Fair, not fair game.

The complainant, Nolan Crouse, thought a story about the outcome of a legal decision he was involved in used inappropriate and inaccurate language because, as an elected official, he was “fair game.” The tone and presentation of the article was appropriate. There were some mistakes in the use of some word and corrections were made.

COMPLAINT

In April you directly contacted the Executive Producer of News in Edmonton, Paul Moore, to bring to his attention to errors in an article about you. Your preference was that the article be deleted. At a minimum you asked that errors be corrected and that CBC’s IT department work with Google to ensure it would not be so prominently displayed in a name search. You said the article itself and its prominence is affecting your psychological well-being and your prospects for employment.

You are the former Mayor of St. Albert, Alberta. In August, a Court of Queen’s Bench justice ruled you had violated the Municipal Government Act but noted that you had acted in good faith. You thought the story was written in a way to deliberately harm you and that publicly-elected officials are “fodder for this type of inappropriate reporting.” You thought everything from the headline to the picture choice was designed to make you look bad.

You took issue with the phrasing and characterization of what had happened. You noted some errors in the report. The original version of the story used the word “charges” in three instances. There were no charges against you, you explained, because this was a civil, not a criminal matter. The story was changed to reflect that fact but you were not satisfied with the alteration. You were also concerned that there was a reference to a lawsuit having been filed which began these proceedings. It is not a lawsuit, you said. You said to state that “the mayor was cleared of a third violation” is incorrect because it was an accusation, not a violation, since the allegation was not upheld. You felt that the language was unnecessarily provocative and disproportionate to the actual incident. You said it was inaccurate to use the word “guilty,” as it was not used in the written judgement. You stated: “‘Found guilty’ is such a terrible way for CBC to cover a story.” You pointed out that after years of public service, this became your legacy because it is available in a Google search.

You also questioned the purpose of providing links to other stories regarding a run for the Alberta Liberal leadership race. The links on the two stories stated “Nolan Crouse drops out of Alberta Liberal leadership race,” and “Alberta leadership race in limbo after Crouse cancels campaign.” You said this was not only irrelevant to the matter at hand but was false. You had never been a candidate:

I was never in the race never...I had no campaign...What CBC is attempting to do here is create some image that I am guilty, charged etc. and as such ran for high ground on a Provincial bid.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of News in Edmonton, Paul Moore, replied to your concerns in writing and on the phone. He told you the story was newsworthy as you were a public official and the judgement of the case is a publicly-available document. He noted the story provided a balanced rendition of the judge’s decision:

Immediately beneath the main headline, the story’s sub-headline reads “Nolan Crouse failed to recuse himself but acted in ‘good faith’. And...the story also quotes Justice Burrows mitigating his finding that there were violations.”

He added that the story reflected the judge “was considerate of your point of view.” He also noted that the article mentioned the judge rejected calls for your resignation as harsh and disproportionate to the violation. Other statements in mitigation of the ruling were also quoted. He said your reaction was also present in the story, quoted from an interview and from your Facebook account. He thought the story provided enough information for readers to draw their own conclusions about the decision.

He addressed what you characterized as inaccuracies. He told you that even though the judge did not use the word “guilty” in his ruling, using the word in the headline and elsewhere in the piece was appropriate. While the mitigating circumstances were mentioned, it is true that the finding was one of breaching the act. He said the word “guilt” could be used in the context of a non-criminal proceeding as well:

But Justice Burrows leaves no doubt that you violated the Municipal Government Act on two occasions. He writes: “I conclude that Mayor Crouse had a pecuniary interest in the expense claim audit motions and by not recusing himself violated MGA s. 17(1) and I conclude that that Mayor Crouse had a pecuniary interest in the defamation funding limit motion.

Mr. Moore agreed with you that the reference to “charges” was incorrect because this was not a criminal case. He told you the story had been corrected to remove any reference to “charges”.

He informed you that CBC would not remove the story, as it was policy to correct stories but to only delete them in the most exceptional circumstances. He stated that CBC has no control over the prominence of a story in an online search. He explained that was determined by algorithms beyond CBC’s control. He recognized and was sorry for the stress this was causing you.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for accuracy, balance and fairness in its reporting. While it accurately reports you were found in violation of the Municipal Government Act, it puts that ruling in context right from the outset, by noting in the sub-headline that the judge believed you had acted in good faith. In the body of the article there is further mitigation quoted in the ruling. The piece ended with your characterization of Steve Stone’s motive, the man running for City Council, who filed an application to the court - which is what started this process - and your response to the judgment.

CBC journalistic policy also calls for rigour and precision in the use of language. I agree that there was a problem. The word “charges” should not have been used. The correction has been made. I also agree with you that it is imprecise to say you were cleared of a third violation. It would not be a violation until it was upheld. I think people reading it would get the general sense, but as precision is important it would be better to change the wording to reflect that there was an accusation of a third breach of the Act.

You also thought the sentence “The lawsuit was filed by Steve Stone who is running for a seat on St. Albert city council” is wrong because it was not a lawsuit. In fact, a lawsuit is defined as a “case before the court.” Colloquial understanding would take it to mean precisely that - a legal action. The story also included your reference to the case in a Facebook post, which provided the necessary context, and your analysis of the judgement:

You may or may not be aware that a resident brought forward an application to the courts and a judge has heard arguments by the applicant to have me removed from office for pecuniary interest on 3 matters and the judge ruled today in my favour and I am thrilled that this matter is behind me. CASE Closed.

It is hard to summarize 16 pages, so indeed I select some salient points – one point from each of these 3 matters.

Judge's quotes: - one each matter

  1. “Mayor Crouse’s violation of pecuniary interest rules was a technical violation. In my opinion disqualification in these circumstances would be unreasonably harsh, unjust and entirely inappropriate.”
  2. “In my view that Mayor Crouse had a pecuniary interest was not obvious. I am satisfied that disqualification of Mayor would be out of all proportion to the seriousness of his violation. That violation was in the circumstances, technical.”
  3. “It has not been proved that he had a pecuniary interest in the matters considered by Council in that context.”

My learning more than anything else I will share another day as I have much that Council members in Alberta could learn from.

That for another day; CASE CLOSED

You questioned the placement of two links to stories about your short-lived run for the Alberta Liberal Party within the context of this one. The first link was to a story published some months before the court judgment headlined “Nolan Crouse drops out of Liberal leadership race.” You asked what this had to do with the current story. It is a common practice in online news to link other stories about a person or topic. Mr. Moore said they linked to it because it provided background and context about you that some people might not have known. The second link was to a story headlined “Alberta Liberal leadership race in limbo after Crouse cancels campaign.” You said there was no campaign. Reading the two articles which were not challenged when published, it is clear that you had announced and were intending to run, and that while you literally may not have begun actively campaigning, it is understood political shorthand to say a candidate has launched a campaign for office. Your Facebook pages announced the decision to run, and then the decision to pull back. There were no inaccuracies nor does the inclusion of these links bias the story.

I too regret this episode and its coverage continues to cause you distress. CBC Journalistic Policy does not allow for the removal of articles except in extraordinary circumstances:

We generally do not agree to requests to remove published material from our web pages.

Our published content is a matter of public record. To change the content of previously published material alters that record. Altering the record could undermine our credibility and the public’s trust in our journalism.

There can be exceptions to this position – where there are legal or personal safety considerations to the person named.

There are other remedies to consider; correcting inaccuracies or updating a story to provide details about its resolution can often address requests for deletion.

As Mr. Moore pointed out, you were a public servant and the judgment is in the public record. There are no grounds under this policy to remove your story. As for your contention that it is in CBC’s power to affect Google and its algorithms, I have checked with the manager of digital operations and he told me there is no way, other than removing the story and asking Google to delist it, that there is any control from CBC’s end. The more a name or story is searched, the higher it goes in the ranking, and clearly this is not something CBC can influence.

Given that our court system is public and you are a public figure, it was legitimate to cover the story. Despite the errors in language, the story provided the context and information necessary for readers to form their own opinions about what had happened. That, in no way, excuses the imprecision and the reminder that there is a need for very careful editing and review, especially in stories that involve reputation.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman