What makes it fair?

Eugene Winer, the President of a student travel agency, S-Trip!, objected to a Marketplace segment about his company’s graduation trips. The segment raised concern about inconsistent supervision, underage drinking and unsafe behavior. He said there were inaccuracies and that there was a deliberate focus on certain behaviours without mentioning the positive experiences of many participants. The issues raised were well documented. There was no violation of CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You are the President of a company called S-Trip! which was featured on a Marketplace episode on February 10, 2017. You said there were many inaccuracies in the segment. You felt the facts were skewed to “reinforce an unbalanced representation of our trips as unsupervised, unruly, unsafe and overpriced.” You said you had given the producers information they ignored, which would have created a more balanced portrait of your company’s trips. You identified five aspects that contained inaccuracies. I will summarize them here, but as you were quite detailed, I am linking to your full document so that your entire explanation is part of this review.

The first area you felt was inaccurate was the programme’s characterization of supervision of the students. You said the impression left was that supervision was “non-existent.” You noted that the footage clearly showed S-Trip! personnel. Historically, there was one staff member for every 25 students, but you have now doubled that number and have improved the process - facts not reported in the episode. You also took issue with offensive statements attributed to S-Trip! staff, while providing no proof who actually said it:

The report states that it was uttered by an S-Trip! staff but offers no evidence to this fact. We explicitly asked producers to be sure that comments or statements assigned in the broadcast to S-Trip! staff be confirmed as such. We have no way of knowing if the statements were made by a traveler, a staff member or, for that matter, anyone even associated with our trip. How was this verified? In addition, the report characterizes S-Trip! staff as leading offensive behaviour. The narrator states: “Down at the beach S-Trip! staffers link arms with students and raise voices in a vulgar chant.” On camera, while we see staff were present during the chant, we see no evidence that shows that staff condoned, instigated or participated.

The second area you stated was wrong dealt with your company’s code of conduct. You disputed that images of students partying in their rooms violated your policy setting out “quiet hours” from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. You explained this policy applies to common areas of the hotel or resort where the students are staying. Your code of conduct also requires students to check in 3 times a day, and the programme featured a young woman asking about a friend who had not checked in nor been seen since the night before. You said this was rare, as your records show that 97% of the students comply with the check-in rule and this left a false impression that the majority of people flaunt the code of conduct.

You also took issue with the characterization of the safety of the trips. You specifically cited a case in 2011 when someone who was drunk fell from a balcony. You disputed details of this incident - the fall was in a stairwell, and while it is possible alcohol was a factor, this was never definitively established.

The third matter you raised concerned the cost of the trips. You said no evidence was presented that prices were inflated:

For example, the online story characterizes the pricing of the Cuba trip profiled in the segment as $1,955.00 per traveler and the episode states that the price is roughly $1800. It is unclear where these inflated and conflicting prices come from but they are incorrect. The starting price of that trip was $1,280; a base price of $1010 plus $270 of extra inclusions. There were also taxes & fees of $375...The cost of the trips is also characterized as ‘often double’ the rate of individual travel. Again, it is unclear what the source for this information is and, moreover, it is a gross mischaracterization given the extra inclusions listed above. A fair comparison would include the price of all these elements to any private travel quote cited. The knowing failure to do so can only be explained by a desire to unfairly inflate the apparent cost of our trips.

You also disputed that the company makes millions of dollars every year and wanted to know the basis for the claim.

There were a series of other details you challenged. You said S-Trip! does not do March break trips as was stated. There was also a reference to upcoming Quebec City trips but your company does not offer them. You asked why the information in a survey done after the Marketplace broadcast which indicated high satisfaction levels was ignored.

You added the programme failed to mention that while the crew was filming the resort, others on the same trip did volunteer work (552 people) and another 900 participated in tours of Cuba. The programme also did not use any of the thousands of photos posted on the company’s web site of that same trip.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Caroline Harvey, who was Executive Producer of Marketplace at the time of the broadcast, replied in detail to your concerns. Her full response is available here. She told you that the crew went to Cuba to witness first-hand what parents and others had told them about the trips. They had done quite a lot of research and the purpose for going was to test whether what they had been told was accurate.

...we did undertake extensive research before, during and after our trip to Cuba. What we heard repeatedly from those people we spoke with and what we saw ourselves in Cuba were underage drinking, alcohol abuse, swimming while drinking, drug use, and dangerous behaviour near balcony railings.

She noted that rather than implying that staff was non-existent, the staff members who wear distinctive shirts are seen throughout the broadcast. She added that the programme indicated that S-trip! has a code of conduct that participants are expected to follow, including prohibiting alcohol for students under 18. She pointed out that the company’s code and policy were presented in some detail:

Reporter Charlsie Agro said that code states students must be over 18-years-old to drink alcohol; that they must drink responsibly; and that they must be “completely sober when swimming”. That same information was shown visually in a graphic. We said that the company has a student safety system in place that “S-Trip! says leads the industry”. We pointed out that the S-Trip! website “promises that safety is non-negotiable.” And we said that S-Trip! sells the student trips as “safe and supervised.”

She explained criticism of the effectiveness of the supervision and enforcement of the code of conduct was based on months of research and conversations with ex-employees, parents, students and Ms. Agro’s own observation of under-age drinking and unsafe behavior in various locations on the resort. She also noted that in response to emailed questions from Marketplace staff you indicated that you were going to increase the hours or training for your supervisor and double the number of staff on trips - that information was included in the broadcast.

She replied to your concerns about portraying S-Trip! staff acting inappropriately. While the team chose not to identify the staffer with the microphone chanting a slogan, she assured you they saw it and are sure about who was speaking in leading a game near the pool. You were also concerned that showing staff and students with arms linked chanting “we want some pussy” as they moved along the beach implied that the staff led or condoned the behavior. Ms. Harvey noted there was no attempt to stop the chanting. She added that programmers did not say it was instigated or condoned - rather it was there for viewers to draw their own conclusions.

You said the partying after hours was not in common areas, and therefore did not violate the code of conduct. Ms. Harvey told you that was not the case, as witnessed by Ms. Agro who was at the resort.

She also disagreed that showing a student asking about a missing student at check-in was portrayed in a negative light. She thought you might have misunderstood the context:

Here is the full transcript of what the young woman said: “We’re at check-in this morning, and this guy’s, like, can you check if my friend’s checked in ‘cause we haven’t found him since last night.” Ms. Agro is seen immediately after that saying, “It’s part of the safety system S-Trip! says leads the industry...”

The point here is not that one student may not have checked-in, but that there is a check-in system that expects students to check-in regularly during the day. Presumably, the point of the system is to identify students who don’t check-in so supervisors can check up on them to ensure their safety. We referred to S-Trip! safety systems a number times in the program; and in this regard included several scenes of students actually checking-in.

Ms. Harvey told you that details of the accident in Puerto Vallarta were taken from court filings in a lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Ms. Harvey said the programmers also stood by the average $1,800 price for the trips. She acknowledged that the trip to Cayo Coco was $1,655, but looking at 45 trips offered by the company in 2016, the range was from $1,595 to $2,435, with the majority costing more than $1,900. She defended the reference to S-Trip! being more than double by telling you that for the same time, and the same week, other (non-student) operators were offering trips at roughly half the amount. She pointed out that parents thought they were paying more because of the supervision provided.

She told you the reference to the company making millions of dollars is based on quotes from the president that it has revenues of over $20million.

Ms. Harvey acknowledged that it is an affiliated company that runs trips to Quebec City, not S-Trip! and that should have been made clearer.

She rejected your accusation that the programme deliberately left out anything positive and only chose to speak to people who gave the trip bad reviews. She pointed out that there is video from your promotional material quoting students who had positive experiences. She assured you that in all they spoke with 6 former employees and 13 families who had used your company. She also documented the emails sent to your company between January 13 and February 4, asking for a detailed response and for an interview. She said that she had no record of some of the details you provided in your letter of complaint to this office.

REVIEW

As you pointed out in your complaint, Marketplace is a particular kind of investigative programme with a mandate to provide consumers with information about goods and services to help them make informed choices. These are the principles underpinning consumer reporting as laid out in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:

Consumer information programs are intended to help consumers make informed choices of goods and services or to show how to solve certain problems. This is consistent with the mandate to inform citizens so that they may make decisions on public issues.

The conclusions set out in this kind of reporting are based on thorough research and not on personal opinion. Research for such programming will be meticulous and will be carried out as much as possible in consultation with competent organizations and specialists.

The programming by design generally highlights companies or practices that have attracted negative comments or reports. It is here that the rest of CBC journalistic policy is so important. Allegations need to be verified and sourced in multiple ways. The person or company shown in a negative light must be given fair treatment - that is the opportunity to reply and to present a point of view. In addition, accuracy underpins every journalistic enterprise.

The Marketplace team did extensive research in preparing this episode. Its impetus was based on concerns from educators and parents. The evidence was on YouTube. Had they simply relied on the YouTube videos, they would have been in serious dereliction of their duty, but they did not. They experienced a trip first-hand. I have spoken to Ms. Agro and her producer, Greg Sadler. In the time they were at the resort they said they saw significant numbers of students drinking throughout the day and into the night, drinking in the water and acting in ways that were in violation of the company’s code of conduct. They said the presentation of their own observations, and the material they chose from YouTube, accurately reflects the behavior of a significant number of participants. They explained they used the YouTube video to convey what was going on in students’ rooms, an area they were unable to access to record. They mentioned they did see young people leaving rooms with drinks or bottles in hand. As Ms. Harvey told you, since the broadcast they have heard from more people who had similar complaints and they were also told by other employees and contractors that the portrayal of the supervision of the students was accurate.

In her reply to you, Ms. Harvey laid out in some detail the number of times they sought an interview and further information from your company. The Producer, Greg Sadler, wrote to you at the beginning of February saying “I want to reassure you that we have given you the specifics of our story, and you should expect no surprises. If, in the course of our interview, you are able to correct any misinformation we might have, we would certainly want to reflect that in our story.” He listed all the major points raised in the episode. I respect that you chose to respond via a company statement in an email. In those circumstances, the journalists are obliged to do the best they can to reflect the company’s perspective. It does not allow a more detailed response or spokespeople for the company providing context or challenging the information gathered. The programmers included material from your own promotional video. They presented, through a graphic, the details of your code of conduct and conveyed the information that you were doubling the training hours of the supervisors, as well as doubling their numbers. The website also provided a link to your full statement in response to the programmers’ request for an interview or reply. The producers were not aware of some of the information you provided in your complaint. I have reviewed the correspondence and I see no mention of the compliance numbers you cite, for example. When they did have information from you, such as your commitment to increase the number of supervisors, that was included in the broadcast. They also laid out what the code of conduct and expectation of the students is, and point out there is a check-in system, which the company considers an industry standard. At the beginning of the broadcast there are images and testimonials from satisfied students. Ms. Agro summarizes what S-Trip! offers:

S-Trip! emphasizes chances to explore local culture and to volunteer abroad. And it promises safe travel experiences.

The segment then turned to a reality that documented the behavior of the students on the trip. You objected to this characterization. The material was based on first-hand observation and was corroborated by multiple sources. The fact that not all students behave in the way documented is not the point - the point is that it was occurring in more than a sporadic and minor fashion. Journalistic due process was observed in the creation of this segment. There was no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman