Twitter Turmoil.

In April, a man driving a van deliberately ran into civilians on a stretch of Toronto’s Yonge Street.

The complainant, Mohamed Jiavdheen, objected to a tweet describing the driver, based on an eyewitness as “Middle Eastern.” He thought it irresponsible to publish that description before the information was verified. While live reporting breaking news will often contain information that needs correcting, this detail was not necessary and the tweet violated CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You were one of many people who were concerned by a tweet sent by CBC News Network presenter Natasha Fatah regarding the murder of 10 people when the driver of a van rammed into pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Street in April of this year. You said it was irresponsible for her to tweet that the "driver looked wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern." You pointed out almost all other media outlets waited to report the identity of the driver until it was officially confirmed:

What was the need for her to tweet baseless statements. She should apologize and a firm action from CBC is expected.

Another complainant articulated this way: “The bottom line is that unfounded and inflammatory reporting such as this only serves to reinforce bigoted stereotypes and promote division. In this way, in our view Ms. Fatah’s comments were contrary to what the CBC requires of its journalists.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director for Journalistic Accountability, replied to your concerns. He told you while he thought CBC’s overall coverage served Canadians well in a fluid and breaking news situation, this tweet did not. He added that it is challenging to sort confirmed fact from unsourced information. He acknowledged that Ms. Fatah’s tweet was a mistake:

One of our journalists, after seeing an eyewitness interviewed on a local television station, tweeted on her own social media feed what she understood to be the substance of his description of the van driver. She explained in the tweet that she had heard it on television and clearly attributed it to an eyewitness. She felt it was significant information that would further the understanding of the story. But the information was unverified and for that reason should not have been sent out.

Mr. Nagler also acknowledged that the reference to a “Middle Eastern” attacker was also a mistake, or as he put it, made it “problematic.” He noted it was not the same thing as saying “Muslim” but there is a realization “that there are actors out there all too happy to twist facts and condemn without cause.” The degree to which it was retweeted is evidence of its use for “distasteful agendas.” He said it was a reminder of CBC News’ responsibility in times of breaking news and in using platforms like Twitter. He said staff has been reminded that the same standards apply to their own Twitter feeds as CBC news accounts.

He noted the reporter realized she had made a mistake, deleted the tweet and posted an apology:

He assured you the tweet was not posted in malice but was an honest mistake by a reporter who wanted to help advance a breaking story and provide information to the public. He noted that she tweeted another eyewitness account that the driver was white some time later in the afternoon.

It was a mistake rooted in her instincts to get out information on a breaking news story. The journalist now understands why the tweet was inappropriate and understands the need to temper those instincts with the responsibility we have to verify information and to consider the social impact of our journalistic choices.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices contain policy about reporting in live and breaking news situations, as well as policy about the use of social media - both personally and in the publication of information. The first and most overarching principle is that JSP standards pertain to all CBC news and current affairs content, no matter what the platform. This is the policy on live reporting:

When news breaks, whether a political development, natural or man-made disaster, accident or an important police operation, we report as quickly as we can as events unfold.

Our commitment is to give people the information they need to understand the true risk and dangers in a fluid situation.

We undertake to act responsibly in the circumstances and to give people information we have reasonably verified, and to stay away from rumour and speculation.

We will sometimes receive conflicting information from credible sources. We may choose to report this, making clear the circumstances of the situation and citing the sources while we work to reconcile the information in light of the reality on the ground.

There will inevitably be erroneous information reported in these situations. I recall a live interview in another threatening situation where virtually everything an eyewitness said turned out to be wrong. One cannot fault the witness, as she was traumatized, and eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. In that case, the news presenters rectified the information as it became available, which is the expectation of the policy. A tweet is a different matter - when it is out there, it is beyond one’s control. A later corrective tweet may not have the same impact. Therefore, the bar for passing on information through this platform should be very high. Basing the Tweet on an interview on a rival news network while sitting at home without the support of a newsroom does not meet that bar. This was a lapse in judgment, especially given the nature of the information conveyed. The policy emphasizes that the information provided should serve the need to understand the danger and true risks of the ongoing situation - this tweet did not contribute to that need. Ms. Fatah said she was following usual procedure and attributed the information to an eyewitness so that those reading it would know its origins. When another eyewitness reported the perpetrator as white, she tweeted that as well. As she mentioned in her apology, she acknowledges that every word matters. In her eagerness to contribute to the story, even without the support of a newsroom around her, she also neglected to consider this policy - Respect and the Absence of Prejudice:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

If there was ever a time when race or ethnicity should be checked and rechecked, it is in these cases of random acts of violence. It is no accident that the tweet that described the perpetrator as “Middle Eastern” was shared significantly more than Ms. Fatah’s second tweet quoting an eyewitness who described him as “white.” Social media has become the weapon of choice for those who stereotype. It is not useful to hand them ammunition.

Ms. Fatah used her personal Twitter account to send out this information. CBC policy here also emphasizes the need to be consistent in standards. Mr. Nagler told me that for the most part there is no difference between a personal account and one with CBC in the hashtag. In this case in particular, she was reporting - which put it squarely under JSP.

This tweet was, as CBC News management has acknowledged, in violation of their standards and practices. Sadly, there will be other episodes of random violence - indeed there has been since - and while the public craves certainty and some way to comprehend the violence, it goes without saying that there is a need for rigour and precision so as not to play into stereotypes and identity politics.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman