The relevance factor in a range of views.

The complainant, Chris Eustace, thought an article about a Quebec government decision to delay school board elections did not seek out alternate views. The article quoted the head of the main organization representing English school boards in the province who did not criticize the decision. Mr. Eustace pointed out that he had been strongly lobbying against putting off the school board vote and there were other groups who were also against it and they should have been included. CBC policy allows for balance over time and for professional judgment on the relevance and degree of those alternate views.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that an article published on CBC Montreal’s news page neglected to seek out opposing views about the delay of school board elections in Quebec. You felt it was necessary to balance the story. The article concerned the passage of Bill 185 - the Act to defer the next general school election and to allow the government to provide for the use of a remote voting method - in the Quebec National Assembly. The legislation allowed for the school board elections originally scheduled for November 2018 to be delayed until 2020. You thought the article was more of a “commercial for the QESBA (Quebec English School Boards Association) and the government.”

It was always my understanding that a news outlet (radio, TV, newspapers) has the right to choose whether or not to cover a story. It was also my understanding that if a controversial story is covered, should be some mention of the other side of the story.... It's a matter of journalistic integrity....or put another way: "fair and balanced".....

You said other media, at some point or another, had covered or mentioned the opposition to the other side at various times. You submitted proof of the opposition, including letters to the editor you had written and were published in several Quebec newspapers. You also submitted a news release from the Parents Committee of the Montreal English School system objecting to the delay before the vote was taken in June. You noted that one of the Montreal Board commissioners wanted elections to remain in November 2018.

The article noted that the government’s reason for the delay was because they did not want two back-to-back elections, as the province goes to the polls in October of this year. They also committed to raise interest and engagement as voter turnout in school board elections is historically very low. There was also a commitment to looking at other voting methods to enable rural populations spread over a wide geography to cast a ballot more easily.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC News in Quebec, Helen Evans, responded to your concerns. She noted that you had first written to her directly and apologized for having missed that email. She said you were correct in stating that the coverage of the passage of Bill 185 was in the context of the end of the legislative session and was one of several bills passed in the last days before adjournment. She told you the government’s stated purpose was to “‘improve citizen engagement’, including exploring remote voting. She added that it was reasonable to turn to the QESBA spokesperson for reaction, and that the organization appeared to be in support of the government move:

QESBA is in favour of exploring remote voting, since some English-language school boards cover vast territories. Or to put it another way, QESBA is not against postponing the school board elections if the delay results in voting as a way to increase voter participation. This reaction from the main body representing English-language school boards is a reasonable one for CBC to include.

She acknowledged that there are those who oppose the move and that there are other proposals - notably from opposition parties - about the future of school boards all together. That being the case, she told you the news teams would be covering this issue in the future, especially in the context of the upcoming election campaign this fall.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices spells out what comprises balance - it is not as simple as ensuring a range of views and perspectives over a reasonable period of time. It asks journalists to consider the relevance and weight of views and opinions. It states:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

While I appreciate you are strongly opposed to this delay and have been sharing those views in various media, it is a journalistic judgement call whether this constituted an “issue of controversy,” or how deep and widespread opposition to the change of date was. This was not an article examining the issue of school board elections or support for the boards, it was a fairly straightforward news story:

The National Assembly voted Wednesday to delay general school board elections by two years, giving officials time to study and possibly adopt new methods of voting to reduce travel time for voters in rural Quebec.

The decision also means school board elections, originally slated for Nov. 4, 2018, won't come on the heels of the provincial election set for Oct. 1, 2018.

The article did not just give the government’s position, it sought response from the organization that speaks on behalf of English school boards in the province. It is a logical and acceptable journalistic decision to seek out the views of an official body constituted to represent the interests of its stakeholders. You disagree with that position and are providing a different perspective and have been actively pursuing attention to your view - but it did not oblige CBC News to seek it out in the context of this one article. I note that some of the corroborating material you sent me dates back 5 to 7 years. It is not reasonable to consider position papers from that long ago unless perhaps this was a deep and comprehensive look at school board governance, and its relationship with successive Quebec governments. It is well outside the scope of a simple news story. Ms. Evans told you that this article is not the last one that will deal with school boards and their elections - especially in light of the fact that the province is heading into an election campaign. I would expect future coverage to include the views of parents and others directly affected.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman