Scoop or Not.

The complainant, Andrew Douglas, Managing Editor of Frank Magazine, was concerned that CBC News had left the false impression they had broken a story he ran first in his magazine by the use of heated language and references to investigation. While his magazine published first, CBC News had its own tip on the story and did not claim exclusivity. There was no violation of CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You are the Managing Editor for Frank Magazine based in Halifax. You thought CBC News in Halifax wrongly left the impression they had presented an exclusive story - but in fact your magazine had published it first. The story concerned a funeral home in Berwick, a community in the Annapolis Valley. There had been a mix-up and the wrong woman was cremated. You said your publication broke the story first on January 7, 2018. You tweeted a link to it behind your website’s paywall at that time. The story was also published in the magazine, which you said was on newsstands around the province on January 10. You pointed out that various staff members at CBC News in Halifax follow the magazine on Twitter, and therefore would have likely known about the scoop.

CBC News published a story about the same funeral home on their website on January 17, followed by pieces broadcast on television news. It was the way they were presented on both platforms that you had an issue with. You objected to the “chest-thumping language” and the impression that it was CBC journalists who uncovered the story:

It immediately struck me that the language being used in the reportage made it sound like it was a CBC exclusive. Although the word "exclusive" was never used in any of the presentations I am aware of, the way the story was hyped made it seem like the CBC owned the story. Online, it was presented under the "CBC Investigates" banner, which in my observation tends to be used with exclusives the CBC do a deep dive on.

You also objected to the language used to introduce the television segment. You said this too was “torqued-up language” which left a false impression of the accomplishments of the CBC news team. You suspected that your story was the source of theirs.

You noted the CBC newscast presenter, Tom Murphy, introduced the story by stating “A CBC investigation uncovered the story of a mistaken cremation and a viewing that went terribly wrong:”

To be clear, it wasn't a CBC investigation that uncovered this story, it was a Frank Magazine investigation. I spoke to family members who confirmed these things had happened. And I also spoke with the same funeral board official that Yvonne would eventually talk to, and he similarly confirmed there had been a problem.

You thought CBC did not necessarily need to acknowledge your work, but should have toned down their claims for the journalism on this story.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

You had two responses from CBC. The first was from Ken MacIntosh, Executive Producer of News, in response to a query you put directly to him. He told you that the reporter, Yvonne Colbert, “did in fact uncover this story” and that she had been working on it before you had published your story. He also said that in the course of her work she was able to find much more detail than your story contained. He noted there was no claim that it was exclusive.

Nancy Waugh, the Managing Editor of CBC News Atlantic, also responded to your concerns. She told you the story came to the Nova Scotia investigative unit on December 29 and it was then Ms. Colbert began working on the feature. She told you she spent days making phone calls and then visiting the area to find the family involved. She noted that in her stories some people agreed to be identified on the record. She also noted that Mr. MacIntosh told you the story was characterized as investigative because of the amount of work that went into it.

She acknowledged your story was published first but that the reporter did not use Frank Magazine as a source, and added that the TV producers involved in the creation of the broadcast version were not aware of your publication. She said that it might have created some confusion for members of the public who were aware of your earlier version of the story:

Given that your version was in the public domain prior to January 17, some members of the audience may have been aware of your story and could have been confused by the use of the word “uncover” in the television introduction. However, the television producers were not aware of your story prior to their broadcast. If they had been, the introduction likely would have been worded differently. We regret that confusion.

REVIEW

Here is the background to CBC’s publication of an article and broadcast of television reports about the mix-up in a funeral home in Nova Scotia. The CBC news desk received an anonymous tip on their voicemail some time between Christmas and the new year. A news assignment producer brought it to the attention of Yvonne Colbert and the investigative unit to check out the unsubstantiated claims. Ms. Colbert told me that other newsrooms also received the phone call - some opted to do the story, some never did. Given the timing of the tip-off, little was done with it until early in the new year. You chose to publish with the information you had earlier than the CBC. You certainly scooped them by publishing first, but it would not be accurate to say that the publication of your short article was what began CBC’s investigation. The reporter stated that she was aware that you had published something once it was out on the newsstands, but continued to do her own digging because she felt it important - given the gravity of the accusations - to dig deeper and verify the information she had.

You told me you heard the story from a source in the area on January 3. You are certain that was the impetus for CBC news. CBC News staff have told me otherwise. There is no reason to disbelieve them. Ms. Colbert spent a great deal of time trying to get family members to talk, preferably on the record. CBC News generally requires two sources to corroborate details. That is solid journalistic practice. When that was done, the stories were published. I note while CBC news staff branded the stories with CBC Investigates, nowhere did they claim to be first or exclusive. The introduction of the news segment on January 17, the first TV report on the matter, was straightforward:

TOM MURPHY
Good evening, we begin tonight with a CBC News investigation about a devastating mistake at a funeral home.

AMY SMITH
It’s a mix-up that has one family in the Annapolis Valley reeling. It involves the death of 65-year old Sandra Bennett. She died on December 20th.

TM
Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick was selected to handle the family’s wishes, but things went horribly wrong.

AS
Our consumer watchdog Yvonne Colbert is on this story and joins us with the latest.

There are no hard and fast rules for using the CBC Investigates banner, but senior news managers state that it is used if the story requires a significant investment of time and digging.

There was no fundamental error in accuracy. It was also not surprising and it would be logical to conclude that you would quote the same people interviewed in both your stories in order to seek comment and accountability.

As for your concern about the word “uncovered,” this is what the introduction stated in a follow-up piece featuring reaction from a Nova Scotia cabinet minister:

This can’t happen again.” Those are the words of Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan about the funeral home mix-up in the Annapolis Valley last month. A CBC investigation uncovered the story of a mistaken cremation and a viewing that went terribly wrong. The CBC’s Yvonne Colbert continues her coverage tonight.

In retrospect it was not the best choice of words. The news team realizes that fact, but it is hardly a major violation of journalistic policy. I also note through Twitter and your own publication you were able to call CBC to account for your view of their coverage and how it originated. In one of the articles you published on this matter you predicted that the station would likely receive a “pummeling” from the Ombudsman. It is ironic that one of your complaints to me was regarding “torqued-up” language. I realize that in a competitive environment there is a desire for recognition and a tendency to heavily promote and to stand out from the noisy and crowded news landscape. It is also my view that this dispute is very much “inside baseball” and that consumers of news make their judgments based on reliability, transparency and accuracy. They certainly were able to consider your perspective on this matter through your own publication and could therefore come to their own conclusions. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in this case.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman