Seeing is Believing

CBC Ottawa ran a story about a programme to match homeless people to rental housing. It documented a case where it went wrong, leaving the landlord with a trashed apartment. The story showed the damage, but focused on the gap between the promises and the delivery of the sponsoring agency. The complainant, Lorraine Cohen, questioned the value of doing a story pitched by the landlord and the authenticity of the photos of the damage. The story was well written and balanced, and there is no reason to doubt the honesty of the CBC team responsible for the visuals.

COMPLAINT

In October, CBC News Ottawa posted a story regarding the damage done to an apartment in that city. The landlord had agreed to take part in a municipal programme to provide homeless people apartments. CBC News reported that the apartment had been left in a filthy mess. The focus of the story was the landlord’s experience dealing with the city in light of the damage. The online piece was entitled Rental unit overrun by maggots, mould and feces after city program fails landlord.” You questioned the veracity of the pictures and accused the news staff of staging the series of photos accompanying the article:

The trash seems localized in distinct heaps, the surrounding walls and floors are surprisingly clean in comparison. The mismatch between these makes me question the veracity of your images. Though the homeless resident reportedly lived in the dwelling for seven months, none of the usual wear and tear was outwardly apparent in the cupboards, fridge, kitchen backsplash, floors and walls, which retained an almost pristine appearance.

In stark contrast to the severe degradation of the inner fridge, toilet and bathtub, most of the trash in the dwelling appeared made up of new or recent packaging, as if planted there for shock value.

You had a second criticism of the piece - you pointed out that the origins of this story were from the landlord, who contacted CBC “about problems he had with the man who lived in the apartment.” This was a criminal matter, you asserted, and the landlord should have contacted the police. You asked why CBC got involved in this dispute. You said: “This story could be interpreted, in nature, as political and tarnish CBC’s image.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC Ottawa, Ruth Zowdu, replied to your concerns. She told you that she was “disappointed” you would think CBC would publish a false story. She assured you that what was visible in the photos is what the photographer and reporter found on site. She mentioned that based on what they had been told, both the camera operator and reporter wore protective gear:

I cannot explain why the garbage was piled a certain way or why the walls may be more clean than the toilet or the bathtub, but I can confirm with confidence that the story we told was true. The photos are real. It is a very sad situation on many levels and it is authentic.

She added that after this story was published, the reporter continued to research it. She was able to track down the tenant responsible for the mess, and he confirmed he had indeed damaged the apartment.

She told you the news staff decided to pursue the story after the landlord contacted the newsroom. They decided it was newsworthy to follow up because Mr. Mehra was having a hard time getting support from the agency responsible for the programme:

The program, called Housing First, is intended to decrease the number of people living on the streets of our city. It has worked for some, but in this particular case, it was a failure. Seven months after a homeless man moved into Mr. Mehra's apartment, the unit was filled with garbage. When the city did not respond to Mr. Mehra's requests for assistance to help evict the tenant and clean up the apartment, he turned to CBC Ottawa for help.

She also said the CBC Ottawa news team are continuing to track and report on the “failures and successes of the Housing First program.”

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices makes a commitment to accurate reporting. Neither you nor I can visit that apartment to verify its state. You pointed out some things you thought were anomalies as proof that the reality was misrepresented. Your conclusions were based on assumptions, and you are welcome to make them. However, it also assumes a level of dishonesty and inappropriate journalistic practice based on no evidence. As Ms. Zowdu told you, the tenant himself confirms he deliberately damaged the flat.

You questioned CBC’s involvement in the story at all. There is nothing unusual about citizens with stories to tell, or who are experiencing difficulty with institutions to turn to the media. Seeking accountability from those who are in positions of responsibility is the hallmark of public service journalism. Many stories begin with tips or contacts from citizens. That is the first step. The reporter did not take the landlord’s word about the condition of the apartment, she independently verified it.

While the state of the unit is the most dramatic part of the story, its journalistic focus is actually about who is responsible for what happened, and how the housing initiative is being run. To that end, Ms. Burke, the reporter, spoke to all the principal players. She explained how the programme is meant to work:

The Landlord Partnership Program (LPP), a city and Salvation Army initiative, signs up landlords with vacant units for rent. Then, the City of Ottawa's Housing First program connects people living on the streets or in shelters with those landlords, according to the city's website. From there, the tenant is matched with one of 11 outside agencies that assign a case manager to provide support services to the tenant.

She spoke to representatives of the Salvation Army and the Canadian Mental Health Association - who provided a case worker for the tenant - and attempted to get comments from the City of Ottawa, who administers the programme. The article points out some gaps in accountability and in follow-through. The landlord himself states that the programme is a good one, badly executed. He was looking for support to restore the unit, and after getting no response, city officials did contact him. He was provided assurances that the tenant would be supported, and that the damage would be covered. The story includes all these details and more, and concludes this way:

The Housing First program is co-ordinated by the City of Ottawa, yet no one from the city would explain to CBC News what went wrong in Mehra's case.

After repeated calls by the CBC, the city launched an investigation.

"Since this situation has come to our attention, we have reached out to the landlord to resolve the issue," wrote Shelley VanBuskirk, the city's director of community and social services, in a statement to CBC News. "Landlords are an important part of our Housing First program and integral to its success."

Mehra says a city worker visited his unit this week and told him to submit receipts for the damage.

He's still worried the program is soliciting landlords with false guarantees.

"They've totally misrepresented themselves," said Mehra.

Mehra says he never would have agreed to take part in the Housing First program if he had known the risks.

This is a textbook case of effective and balanced journalism. It presents the facts, verified by the reporter, and provides the perspective of the major parties involved. If it is political, it is in the sense of challenging the execution of a publicly-funded initiative. It deals with an important public policy question in an effective manner. One could worry that this initiative to house the homeless will be discredited - or one can see it as a way of ensuring it is better executed with greater safeguards. The facts and the perspectives are laid out. Readers can draw their own conclusions. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman