Politics and Marriage.

The complainant, Carole Paikin Miller, thought coverage of her candidacy for school board trustee in Hamilton was sexist and sensationalist. She objected to being identified in relation to her spouse, and not in her own right. Ordinarily I would agree. In this case her opponent was her husband’s former employee who had filed a human rights case against him. The association was relevant to the story.

COMPLAINT

You are a newly-elected school trustee for Ward 5 in the city of Hamilton. When you decided to run in July an article was written about you on the CBC Hamilton website which you considered ill-advised, sexist and “a tabloid style hit piece.” You noted the article, entitled “NDP human rights feud set to spill over into school board trustee race” did not even mention you by name until the second paragraph. Instead of focusing on you, your reasons for running and your qualifications, it featured the “recent and unfounded allegations about my husband,” Paul Miller, a sitting NDP MPP. The man you ran against, Todd White - the incumbent trustee - used to work for him and had filed a human rights complaint against him. You questioned why the reporter, Samantha Craggs, chose to focus on this aspect of the story and wondered why you had been singled out: “I wonder how many other trustee candidates received a personal phone call from a local journalist within hours of registering to run?”

You asked why you were identified as the wife of Paul Miller instead of being identified in your own right. You pointed out that you are an educator who chose to run to ensure that the children in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board are well served, and because you are concerned about the choices the current Ontario provincial government is making regarding curriculum:

... it is frightening to realize that in the eyes of the CBC I am not a strong and independent woman capable of running in local politics. To initially be referred to as solely the "wife of NDP MPP Paul Miller" demonstrates the sexist and flawed logic within the CBC and its reporter as well as a confused attitude towards women in politics.

You thought by focusing on the dispute your opponent has with your husband and by introducing you as his spouse in the course of the story, the reporter had “contrived” a narrative to “deny you of your democratic voice.” The story should not have focused on your husband and his career:

It should have been a story about a published children's author, former educator and independent freelance writer who is willing to do what I feel is right by running for office myself.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Rick Hughes, the Executive Producer for CBC Hamilton, replied to your concerns. He told you the choice to identify you in relation to your spouse was taken after careful consideration. He agreed that this is something that is “not appropriate as a norm” but it could be justified in this case by the “facts and context of your candidacy and where it is happening.”

He explained that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for the approach taken in this article. He cited the policy regarding political reporting calls for the provision of a range of facts and information so that Canadians can make informed decisions about matters in the public interest. He outlined the facts that formed their decision and noted the same choices would have been made regardless of gender:

  • Your husband is a sitting MPP, which is newsworthy. It is in the public interest to point out these political connections to voters.
  • He is also a sitting MPP subject to a high-profile human rights investigation
  • By running for Ward 5, you are running against the very employee who filed the human rights complaint. This is noteworthy and in the interest of voters, especially since you do not live in the ward in which you are running. You are running in an inner-city ward, yet live in a suburban community on the edge of the urban area.

He also noted that rather than an attempt to deny you your voice, the reporter called you before publication of the story but you did not want to be quoted or interviewed:

Sam recalls the phone call and that when you answered, you repeated her name out loud and she heard a male voice in the background say: “Don’t tell her anything.” Sam was able to get confirmation from you of your professional background before you ended the call.

He thought that news staff had taken appropriate measures to represent your voice in the story, and indicated if there were other newsworthy events regarding the election in your ward; CBC News would provide further coverage.

REVIEW

In his book, News Values, Jack Fuller - a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former publisher of the Chicago Tribune - defined news in this fashion:

News is a report of what a news organization has learned about matters of some significance or interest to the specific community that news organization serves. (p.6)

He wrote that definition with the caveat that it still left room for variation about how different news organizations define “significance” - but it does narrow the field somewhat. He also wrote this before the age of social media and when the internet was in its early stages. It is a book full of common sense which I think still very much applies to this day.

The fact that the story of your candidacy was framed by your relationship to your husband was not done in an arbitrary or meaningless way. You declared your candidacy for the role of school trustee in a ward where the incumbent was a former employee of your husband, who had filed a grievance against him at the Human Rights Commission. You are not your husband, to be sure, but the network of relationships at play in this race is arguably relevant to voters and the choices they might make. It is an interesting set of circumstances, something that informs news judgment. I note there have been a series of allegations and disagreements between NDP workers and other MPPs, so this would appear to be an issue with relevance to the community. You asked how often a reporter would call a school trustee as soon as she had filed her papers - the answer is probably not many. Since school trustees are responsible for our children’s education, it probably should happen more often. The reality is, though, while you don’t think the fact that you were running against someone involved in a dispute with your spouse was relevant or should have shaped the story, it certainly fulfilled the definition of new, unusual and significant. The headline on the story “NDP human rights feud set to spill over into school board trustee race” is designed to get readers’ attention. That is what headlines are for. This one is factually accurate and written in a fairly straightforward manner. It is also true that on first mention you are “wife of” but in the second sentence you are named:

The wife of NDP MPP Paul Miller is running for public school trustee against incumbent Todd White, who is embroiled in a human rights and employment grievances feud with her husband.

Carole Paikin Miller's candidacy sets the stage for the NDP's internal squabbles to spill over into the school board race this fall.

I am not sure that it would make a material difference, but I agree it would not have significantly changed the understanding or clarity to have used your name first and then explained the relationship.

The reporter telephoned you shortly after you filed your nomination papers in order to get your view and perspective and your reasons for running. It is entirely your choice to have declined to talk to her, but she followed best practices in reaching out to you so that your voice would be part of the reporting. Speaking to you would have allowed the reporter to present your perspective on why you were running as a trustee, and why, in that particular ward. I note in the story she does mention you are a former teacher. She attempted to find out more about your background from various social media sites, but there was not a great deal of information available. It would have been dubious practice to ask someone else about your thoughts and motivations, so the reporter tried to contact you - the primary source - to find out more about your decision to run and how you viewed the larger picture and its relevance.

I note that CBC Hamilton ran a piece about your successful campaign, which included quotes from you regarding your reasons for seeking the position and rejecting any connection to the human rights procedure. CBC policy allows for the presentation of a range of views and perspectives on matters of controversy over a reasonable period of time. You may not agree with the news judgment which framed the first story in this fashion, but I do not find it violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman