The complainant, Clement Chisholm, objected to the coverage of a fatal fire in a property he owned and the follow-up stories about its cause. He said it was sensational, dishonest and misrepresented the facts. The story was tragic, and the unfolding of information about its cause was confusing and contradictory. It was a bruising experience, but CBC coverage was responsible and appeared to observe journalistic due diligence.
In early March of this year there was a fire at a property you own in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia. Sadly, three people died in the incident. CBC News did several stories on radio, television and online about the incident - including news conferences convened by the fire service, reaction from other tenants in other properties and a highly emotional interview with the survivor of the fire, who had lost three relatives. You thought it unconscionable that programmers put a distraught woman on the air and that she was allowed to make “inflammatory claims.”
Your show was full of misquotes and was aimed at portraying a situation where a slumlord had created a deadly situation. Your show ignited a fire storm of social and public hysteria.
You think CBC based its stories on “aggressive misinterpretation” of statements made by the Fire Chief. You accused the reporter of lying and misrepresenting the facts. One of the stories mentioned that you had been advised by the Halifax Fire Service to have all your properties inspected. You said to the best of your knowledge they did not. You believed that the reporter meddled and caused undue fear and confusion for your other tenants around a request you made, and then cancelled, to turn off the power in their homes as a precaution. You said it was the lies of the reporter that forced you “to tell my tenants that they needed to shut down their power in the middle of a snowstorm on a Friday Evening”.
You gave examples of the exaggeration and misrepresentation of facts:
His statement that their investigation points to an electrical fault was turned into "was caused by an electrical fault" by CBC.
His statement that there was only one working smoke detector was turned into "had only one smoke detector" by CBC.
Anyway you cut it the whole story was based on misrepresentation and embellishment of facts so anything that is said to justify it is unfounded.
You characterized CBC behaviour as “predatory” and asked for a full apology to everyone affected and the general public. You also asked that policy changes be made and that disciplinary action be taken.
Nancy Waugh, the Managing Editor for Atlantic Canada, replied to your complaint. She told you that in order to do so she reviewed their notes, the recording of their interviews and revisited the stories published over the course of a week of coverage. She addressed your concern that the Fire Chief’s comments were exaggerated. You objected to characterizing Ken Stuebing’s comments that their investigation pointed to an electrical fault to saying it was caused by an electrical fault. She provided the full quote from the fire department’s news release:
The investigation is ongoing, but we have determined the fire was not suspicious, and originated in the basement of the duplex.
Our fire investigators have concluded their work and the evidence points to an electrical fault as the cause.
At this time, I want to urge those listening or watching at home to make sure you have working smoke alarms on every floor of your homes. There was one working smoke alarm in this home, but it’s our belief if there had been more than one working smoke alarm, the outcome might have been different.
She stated, based on this information, that it was appropriate to have written that the fire had been “traced to an electrical problem that originated in the basement of the home.”
She also addressed your concerns about stories published on Monday, March 12th. She pointed out that the Friday before you called the newsroom and spoke to the acting Executive Producer, Susan Allen. You told her of your frustration of not knowing for sure what the electrical problem was that had caused the fire, and explained the electrical work you had done at your various rental properties. She added:
In the absence of certainty, you told her you had contacted “all the tenants who’ve had upgrades done since August and advised them to turn the breaker off immediately.” You later clarified that to say you had asked Nova Scotia Power to turn off the power.
The reporter on duty began to make inquiries about what is involved in shutting off power and who had the authority to do so. She also went to speak to some of the tenants who would be affected. She discovered you had sent a follow-up email to your tenants saying Halifax Fire had withdrawn their earlier conclusion and had not yet determined the cause of the fire, so there was no need to turn on the power. The reporter, Shaina Luck, then tried to confirm the new information with authorities but was unable to do so. She further noted there were more conversations all evening long - essentially trying to understand the source of your new information and getting Halifax Fire to confirm it, which they did not. She reminded you that by the end of the day Friday there had been no reporting on the request to turn off the power, or the reversal of that request. She acknowledged the fact that it must have been “frustrating and extremely stressful” for you that Ms. Luck was unable to confirm your account that the fire department had changed its statement about the origins of the fire. In fact, her sources at the city insisted to her that nothing had changed. She said Ms. Luck was diligent in her efforts to get to the bottom of the story and tried to find a resolution to the discrepancy between the two versions of the story.
CBC Halifax waited until Monday morning to publish a story that outlined the two positions, she explained. Later that day Halifax Fire did finally publicly change its position and the story was given a major rewrite - with a notation about what had happened:
I am still having trouble understanding how the city/fire department was so adamant with CBC (and other media) about the cause of the fire, while you clearly had someone just as adamantly telling you something quite different. Through that weekend, it was impossible for us to corroborate the information you were being told. I acknowledge that situation was deeply troubling for you.
She told you that reporters are still seeking an explanation from city officials so they might better understand what happened and to avoid confusion in the future.
You also raised the issue of the highly emotionally-charged interview with the survivor of the fire, Pat Hart. Ms. Waugh agreed with you that the interview, published on all platforms, was raw and painful to listen to. She thought it was in the public interest to air it, especially in light of the Fire Chief’s comments, but she did review with staff the need to mitigate the raw emotion of Ms. Hart’s pain and suffering, as is required by CBC policy.
I want to echo Ms. Waugh’s acknowledgement that this episode and the way it unfolded was painful and stressful. It is my job to assess whether the telling of it was justified and whether in its telling it lived up to the values and standards of the CBC journalistic code.
This is a tragic story in which three people died. By every measure, as sad and as difficult as it is, it is legitimately a news story and it was in the public interest to follow it. It is simply not the case that “CBC made a story where none existed.” It was a story that was complex and unfortunately unfolded in a confusing fashion. There are several issues you raised - you felt the facts were misrepresented and sensationalized. You gave two examples, one regarding the probable cause of the fire, the other the number and existence of the smoke alarms in the residence. Looking at the communication from the fire department I think the March 5 story on the CBC website accurately portrayed the information that was known up to that point. The Fire Chief took the step of making a public statement because of concerns about the cause and the loss of life. He mentioned what he said was the origin of the fire and went on to appeal to citizens to ensure that there are working smoke detectors on each floor of a residence. You objected to the reference to smoke detectors in the residence which burned. You also objected to the characterization that it “had only one smoke detector.” The Fire Chief said this in his initial statement:
“There was one working smoke alarm in this home, but it’s our belief if there had been more than one working smoke alarm, the outcome might have been different.”
The survivor of the fire, Pat Hart, acknowledged that she did hear an alarm. She also indicated a second one was to be installed. From the outset, the fire chief and others emphasized the need to have smoke detectors on every floor. The coverage indicated that its absence was not a violation of the fire code. It was a reasonable thing to report.
Based on the information available at that time, the characterization is accurate. The coverage of tragedies and ongoing traumatic events is challenging because not all the facts become known at the same time. Journalism is iterative and as more facts come to light, the stories are updated and amended. Of course, there is an obligation to minimize harm and to verify information wherever possible, and to indicate on what basis the facts have been validated. In talking to reporters and editors involved in this story it would appear that this process was followed, including reaching out to you for comment and clarification. The one caveat I would add is that it would have been useful to remind the audience that the Fire Chief was drawing these conclusions based on an ongoing investigation - which brings us to the second, and I would imagine, the most vexatious aspect of your interactions with CBC. The events between Friday, March 9th, and the publication of two stories on Monday, March 12th. On the Friday you phoned the newsroom to tell them about the electrical work that had been done in your various rental properties, and, as Ms. Waugh indicated, your frustration at being given no clear indication of what set off the electrical fault. In the course of that phone call you indicated you had told your tenants to shut down their power. You sent me emails which back up that fact :
On Mar 9, 2018, at 2:06 PM, Clement Chisholm wrote:
As per Halifax Fire an unspecified electrical fault has resulted in a fire at 34 Leaside.
You are advised to turn off your main breaker and leave off until further notice.
You may also want NSPI to turn you off completely
Our hands are tied until we find out the source of the problem
This is not nice but out of our control
Later that same afternoon you sent out a second email which advised tenants that in light of new information they could restore power if they had turned it off.
You sent a further email when you learned CBC had told your tenants that they could not confirm that Halifax Fire had reversed its conclusions. You considered that the reporter was being underhanded and dishonest. You also rejected her reporting that you had been advised to have all the electrical work done at your various properties examined by an electrician. It is hard to fault CBC for following up this story since it was triggered by a phone call from you.
The reporter then proceeded to check out the story further. She called the city and Nova Scotia Power to find out who had the authority to cut the electricity. She went out to the properties to check in with tenants about what information they had received and what their reaction was. She also kept in touch with you. In one of those subsequent calls you told her that Halifax Fire had told you they were backtracking on the probable cause of the fire. With all due respect, and with acknowledgement of how frustrating this must have been - because they did ultimately change their conclusion - at this stage the reporter only had your word. While it was reportable that you said so, it is her duty to question and confirm. When she asked you whom you had spoken to, you declined to share that information - which, of course, is your right. You stated she would not share who she was getting her information from either. She said she told you it was a city spokesperson who had been involved from the outset. She then began checking back with city spokespeople and fire officials and could get no one to confirm your statement. At the same time she confirmed with them that there had been no order from the city to cut power, but they had recommended to you that the electrical work at properties be inspected. The spokesperson reiterated the fire was electrical but not suspicious. You stated that to the best of your knowledge “no one from Halifax Fire of Halifax Country ever told CBC that they had advised me to inspect my other properties.” The reporter checked more than once and was told that you had been. There are two competing accounts of who said what. I appreciate that was unsettling and frustrating. While she had further conversations with tenants, she never suggested to them to shut off the power. She was performing due diligence as a reporter trying to understand a confusing story. To infer she was lying to harm you or to influence your tenants is simply not borne out by the facts.
Ms. Luck and Ms. Allen explained to me they felt they were walking a line between the urgency to publish - because there seemed to be a public interest and a public safety component - and the need to carefully confirm and try to clear up the discrepancy between the two versions of the story. It is my assessment they showed good faith and good judgement and were not sensationalistic because they held off publishing anything about Friday’s turn of events until 5:00 a.m. Monday morning. That first version of the story laid out your position and that of the City as it was known at the time. It set out the facts for readers to draw their own conclusions. As late as 11:00 a.m. Monday morning, the reporter had spoken to the deputy fire chief - she said he was adamant that he stood by their version. Later that day, an entirely new statement was made - one that vindicated your version of events. CBC News staff did several things. There was a complete rewrite and edit of the 5:00 a.m. article. Its headline prominently highlighted the fact that the electrical work done was to standard:
Electrical work at scene of fatal fire was up to code: Halifax Fire officials
7 other Lower Sackville properties had the same electrical work done between September and December 2017
There was also a new story written with the headline:
Smoking materials caused Lower Sackville fire that killed 3 people
Investigation found fire started in basement, caused an electrical fault in the house
The story also led the evening newscast, giving prominence to the updates of the story so that citizens would be aware of the new information.
I recognize this was a confusing, stressful and unpleasant time. However, based on a review of the timeline of events and the tapes and notes kept by the reporters - while I appreciate the frustration for that weekend of uncertainty - it would appear that CBC journalists applied best practices. I am glad they are pursuing an explanation from the City for the long period of confusion. I would encourage them to publish a story about it if they are able to get some insight into what happened. The JSP states:
We are aware of the impact of our work and are honest with our audiences. We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow up a story when a situation changes significantly.
That is what was done in this case. In terms of accuracy and fairness, the reporters spent time trying to understand what was going on and on what basis statements were being made. They sought out the principles in the story - including you. It is hard to account for the fact that the City stuck to its story from Friday to Monday, but the reporters cannot be blamed for that fact - and both versions of events were published on the Monday.
Finally, you questioned the airing of an interview with Pat Hart, the survivor of the fire who lost three family members. As Ms. Waugh indicated, it is always a judgment call about whether to air such interviews, and if so, how much. I agree with her, there might have been more judicious editing, especially when Ms. Hart made emotional, but not necessarily, fact-filled assertions about what might have happened.