Pitfalls of personal stories

The complainant, Kym Sweeny, said she had not given consent to be featured in an online article based on her interview on Cross Country Checkup, and that the article did not accurately reflect what she said. She felt her story was cast in a negative light. I found that editors and writers had acted appropriately.

COMPLAINT

You participated in an interview on Cross Country Checkup in late October. The subject of the programme was the high level of student debt many young people are carrying, and the challenge of paying it back. Subsequently, the details of your situation revealed in the interview were used as the basis for an article published on the website, “Faced with Mounting Debt, this newly graduated lawyer filed for bankruptcy - and still owes $120K.” You were reluctant to be interviewed, and after further requests from the show producer you agreed to do so. You stated that the producer did not inform you that the radio interview could be used for an online article.

You thought your quotes were taken out of context and that your “stressful financial situation” was turned into “clickbait” for the article. You feel you were portrayed in a negative light. You think the damage goes beyond you because it presented all single mothers in the same way:

It paints all single mothers in a bad light. Advanced education is not a luxury or reckless investment. For many struggling in poverty (and I mean REAL poverty… homelessness, food banks, etc.) it is the only avenue available to improve employment prospects and break a chain of poverty passed down over generations. But it is not immediate! We have to start at the bottom the same as everyone else after graduation. The difference is that we carry a higher debt-load than our middle class and wealthier peers who did not need to “dip into loans” during their education. No amount of budgeting can fix intergenerational poverty and a lack of social support.

The article also included some comments from a financial advisor about millenials and debt, and you thought that furthered the stigma because that “generic financial advice” did not apply in your case at all. As you describe it, you come from a background of poverty and used student loans to further your education, and incurred further expense for child care so you could continue your studies:

The clear bias against student parents in this article is lazy writing and research. You have completely ignored gender and class disparity in this text. Using my story to create bookends for generic advice aimed at hypothetical reckless Millennial spenders is irresponsible; attaching my full name to this story in print makes it easier for trolls to track me down online and send me hate mail and threats.

You said the article left you vulnerable to attack from commenters who criticized you for your “life choices.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Alison Broddle, the Managing Editor of Digital, CBC Network Radio Talk, replied to your concerns. She told you that rather than put you in a bad light, she felt the article was positive:

I have reviewed the article and find it to be a sympathetic and honest account of your challenges and the considerable and admirable efforts you have made to overcome them. I would respectfully suggest that your courage in getting through the struggles and adversity you faced came across as inspiring and strong.

She added that when you wrote that you were receiving negative comments, the staff went back and made some changes to the story—the comment function was turned off, and then the existing comments were deleted. The initial publication had a picture of you and your child which was removed and replaced by a generic graphic.

She also addressed the question of your knowledge that your story might be used in digital format, not just as a radio interview. She pointed out that the programme producers told you that while you were being approached primarily for an on-air interview, they also asked you for a photo for use on a web post:

The photo we used was the one you directed us to, the same one you had provided to Flare.com for a similar article earlier this year that covered much of the same background on your financial situation.

Ms. Broddle said the quotes used in the story were an accurate reflection of the conversation you had on-air with host Duncan McCue. She noted that there was a link on the web page to the full interview, which would enable readers to get a complete picture of your experience. She explained that it was common practice to broaden out the perspectives presented in an article with the inclusion of quotes from an expert. She did not think that there had been inaccuracies, and she told you that she appreciated you for expressing your concerns, which led to an examination and review of the team’s practices.

REVIEW

There are two main concerns here—the question of consent, and the accuracy of the article itself. Whether it took some persuading or not, you did consent to an interview with host Duncan McCue. The producer then asked you for a photograph to be used on the web, and you directed her to one used in a different publication’s article about you. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has no specific guidelines about informing participants about their information appearing on more than one platform. It would be reasonable to assume you were aware of the intention to publish, based on the request for the photo and what Ms. Broddle said was your response.

I have reviewed the article against the radio broadcast, and it does not appear to be a distortion of your comments. Like Ms. Broddle, I was struck by your honesty and courage to disclose your circumstances. I can appreciate why you might consider you were being judged by the expert quoted, or lumped in with others when your circumstances are different. However, while the first segment of the article quoting financial counsellor Jessica Moorhouse refers to you, it then moves past your specifics to broader observations. This too is a pretty common technique of journalism. That part of the article begins:

Toronto-based certified financial counsellor and writer Jessica Moorhouse often sees cases like Sweeny's among those pursuing careers in legal or medical fields.

In other fields, she says students' debt may reach between $25,000 to $50,000.

"Generally speaking, most millennials don't have anywhere near [Sweeny's] level of debt," she said.

I suppose you could read the observation that most millennials don’t have as much debt as a judgment, but I think the more likely intent is that it acknowledges your unique circumstances. The rest of the information attributed to Ms. Moorhouse should be seen in that light—referring to millenials in general and not you in particular.

Your experience of trolling and negative comments after the article was published is an ongoing and vexing problem in the digital space. Good journalism involves good storytelling and one of the conventions is to use the story of one to stand for the many. That would appear to be the case here. While CBC journalists can’t completely dodge responsibility for the reaction posted material elicits, they must be mindful of it, especially when dealing with vulnerable individuals. It was the right decision to remove your picture and to close the article to comments. The use and mediation of comments are outside the mandate of this office, but I would observe the challenge of using them when a story is personal is one that should always be considered. I am glad to see that the editorial team took your concerns seriously and made some modifications to mitigate the negative reaction you were receiving.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman