting the meaning of the original document, and misrepresenting the word 'comrade' when the word used in the original document was 'campers'.” You could not find the word “comrade” in the document.

You also believed that the CBC story, published on November 1st, 2016, relied on an article in the Toronto Sun for its information, thereby perpetrating an inaccurate representation of the guide.

Your concern was that both the Sun’s article and the CBC publication were giving fuel to those who opposed the approach espoused in the document:

We are living in a time when Canadian politicians and their supporters are using Trump style tactics. When you publish erroneous articles that they can use to fearmonger and spread division, you are contributing to this unhealthy political atmosphere. Why are you publishing stories that have clearly been taken from a news source such as the Toronto Sun?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Moore, the Executive Producer at CBC Edmonton, replied to your concerns. He said that your email alerted the team to the fact that the original PRISM document has been updated and altered since the news article about the toolkit was published a year ago. A new article was written and published to note the changes. Alberta LGBTQ teaching resource revised after controversy noted the alterations and linked to the updated document which no longer suggests “comrades” as a gender-neutral alternative, and featured some changes to other aspects of the guide. He added that the original story published a year earlier is once again linked to the original document.

He told you that CBC did its own reporting and did not rely on the Toronto Sun as a source. He pointed out that CBC published its article first:

I can also assure you that we do not use the Toronto Sun - or any other media - as a news source. Though we may occasionally cover the same stories as other news outlets, we always verify our own facts and conduct our own interviews. You will note that, in this example, our article titled Should drag shows be used as a teaching tool in Alberta schools?" was published on November 1, 2016 while the Toronto Sun article you cite was published on November 3, 2016.

REVIEW

CBC Journalism has an obligation to be accurate and present information as it becomes available. In this case, if you follow the link on the first CBC story done on PRISM on page 22 of the document, under the heading of “Gender Inclusive Language,” there is a box with two columns, one with commonly used language and the other with some suggested alternatives. The terms proposed instead of “boys and girls”, “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys” are: “folks, friends, students, class, people” or “comrades”. The word is definitely there. The accompanying article pointed out that “comrade” was one of the words, but did not single it out. The focus of this article was some of the backlash to the release of the guide. Based on another complaint, I reviewed it and found no violation of CBC policy. Part of the complaint was that there was not enough balance in the article, and by focusing on the criticism it distorted the view of the LGBTQ resource. I pointed out that there were other perspectives in the story, and that coverage of controversial issues is iterative:

I appreciate your concern that this focus distorts the understanding of the document, which had many other suggestions and tools. I agree it would have been a better service to readers to provide more detail, but its absence does not cross to a violation of policy. Balance and fairness cannot be assessed in isolation. Even looking at this article as a “one-off”, it does present more than one view. The policy points out that balance and fairness are to be achieved over time. I note, and Ms. Geddes pointed out to you, the next day CBC News published another piece. It noted both sides in its headline: Alberta LGBTQ school toolkit praised as 'good start,' but called 'dangerous' by critic.”

I think the news staff showed their commitment to accurate reporting when the decision to update the story was made. It provided a link to the new version of PRISM, and explained why the changes had been made. You are right that in that version the word “comrade” had been removed:

The Alberta Teachers’ Association has revised a resource guide for LGBTQ-friendly classrooms that sparked controversy last year.

The revised version of the "PRISM Toolkit for Safe and Caring Discussions About Sexual and Gender Minorities" no longer contains a few elements seized on by critics.

"Comrades" has been removed from a suggested gender-neutral pronouns to address girls and boys. Also gone is an illustration of a purple cartoon "Gender Unicorn" asking where you fall on the gender spectrum.

Spokesperson Jonathan Teghtmeyer said the ATA made "minor changes" to the online document shortly after it was thrust into the headlines last November, but the content largely remains the same.

"We felt that the criticisms last year of the Prism document were sensationalistic," Teghtmeyer told CBC News on Tuesday. "We felt that they misrepresented the document. And that ultimately they distracted from the important content that was within the document. And so we wanted to focus on the content and to avoid the distractions."

The news team at CBC Edmonton followed correct procedure. They updated a story that was in the public interest. They also preserved the original document, because there is an obligation to preserve the record, thereby enabling those who might wish to form their own judgements. They would be in violation of policy if they had chosen to alter the record of fact.

The perspective of the Alberta Teachers’ Association is clearly present and the context for the changes is given. If the controversy has been seized upon by certain politicians, that is beyond the control of the journalists. Their task is to present a range of views on matters of controversy. They did not create the controversy. As for the issue of the Toronto Sun article, the publication dates speak for themselves - and in tone and tenor, they are entirely dissimilar. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman