Framing affects balance

The complainant, Josette Wier, objected to a story on CBC News Network about the Alberta oil price plunge. She said it was false to say it was due to pipeline capacity and that generally CBC coverage is biased because that is the only view it represents. I did not agree with her, but her complaint highlights a more subtle challenge—the coverage of this issue is generally framed in one way, and deserves broader context.

COMPLAINT

You believe CBC News coverage of the decline in Alberta oil prices is biased and one sided. You cited an item on a News Network newscast broadcast on November 21, 2018, as just one example of this pattern. You think CBC News provides only the corporate and government explanations for the price decline. You believe it is a “false” explanation to say that the prices are dropping because of lack of pipeline capacity:

This false statement is repeated ad nauseum on the radio and TV News with only CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) being sought for opinion. CAPP is a powerful lobby group. Unbiased coverage requires asking other opinion which I happen to share. The price is plunging because there is plenty of cheaper and easier to transport and process oil in the world. We are being fed the Liberal government party line.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Daniel Getz, Executive Producer of Network News, replied to your concerns. He did not agree with your assessment of the segment in the newscast. He quoted that story at some length. It arose out of a meeting between oil industry leaders and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He noted that this was one of many news stories, and given the complexities of the issue, it is not possible to capture a range of views in every piece. He noted that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for the presentation of a range of views and perspectives over time:

The collapse in Alberta oil prices is a complex story. As a news organization, we try to convey the events and the factors behind them accurately, clearly and, of course, fairly, including information about what happened and its significance. Inevitably, it is not possible to explain such a story in its entirety in three minutes of television coverage. Not every fact or opinion or piece of analysis can be canvassed. Nor is it the mandate of CBC News only to provide information which matches up with the opinions of its audience.

He agreed that in this case the reporter did characterize the overall cause as a lack of pipeline capacity, because this reflected what the Prime Minister and the protestors were saying. He noted that the reporter alluded to other factors such as the volume of oil being produced, and the failure to augment rail shipments. He added that there has been a great deal of coverage of the issue, and a multiplicity of opinions and perspectives has been presented, including Greenpeace, various participants in the oil industry, energy analysts and the Alberta government. He said in that way, CBC news had been living up to its editorial standards.

REVIEW

CBC journalistic standards rest on principles of balance, accuracy and fairness. Generally speaking we think of balance as the presentation of a range of views, over a reasonable period of time, “taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.”

It is reasonable to say that the reasons for the low prices for Alberta oil are complex, and among them is the lack of pipeline capacity. So I do not agree that it is a false statement to say so.

CBC coverage of this issue tends to arise out of the news of the day, and that is what frames the discussion—protests by those who want the pipeline built, statements from oil company executives and the announcements and pronouncements of the Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley. It is appropriate that those stories be covered.

They do, however, frame the discussion in terms defined by those with a particular view of the problem and the solution. How a story is framed, from what perspective it is being told, is one measure of fairness and balance. You can present dissenting voices in that piece, but it has still been framed from a particular viewpoint. The framing is not false, it is simply not the only way to look at it, or talk about it.

The preponderance of coverage makes reference to the need for more pipeline capacity, but little else. That is because, as I noted, it arises from news of the day and so is brief without much background or context. There is very little coverage of the broader issues, or public policy, to fulfill the obligation to give Canadians the information and perspectives they need to form their own conclusions.

In short, in reactive news stories, a kind of shorthand reduces the issue to pipeline capacity quite often. A review of recent coverage does produce other perspectives and broader analysis. On The National November 28th, host Adrienne Arsenault introduced an analysis piece by business reporter Peter Armstrong by stating “it’s worth explaining some of the oil patch issues beyond pipelines.” Mr. Armstrong addresses the issue of over-capacity and how that came about.

There have been other pieces that look at a range of contributing factors to the current situation. Critics of government policy are quoted in some reports. Mr. Getz referenced some of them in his response to you. They presented the views of various Alberta government officials in favour of production cuts, industry spokespeople against it, and a member of Greenpeace who provided an environmental perspective. Local coverage in Alberta includes pipeline opponents.

I note that The National provided background and broader context in a piece entitled “Pipeline Politics: Why $1.6B in aid for oil and gas industry is awkward for Canada,” on December 18. There have also been Opinion pieces critical of government policy which led to this state of affairs. This is from an article by Susan Wright, a lawyer and political commentator:

It's not the complexities of rising international output, burgeoning inventories or even the lack of pipeline capacity that's baffling us. It's the shameless hypocrisy of Alberta oil companies pleading with the NDP government to manipulate market prices and pick winners and losers, ostensibly for the greater public good.

The reporting is not one sided and biased as you stated. It tends to stay within a narrow perspective, and would benefit from some broader context and perspectives, such as some of the more recent coverage noted. It might be useful for CBC News management to step back and ask what else CBC News and current affairs coverage might bring to the discussion, and in what ways the issue might be framed.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman