Framing creates balance.

The complainant, Ira Zbarsky, objected to a story covering pro and anti-Kinder Morgan pipeline demonstrations. He said they were framed as equal. Programmers agreed with his assessment shortly after the story went up, and it was rewritten. He was not satisfied and wished to know how it happened and what consequences there might be. Here’s the explanation.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that a story about two demonstrations, a large one against, and a small one in favour, of the Kinder Morgan pipeline distorted the relative size and importance of the protests. The title of the article was “Protesters rally for and against Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline plan.”

Do you consider this report a fair and balanced report on the massive upsurge of outrage re Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project.

Not til the last line of a long article does the article mention that the pro march of Alberta workers was 200, the protest re Kinder Morgan 5000.

This was in fact the largest Indigenous led protest march with the support of non indigenous perhaps in history!

You wanted to know what remedial steps would be taken. Once the article had been modified, you wanted to know who was responsible for the error and what might have been the “motive for such an outrageous article.” You wondered if it was a deliberate deception. You were also concerned that significant damage had been done because the article was rewritten two days later, and by then a false impression had been created.

You also asked why the crowd estimate of the anti-Kinder Morgan rally was based on RCMP estimates. You thought the reporter should have asked those who support the pipeline whether they were paid to attend and given time off work to travel from Alberta to stage the demonstration.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Treena Wood, News Director for CBC British Columbia, replied to your concerns. She told you that after receiving feedback about the coverage, the news team did a “prompt review” of the coverage of the two demonstrations. She said they realized they had given too much weight to the pro-pipeline rally and adjusted the coverage accordingly to “more accurately reflect both events” and acknowledged the changes with an explanation as to how the online piece had been modified. It acknowledged that the coverage of the smaller rally was disproportionate in the original piece. She assured you that there was no other agenda, but rather faulty judgment at play:

I want to be clear that if it was a mistake, it was one of good intentions: to be fair, balanced and impartial. It is never fun to acknowledge that we were wrong, but we did so here, and we hope you find reassurance in both our transparency and our willingness to reconsider our choices.

She told you that the crowd size estimate of the anti-rally was attributed to the RCMP, as well as an acknowledgment that organizers claimed it was higher. She also addressed your queries about the make-up and motivation of those who attended the rally in support of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. She said that there were two quotes from protesters who had come from Alberta, and that one of them worked in the oil and gas sector. She did not think it appropriate to ask if they were paid or supported to attend:

Given that we didn’t ask anyone from the anti-Kinder Morgan rally if someone was paying them to be there or if they had paid time off to come to the lower mainland, it would not have been fair or balanced to ask, or assume, that all the people at the pro-Kinder Morgan rally were there for those reasons.

REVIEW

In her response to you, Ms. Wood referenced the CBC journalistic policy commitment to balance which requires the representation of a variety of views and perspectives over time, and in some way to reflect the relevance of those perspectives. Good reporting must balance the need to represent a variety of views, while ensuring that in doing so it does not inappropriately create the impression that a particular event or view is equivalent to another. That is a question of balance; it is also a question of context and framing. It is in the framing of the coverage that the original story fell short. Ms. Wood and her editors told me that going into the weekend, one of the issues they hoped to highlight was the fact that there was, unusually, some citizen-based activity in support of the pipeline. With that in mind, they thought it would be an interesting focus for the Saturday coverage. The first story published was actually based on Canadian Press copy, which also framed the discussion as “duelling protests.” While it is never explicitly stated, it sets the reader up to see them as equivalent. However, the article itself was not that unbalanced or skewed. The headline was “Protesters rally for and against Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline plan.” That is a true statement. While you said one would have had to read to the end to get a sense of the disparity in the size of the two, in fact the sub-head read: “Thousands participated in the anti-pipeline protest, another 200 staged support rally.” The first protesters quoted in the original piece were those opposed to the project. The rest of the piece provided perspectives from both sides. The amended story made clearer the difference in size of the demonstrations and did not make its focus the fact that there were “duelling” events, but rather described and presented what had happened at each. It is a nuanced difference, and the team is to be commended for evaluating the feedback received and adjusting accordingly - that is responsible and accountable journalism.

Looking at the open paragraphs of the original story and its replacement, they illustrate the value and importance of framing a story.

This was the original:

Protesters around Vancouver held duelling rallies on Saturday, some welcoming Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project with others decrying it.

Both sides delivered impassioned arguments about the proposed expansion.

Indigenous leaders beat drums and sang out against the project Saturday morning, saying they won't step aside for construction.

The pipeline runs between Edmonton and Burnaby. Kinder Morgan received federal approval for an expansion in November 2016.

The amended story begins in this way:

Thousands of people gathered in Burnaby, B.C., this weekend to participate in a First Nations-led protest against Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Indigenous leaders beat drums and sang out against the project Saturday morning, saying they won't step aside for construction.

A few hours later, a much smaller pro-pipeline rally was held downtown.

The rest of the two pieces is not substantively different, although there is more detail about the larger rally in the second piece. The notion of competing events squaring off against each other is an attractive narrative and creates a sense of conflict. It is not uncommon for journalists to frame stories in that fashion. Sober second thought corrected that tendency.

There is no evidence or justification to assert that there was deception. There was less than perfect judgment. Ms. Wood tells me there were spirited discussions in the newsroom. The question was - had the coverage fulfilled its duty to reflect the reality of what had happened - and the decision was made that it could have been better. Through that discussion, the team will be more mindful in the future of how stories are framed. They are also mindful of the divisive and controversial nature of this project, and the sometimes-rambunctious social media commentary that can pressure newsrooms. Strong journalistic judgment is necessary to assess the coverage in light of the intense public debate.

As for your question about the reporting of crowd size, there is not a specific CBC journalistic policy on that issue. It is frequently controversial, and estimates can vary widely based on the interests of those making the claims. It is CBC practice to attribute the numbers to the source used, and when there is a big variance between police estimates and those of the organizers, to report both. I note in the first story there was attribution to the RCMP, and in the second to note organizers put the number higher.

As I have written many times before, journalism is iterative. On developing and controversial stories, information and analysis develop over time. While the original story fell short of standards, the remedy followed policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman