How deep to dig

The complainant, Jean-Paul Murray, thought CBC was distorting the truth and defending the status quo regarding Gatineau Park in a story about severe flooding in western Quebec. The story was about the flooding and local officials’ concerns about its intensity and frequency. One example of the damage was a house on Meech Lake. Mr. Murray believed ignoring the issues about where it was built and the legality of doing so should have been included. His expectation of daily reporting was unrealistic. In context, the story stands.

COMPLAINT

You are the Secretary of the Gatineau Protection Committee. You are concerned about the stewardship of Gatineau Park, just outside Ottawa and administered by the National Capital Commission. You objected to the featuring of a property on the shores of Meech Lake as an example of the effects of extreme weather and flooding in western Quebec. The article focused on the concerns of mayors in some West Quebec municipalities who were contending with fall flooding due to heavy rains, which came on the heels of similar events earlier in the year.

To illustrate the problem the reporter, Amanda Pfeffer, talked to the owner of a severely damaged home which lies within the park boundaries. The presence of these properties, and further development of any of the land inside the park, is the subject of a long-running controversy. You said that to include the Meech Lake property in this context was an example of CBC putting “more CBC lipstick on the Meech Lake pig.” You said that the reporter should have known that this property is being flooded because of its location:

The net result of Ms. Pfeffer’s report is to present the location of the house at 692 Meech Lake Road as normal. She portrays Ms. Hamilton as the victim of flooding caused by torrential rainfall brought about by climate change. Nowhere is the issue of human irresponsibility for building a house on the bed of a lake/mountain creek brought into focus. As a result, viewers are left with the impression that the owner of the property is solely a victim of the elements, whereas a review of the facts clearly confirms that blinkered human behaviour specifically bears most of the responsibility in her case.

You thought there were other factors that should have been reported—you said some of the properties were illegally built, although you did not specify this one. You questioned the right of the municipality of Chelsea to have issued a building permit. You also thought that the reporter should have looked into the taxation of the property, and whose jurisdiction it should fall under. You provided a site plan of the house. You thought the article was slanted and irresponsible because it avoided dealing with the real issues affecting the Gatineau Park environment, and instead put it in the context of weather-related events. By focusing on climate change, you said, the real issue was obscured. You saw this report as consistent with what you see as CBC’s mishandling of the issues surrounding Gatineau Park, and you accused staff of conflict of interest:

Another report that confirms CBC Ottawa’s mostly slanted reporting regarding the very serious issues facing Gatineau Park, and egregiously failing to uphold a cornerstone of its mandate: protecting the public interest. In fact, the public interest would dictate that this house be expropriated and demolished, and that a proper culvert be installed along the creek's natural path. But, of course, CBC Ottawa seems more interested in preserving the status quo in the park and protecting its friends and CBC employee(s). At least, that's the overwhelming impression I get from a very long and careful analysis of the issue.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Ruth Zowdu, the managing editor for CBC Ottawa, replied to your complaint. She pointed out that the “larger context” for this story was the heavy flooding in the region in the past year and the local mayors’ concerns about how to handle what one called the “new normal.” She explained that while there were others whose properties were flooded, the reporter chose to use Ms. Hamilton as one example of the impact of the weather. She assured you that the fact the property was within Gatineau Park was not the consideration for highlighting the damage to her property. The park was not the focus of the story in any way. And for that reason, she thought it unreasonable to expect the reporter to delve into its history or to provide the context of the ongoing controversies over land use:

I understand that the issue of homes being built in Gatineau Park is very important to you and to many others. Your long term focus on the park means you have accumulated extensive and detailed knowledge on the issue. In this instance, however, when the reporter was telling a story about an increase in the number of floods in west Quebec in general, I do not believe it is fair to expect her to seek out the plans and history of the property.

After looking at the documentation you provided, she agreed that weather may have only been one factor in the flooding. That being the case, the “story would have been better served if she had used another homeowner as her key example.”

REVIEW

The article in question was assigned in the wake of flooding in western Quebec. It was a straightforward daily news assignment. CBC News’ coverage began that day with an interview with the mayor of La Pêche, Quebec on the morning show. The day before, the flooding had also been extensively covered. The October 31 story provided a link to the earlier one, which included photos of washed out roads and serious damage in the region. It is in that context that Ms. Pfeffer set out to advance the story. The mayor had suggested she drive along Meech Lake to see some of the worst damage, including that to the roads in the area. Ms. Pfeffer told me that while looking at the damage on the roads and surrounding area, she happened upon Ms. Hamilton’s property, where there was great deal of damage, and began to photograph. Ms. Hamilton returned while she was doing so, and they had a conversation.

While I appreciate you believe any coverage of this area requires it to be examined through the lens of the ongoing dispute about land use and land stewardship, that is not the imperative of daily news. What Ms. Pfeffer did would be standard practice for this type of coverage. The property was not singled out to slant the coverage, and while it was the one specific example in this story, the previous day’s story shows badly damaged roads and properties across the region. The story was about the flooding and the damage it had caused. The Meech Lake damage is the set-up for a story that quotes several different mayors and surveys the area-wide destruction:

As they assess the latest damage, which comes toward the tail end of a year of destructive flooding across the region, they're also wondering how their communities can mitigate the costly impact of these weather events that seem to have become the new normal.

"It makes me wonder if that's the new tendency of the weather," said La Pêche Mayor Robert Bussière. "It seems to be amplifying all the time, so we really don't know what to expect now."

The municipality declared a state of emergency after communities such as Wakefield suffered flooding and mudslides that cut whole neighbourhoods off from main roads.

"We've been hit twice in three weeks," said Bussière.

One of the washed-out culverts was recently widened to accommodate greater volumes of water.

"We will have to do a study to be able to repair these things for the future and not have disasters again, and that will cost a lot of money," Bussière said.

The mayor of Gatineau said his city will also need to take a long, hard look at the state of its infrastructure.

"We have to be ready to deal with situations like that because they're going to happen more and more," said Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin during a news conference Monday.

Pontiac MP Will Amos said rural communities in his riding were hit especially hard, but don't have the tax base to pay for a major infrastructure overhaul to handle increasingly severe weather.

"We have a number of municipalities that have lost millions and millions of dollars worth of infrastructure this year," said Amos.

He said he will be helping communities access financing through the federal government's disaster mitigation and adaptation fund.

Whether some of the damage was worse because of the placement of the house was well beyond the scope or framing of this particular report. The process by which it transpired also contradicts your supposition that this was a deliberate way to obfuscate the real issues and problems. It is simply not the case that the story was “slanted” toward climate change as a cause of the flooding rather than the placement of the property. To expect a daily news reporter to delve into archives for the site plan or taxation history is not reasonable nor called for. I appreciate your depth of knowledge and concerns about Gatineau Park. It does not therefore follow that every story that touches on Meech Lake conform to your interpretation or analysis of the issues.

You may be correct that the placement of the property in question exacerbated the damage, and that is what Ms. Zowdu was referring to when she said it might not have been the ideal example to stand in for the many. There was damage in the area—and public officials stated that they had concern about the severity of the weather and indications that this was a trend they would continue to deal with. The issues you raise are far beyond the scope of this article. The reporter was in no way obliged to frame it according to your analysis and interpretation.

You have stated that CBC has consistently downplayed and slanted this issue because members of staff have some kind of conflict of interest. I am glad to tell you that your fears are unfounded. Ms. Zowdu has checked, and none of the news and current affairs staff at CBC Ottawa have a connection or stake in Gatineau Park and its stewardship. She has also made clear, as is required both through Journalistic Standards and Practices and the CBC Code of Conduct, that anyone who does have a connection declare that conflict so that stories pertaining to the park be appropriately assigned.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman