Two Twitter Accounts, One Reporter - It’s dangerous.

William McDowell, legal counsel to J.D. Irving Limited (JDI), wrote to complain about the Twitter activity of the provincial affairs correspondent in New Brunswick, Jacques Poitras. He was concerned that the activity on both the reporter’s CBC Twitter account and the one he uses to promote his books put him in a conflict of interest because he was using his reputation as a reporter to sell his books - one of which is about the Irvings. Mr. McDowell’s Irving client also believed the book and other writings violated CBC’s policy on Opinion. The company asked that he stop tweeting and be banned from covering any Irving-related stories. I found the reporter’s work fell well within the bounds of balance and analysis. The question of potential perception of conflict of interest is more complicated, though. There is no need to stop tweeting or reporting, but there is a requirement for vigilance.

COMPLAINT

You are counsel to J.D. Irving, Limited (JDI), and in that capacity you complained to this office about the Twitter activity of a CBC New Brunswick reporter, Jacques Poitras. Mr. Poitras is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC News in New Brunswick. Because of the assignment, his work sometimes touches on matters involving various Irving interests when they intersect with public policy questions. He is also the author of a book entitled “Irving vs. Irving: Canada's Feuding Billionaires and The Stories They Won't Tell”, published in 2014. The book provides a history of the Irving family and its holdings in a variety of industries - energy, forestry, shipbuilding and newspapers among them. It largely focuses on the media holdings, Brunswick News, which includes 3 English dailies, 6 French and 6 English weekly publications. Mr. Poitras is currently writing a book about the Energy East Pipeline, which will bring oil to eastern Canadian refineries, Irving among them. You are concerned that while the “Irving vs. Irving” book “concerns Brunswick News’ newspapers, a great deal of it covers his views on the relationship between JDI and provincial governments.”

You point out that Mr. Poitras has two Twitter accounts - @poitrasCBC and @PoitrasBook. You provided two years of his tweets from the “book account” which are attached and state that the non-CBC account promotes his books but also has many tweets that are news reports. There are times when the tweet links to the same news story from both CBC and non-CBC accounts. You believe that there is a conflict of interest because Mr. Poitras “has used @PoitrasBook as well as his CBC account to tweet actual news.”

Insofar as Mr. Poitras acts as a reporter using @PoitrasBook as a platform for disseminating views while at the same time using the account for his promotional efforts, he has placed himself in a "real, apparent or potential conflict of interest between [his] official responsibilities and [his] private affairs ...". A reasonable observer would regard Mr. Poitras' news reporting as compromised by his desire and relentless efforts to promote sales of his books. CBC should enforce its Standards and Code and instruct Mr. Poitras to cease use of @PoitrasBook for news purposes.

You provided an example in an exchange from @PoitrasBook and the then Ombudsman for Brunswick News where he was seeking more information about a column she had written regarding an episode at one of the papers:

Feb 19[2015]: Mr. Poitras engaged in a series of questions with the BNI ombudswoman, and when she declined to share details of BN's information gathering with a competitor, he tweeted: "Fair enough & thanks, but to be clear, these questions are not for CBC; they're posed with my author hat on." This was disingenuous - Mr. Poitras was writing CBC stories about the subject, and on that same date tweeted about the column from his CBC account. This topic had been the subject of numerous tweets.

You also provided a series of tweets from the reporter’s CBC account on the same matter to illustrate the conflict of interest, and the pattern of using his role as a reporter to generate interest in the sale of his books. He wrote some stories for the CBCNews.ca website on this same matter.

Your further concern is that Mr. Poitras has, through his public pronouncements, the book and his Twitter activity, violated CBC policy on the expression of opinion. You referenced CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices which indicates CBC employees are not permitted to express personal opinions on controversial subjects. You provided many examples which you believed did just that, notably this one from a speech Mr. Poitras made when accepting an award for the book.

“The dramas of the Irving family affect the running of the most important private sector employers in New Brunswick – companies that have reshaped government policies, companies whose decisions can make or break an entire town, companies that have extended their influence to neighbouring provinces (and their City Halls) and one U.S. state – and that now are connecting themselves, by rail and pipeline, to the Alberta oil economy. They have done so with the participation of governments, and with massive subsidies from taxpayers. Their story is our story: a story about how power is accumulated and used in our society.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Accountability and Engagement, responded to your concerns. He acknowledged that you sent over 80 tweets and re-tweets from one of Mr. Poitras’ accounts, @PoitrasBook, that you believe support your case that he is in conflict of interest because his news reporting is used to bolster the sale of his books on this promotional account. He agreed that the @PoitrasBook account was used for promotional purposes, since that is why it was set up. He did not agree that his tweets linking to other articles and information can be considered reporting, as he characterized it:

… and I reject categorically the idea that these tweets would reasonably be considered a function of his role as a CBC journalist. The vast preponderance of activity that you shared sees Mr. Poitras re-tweeting the remarks of others, or sharing links to various stories published or broadcast elsewhere. This cannot reasonably be considered a journalistic act; it is simply something that millions of users of social media do every single day.

He pointed out that many of the tweets on the book account relate to several of the books Mr. Poitras has written, which include references to the Irving family and Irving interests. Of those tweets, he remarked that there are links to neutral, positive and negative articles or references.

He also told you that Mr. Poitras has the right to write books, and that he did so with the approval and knowledge of CBC management. He added that he did not use his CBC work or twitter account to promote those books, and if he had that would clearly be a conflict of interest.

By setting up a separate Twitter account to promote those books, Mr. Poitras is protecting the integrity of CBC’s journalism, not creating a conflict.

He also addressed your concern that Mr. Poitras was in violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices because he had expressed opinions on matters of controversy. He reviewed the material you provided and concluded that Mr. Poitras was not expressing opinion. He told you that a reporter does not simply record facts, but provides context. He provided part of a blog written by the head of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, that addressed this question:

The challenge for all of us at CBC News is defining the line between analysis and opinion, and who gets to express those views.

Our hosts and reporters don't have free rein to say what they want about the issues of the day. Our Journalistic Policy Guide makes it clear that we're guided by the principle of impartiality, and that CBC journalists don't express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

The key word here is "personal". An observation based on the facts of the issue, and years of experience covering a beat, which I would describe as analysis, isn't the same as a view that comes out of left field without supporting arguments, or in other words, opinion.

Our senior reporters bring that experience to what they do. The backgrounder pieces they produce for The National, The World at Six, and online is where we showcase that experience.

It is an informed judgment call every time we decide to provide analysis. The decision is based on the journalist's grasp of the facts and ability to add perspective. Most times that comes with years of experience and a certain stature in the industry. But not always. And like everything else, it is an active conversation between the reporter, the producer and the people responsible for vetting the content. Sometimes it is a vigorous debate. In the end, we like to think that the result is adding value to the discussion.

He told you he reviewed the examples of writing from speeches and articles written by Mr. Poitras and he thought they all fell well within the parameters of analysis, and were not opinion. He characterized the work as “stating facts and drawing connections.”

He rejected your request that Mr. Poitras be re-assigned and prevented from covering stories involving Irving interests. He added that Mr. Poitras is the provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick, and that from time to time his work “intersects with stories about JD Irving”, but that was a fraction of his work.

He would not be asking Mr. Poitras to stop using his book Twitter account for journalistic purposes because he disagreed that he was doing so, and that the activity on that account was acceptable and appropriate.

REVIEW

You believe that in his books and tweets, Mr. Poitras is showing bias and providing opinion. You cite the CBC policy on the expression of Opinion which states:

CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

The book “Irving vs. Irving” provides fact and context. On almost every matter of controversy - the concentration of media ownership and coverage by the papers of other Irving interests, Mr. Poitras scrupulously provides different perspectives and opinions. A reader would have a range of facts and views to form his or her own conclusions. The book stays well within the parameters of CBC policy on impartiality and fairness. Here is the critical sentence which defines impartiality:

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

I do not agree with your assessment - either in your characterization of the book, or the segment of the speech you cited that this is opinion. I agree with Mr. Nagler that this passage is contextual and providing and addressing issues in the public interest without drawing conclusions.

Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of “The Elements of Journalism”, as well as several other books recently observed in an article, states “Objectivity in news never meant neutrality. It always meant becoming more transparent and disciplined about how we gather the news.”

You quote my predecessor in this office, Kirk Lapointe, on this issue of the line between analysis and opinion. I agree it is a very coherent expression:

The principle of impartiality for CBC journalists is not lost when they provide analyses based on facts, particularly in this case involving facts gathered by the journalist highly familiar with Middle East issues [Neil Macdonald].

The policy creates a boundary of the expression of personal opinion but leaves open opportunity in some instances for journalists to synthesize and reflect upon facts in an issue. This boundary is sensible in light of the public's trust that CBC journalists do not inject personal views into their professional work. I doubt there is any more stringent boundary in Canadian media. (December 20, 2011)

Mr. Poitras’ book and journalism is within the boundaries Mr. Lapointe described. He has years of experience as a provincial affairs reporter so is well versed in public policy questions and has done extensive research on Irving interests. That expertise is reflected in his work.

Much of your complaint focused on the fact that Mr. Poitras has two Twitter accounts, one used to promote his outside work (@PoitrasBook) and the other to carry out his responsibilities as a CBC reporter (@poitrasCBC). Looking through Mr. Poitras’ book account, there is a wide range of material. More recently he has been tweeting about his work and the subject matter of the book he is currently writing. He shared some experiences as he travelled through the country researching work on his Energy East pipeline book. Here is a recent one:

Jacques Poitras

@PoitrasBook

First-draft milestone: 50,000 words & the narrative has left the Prairies and entered Ontario.

He has also been tweeting links to articles about the recent surge in the number of people crossing into Canada, as this pertains to another book he wrote - “Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border” (2011). The links are to news stories, anecdotes and observations. He largely uses his book account to draw attention to material that relates to the subject of his four books, only one of which is about the Irvings. People use Twitter to share knowledge and information in areas in which they have interest and expertise. The Irving material clustered around the period when he was promoting the book. As Mr. Nagler informed you, had he done so from his CBC account, there would be an issue. CBC News management has given permission for Mr. Poitras’ book projects, and his supervisor in New Brunswick is aware of his twitter activity on both his accounts. You state that there is a conflict of interest because the tweets Mr. Poitras publishes are “reporting.” If it is, then we are all reporters. It is the convention of the platform to be used in this fashion, and that is not inherently a problem. In reviewing the links to Irving-related material, there is a range - some are critical articles, some are simply newsworthy and there are some that lead one to the company’s own material.

You had concerns about other exchanges that you thought were disrespectful to the Irvings. For example, someone tweeted Mr. Poitras and referred to the Telegraph Journal (TJ) newspaper as the TU (Telegraph Urinal). Mr. Poitras asked the person to explain TU. You saw this as engaging and encouraging the behavior. I asked Mr. Poitras about this and he said when he asked for clarification, it was quite literal; given the shorthand of Twitter, he thought other followers might be confused. Such is the peril of dialogue in 140 characters.

The fact that he does report on some of the same issues he also references from his book account poses a low risk of a perception of a conflict of interest. A perception of conflict of interest can occur when there is some basis for people to think it does.

While I believe there is no actual conflict of interest, I do see some concern for a perception of conflict. Mr. Poitras is a CBC journalist, no matter where he tweets from, even though he carefully confines mention of the books to his non-CBC account.

The one example where there was confusion of those roles was in a twitter exchange from his @PoitrasBook account with the then Ombudsman for Brunswick News, Patricia Graham. When he pushed her for some details, she informed him “sorry, not inclined to share details of our information gathering to a competitor. Response speaks for itself.” He replied “Fair enough and thanks but to be clear, these questions are not for CBC; they’re posed with my author’s hat on”.

In this instance, Mr. Poitras was updating a chapter for his book, but was also covering a topical story involving the inappropriate behavior of an Irving newspaper employee at the same time.

There are several lessons in this: first and foremost, a protocol must be in place that is rigidly and carefully monitored. The second is that Twitter is rarely a very effective or appropriate way to engage in meaningful dialogue.

I also note, to underline the basic integrity of Mr. Poitras’ work, the last tweet in the series with Ms. Graham was a correction and acknowledgment he had missed something in her writing on the matter: “Re: my query to @patriciagraham earlier about length of investigation. I missed reference to her column that it began Feb. 5”.

So while there can be a perception of conflict of interest, which is in violation of CBC standards, the remedy is not necessarily, as you request, to cease writing about the Irvings or to stop using his non-CBC Twitter account - that would amount to a form of censorship. This is a question of perception, which must be addressed. However it is reasonable to assume that some people might conclude there is a conflict when Mr. Poitras references Irving material on both his Twitter accounts. However, it is equally plausible they will understand that this is an experienced reporter with a body of work and interest he is sharing.

The number of stories Mr. Poitras has produced for CBC that focus on Irving companies or activity is pretty limited. In the last six months, there are have been stories about government policy regarding the forestry industry, but he did not single out Irving companies. His work conforms to CBC journalistic standards and practices and it is not reasonable to say he cannot report on Irving-related issues.

CBC news management might want to revisit the protocols they have in place and to take measures that minimize the risk of any perception of conflict.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman