Writing analysis: Conclusions require attribution and explanation.

The complainant, Eric Wredenhagen, Registrar and CEO of the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia, thought an analysis piece regarding the deficiencies in reports about disciplinary actions from various health care colleges was opinion and not analysis. He also said the reporter did not properly identify the purpose of her inquiries. The report failed to meet journalistic standards because of lack of attribution of the inferences and conclusions drawn. It has since been corrected, but a quote was taken out of context as well.

COMPLAINT

You had several concerns about an article published on cbcnews.ca entitled Information underload: Public starved for details when health professionals misbehave.” You are the Registrar and CEO of the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia (CMTBC) and you believe the story portrayed the college in “an extremely unfair and inaccurate light.” You said you were contacted by reporter Bethany Lindsay via the general email account of the college with three specific questions:

  1. How do you decide how much information to include in your notices of disciplinary action
  2. Why doesn't your college publish full disciplinary decisions similar to those provided by the Law Society of B.C.?
  3. If someone wanted to file an FOI request with the college, how would they do that?

It appeared that she was seeking facts and would be reporting on those facts. She did not indicate to you that she was doing an analysis piece about disclosure of disciplinary action in various health care professions. You considered it unethical to take your answers, asked without context, and to use selective quotes to prove her thesis. She did not indicate that the thrust of the article was built around the idea that there was insufficient information regarding decisions against health care professionals. She gave you no reasons for seeking the information, nor cited any of the concerns raised by another source in the story, Mike Larsen, President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association:

...at no point was I given any opportunity to respond to what Ms. Lindsay presents as concerns or criticisms - she portrayed herself as just gathering information. At no point, for example, was Mr. Larsen or his organization mentioned, or their viewpoint (which, as presented in the article, is quite simplistic - there's more at stake here than changing a website).

You thought Ms. Lindsay did not sufficiently provide important context and information, thereby distorting the reality and misleading readers. For example, you explained that your college and other regulatory bodies for healthcare providers are governed by the Health Professions Act (HPA), which lays out a framework for what must be disclosed while balancing the need for privacy protection. You said she “conflated two issues that not really connected: disclosure obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and public notification of disciple decisions and consent resolutions.”

Had Ms. Lindsay been clear that she saw this as an FOI issue, we could have had a meaningful discussion about how colleges operating under the HPA are actually required by law ...to balance disclosure to the public with protection of complainants’ privacy interests.

You said the piece was more opinion than analysis. The reporter took your answers, given in a general context, and applied them to her assertions in ways that were misleading. You felt she did not fully grasp the complexity of the issue she was dealing with. For example, she compared a law society decision to one of yours unfavorably. In reality, when you looked at them, you said the law society decision might be longer, but there was more detail of the wrongdoing in yours. You also felt your quotes were misrepresented and taken out of context because you answered them in the absence of any understanding of how they were to be used. This misrepresented what you said about the amount of details published in a decision, depending on the way the decision was arrived at - either a consent order, or a disciplinary hearing:

Ms. Lindsay makes no mention of that context in her story, and therefore presents a quote that misrepresents what I told her and portrays me and CMTBC in an extremely unfair and inaccurate light. (I also gave her a very clear answer about how to make an FOI request, and she ignored that as well in favour of painting an overall picture of confusion and complexity.)

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Karen Burgess, the Executive Producer for News in British Columbia, replied to your concerns. She emphasized that the article in question was analysis - something allowed under CBC Journalistic policy.

She told you that your inquiry set off an examination of how the story was done and was published. In doing so, the team recognized some shortcomings and took action to rectify them.

She said that the article did include a direct response to a direct question about why there are not more details of a decision in a “consent order” which was one of the issues being explored in the piece - that there is information missing in these reports that hinders people from making well informed decisions about their healthcare.

Our review of your interview did not reveal any inaccuracy in the quotes that were attributed to you; however, we agree that the piece would have been stronger if you had been presented with the specific issues that Mr. Larsen was raising, as they made up a significant part of the story. We have also updated the story to clarify the context of your quote regarding the details included in disciplinary decisions, as we agree we could have done more to provide our audience a full understanding of the circumstances in which you publish more lengthy decisions. We have added a clarification box to the bottom of the story to be transparent about this change.

She addressed your assertion that the story was more opinion than analysis. She agreed there is an important distinction and reviewed the importance of making that distinction with the reporter involved. She mentioned that the JSP allows experienced reporters to use their knowledge and background to synthesize information and draw conclusions based on evidence. She said the piece was clearly marked as analysis and was concerning an issue that was topical and in the public interest. She cited an example in the conclusion of the article which states that the regulatory bodies overseeing healthcare professionals could provide more transparency if they made small changes on their websites. She noted this was not opinion but backed up by a quote from a freedom of information and privacy advocate who says it is not “rocket science to change a website.”

This use of an attributed point of view to support or build out a thesis is a convention of analysis writing, and refers to specific examples cited in the story wherein complicated databases or incomplete information are provided online, despite college websites being many users' first point of contact.

Ms. Burgess told you that in reviewing this work she realized there were other places in the article that lacked attribution, so it was not clear on what basis the reporter had drawn a conclusion. She mentioned the dubbing of the law society approach as the “gold standard” but did not say who it was attributed to - in this case the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. The attribution was added to the updated version of the story.

REVIEW

When talking about the job of reporters to synthesize information and draw some conclusions based on facts and analysis, CBC journalists understand that the JSP explanation of impartiality is the benchmark:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

Reporters are not just scribes who tell the public what individuals have said. They must do so providing context, the critical information to understand the context, and to be clear about what facts, information and experience he or she is drawing on to come to their conclusions. The original version of this article was deficient in several ways. Ms. Burgess noted some of those deficiencies and took steps to correct them. In the first version the reporter declared without any attribution that the best reporting practice for regulatory agencies is that of the Law Society of B.C. In the corrected version, there is attribution - the article relied heavily on the perspective of Mike Larsen, who is the President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BC FIPA). That took the statement out of the realm of opinion.

The second change made underlies some of the deficiencies of the piece. The main thesis, presented with some evidence, is that there is great disparity between regulatory agencies and what level of detail they report. This can often leave consumers wondering or without sufficient information to make good choices. The article fails to spell out what that critical information might be. The writer references vagueness of details and cites an example about a teacher’s disciplinary report and one from your own college. I am inclined to agree with you that there is not a big difference. There is more background in the teacher’s report, but in addressing the actual misdemeanor there isn’t a lot that would be critical to forming a judgment.

I also agree with you that in the first instance, Ms. Lindsay’s use of your quote differentiating decisions based on a consent order rather than a full disciplinary hearing did not provide proper context. The last part of your quote provided it and it was not used. The original story said this:

Eric Wredenhagen, registrar for the College of Massage Therapists of B.C., explained that full details are only published if the complaint goes to a hearing. Otherwise, the college views a short summary as sufficient.

"In a sense the details are not necessary, because the summary of the details is sufficient to explain the outcome, to achieve our main goal, which is to protect the public," he said ...

The edited version added that you were “comparing the content of consent orders to that of disciplinary hearings.” You made another point in your phone interview which was not included in the article. Omitting it was not inaccurate, but its inclusion would have more clearly underlined the point you were making. I think in fairness, it should have been included. It gives context to the point you were making - that the goal of protecting the public was adequately “achieved by the fact that Mr. Brown is no longer practicing and will not be practicing.” I note, as well, that the initial version of this story had a paragraph heading: “The details are not necessary,” taken from your longer quote. This was certainly taken out of context and mischaracterized what you said. It was replaced with “Protecting the public,” which may be more anodyne but is certainly more appropriate in this case.

I asked Ms. Lindsay why she did not address the role of the Health Professions Act in governing the practice of health care providers’ process and publication of disciplinary procedures. She said she did not think it as relevant as you did because the issue was one of the details of the decisions and that does not necessarily impinge on privacy issues. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that you do, and feel that you should have had a chance to introduce it into your interview and to provide a fuller picture of the framework you operate under - which leads to the question you raised about the clarity of the purpose of the interview and what the focus or purpose of the subsequent report was. Reporters generally will get better responses if they are clear about what they are looking for, but there are times an aspect of their investigation can be withheld if there is a high probability they will not get a response if they go into detail. This was not one of those cases. Ms. Lindsay might have explained more but her initial email to you did tell you in broad terms what she was after. The three questions you cited were not asked in a vacuum. Here is her initial email to you:

I'm a web writer at CBC Vancouver, and I'm working on an analysis piece about transparency on disciplinary issues at B.C.'s health professions regulators.

I'm reaching out to several colleges with three questions about information sharing. Would you be able to answer them? My deadline is 3 pm today.

She then asked the three questions quoted above. As Ms. Burgess indicated, since so much of this article was based on the view of one critics analysis of the challenges and weaknesses of disclosure, it was a lapse to omit mentioning the specific concerns. When an individual or institution is being criticized, there is a very strong obligation to put that criticism to the affected party in the interest of fairness - even in a piece labelled “Analysis.”

The recorded interview with you was brief and did not go into any level of detail about the issues the reporter intended to write about.

The piece would have been better served by laying out the issues a little more clearly, independent of the views and analysis of the one critic quoted. The piece ends after a rewrite, with an attribution to Mr. Larsen that “most regulators err on the side of withholding information.” The first version did not have that attribution. Based on the analysis Ms. Lindsay did of many other sites, it is acceptable to use this perspective. It just isn’t clear enough on what basis it is being said. I am borrowing from Tom Rosenstiel and Elizabeth Jane who suggested reporters ask and answer these questions, sometimes even in a preamble to the reporting to build public trust and what they call “news fluency.” They are valuable measures of a work. They suggest more, but here are the relevant ones in this instance:

  • What evidence is there?
  • What sources did you talk to and why them?

This work failed to live up to CBC journalistic standards in its first iteration. There was a lack of attribution and a lack of adequate explanation for some of its conclusions. I note in the reporter’s email to you she told you she had a 3 o’clock deadline. One lesson from this experience might be that for more in-depth pieces, imposing such a tight deadline is not a useful way to consider and synthesize the information. CBC News management might want to review the process for the creation of more extensive and controversial reports. It takes a skill-set and time to produce in-depth analysis. Aside from the strength of the analysis, the piece was published with several elements that had to be corrected or required more attribution. There may be some value in this kind of work for there to be closer supervision in the news-gathering stage before it is produced. In any reporting, and more so in something labelled “Analysis”, it is important to address the complexity of an issue and to make readers aware of how one draws one’s conclusions, and to define the problem being addressed. There are in-depth questions to be asked and answered, even if not all of them appear in the work.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman