Balance in “The Moment”

The complainant, Ed Caulfield, thought The National demonstrated bias when producers used a segment called “The Moment” to air extended excerpts of teen journalists in the U.S. eulogizing young victims of gun violence in their country. This case again illustrates how journalists and their audience can have different understandings of what balance in journalism really means.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to seek the removal of a segment which appeared on The National the night of February 13th.

“The Moment” is a nightly segment which airs near the end of the hour-long program. On the night in question, it showcased an online project in the United States in which student journalists told the stories of nearly 1,200 young Americans who had died by gunfire in the previous year. The significance of that time frame is that February 14th marked one year since a high-profile attack at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The National aired 65 seconds of video clips from the project, then its hosts followed up with a brief discussion.

You called the presentation “extremely one sided” and asked why it didn’t include “the other side of the story”, including the number of lives saved each year in the U.S. by guns. You also thought the segment could have been better contextualized by illustrating how many of the deaths were by suicide, or by comparing it to the number of teens killed in automobile accidents.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Executive Producer Dan Getz replied to your complaint, and disagreed that the segment was flawed:

The Moment on February 13th was never characterized as a comprehensive look at the use of guns or the role guns might play in preventing deaths. It was very explicitly framed as a brief story on the specific online journalism project created by these students. The Moment is a nightly portion of the newscast where the show highlights something that in the programmers’ estimation has either caught the imagination of Canadians, was an especially poignant comment or “moment” from a news story, or was something worth further reflection at the end of the show. Sometimes these moments are lighthearted or humorous. At others they are emotional, controversial or thought-provoking. By definition, The Moment is not a place where the program necessarily seeks out all sides of a story or issue.

Mr. Getz said that CBC News reflects a range of viewpoints in its broader coverage. As an example, he pointed you toward the online version of a story The National had aired entitled 'It's my job to protect them': U.S. teachers train to carry guns in class.

REVIEW

Your complaint is similar to many I receive about the coverage of complex subjects, from people who have strong feelings about that subject. In essence, these complaints boil down to the belief that a story which doesn’t include perspectives shared by you must be evidence of bias by the media.

Invariably, journalists say the concern is unfounded, and they often pledge that they will provide balance over time.

It may be frustrating for you to hear, but the “balance over time” argument is a reasonable one. The issues of gun ownership, gun violence, gun safety, and government regulation are enormously complex. It would be impossible to incorporate into a single story or program every perspective which is potentially relevant to this issue. Journalists, therefore, exercise professional judgment in synthesizing the information available to them and deciding what is most relevant for the story or segment at hand.

In this instance, “The Moment” is deliberately meant to be a single snapshot in time rather than a detailed examination of its subject. It doesn’t pretend to tell the “whole story”, and there is no violation of policy in the way it was presented.

This does not mean programmers are off the hook - the requirement to be balanced over time cannot be a platitude, and CBC News needs to provide a diverse range of perspectives on the subject of guns.

You and others have, of late, written other emails to me expressing concern that CBC is not living up to that ideal, and there should be more consideration given to the views of law-abiding, safety-conscious gun owners.

CBC’s Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, Paul Hambleton, responded to many of those complainants. He argued that CBC’s coverage of the issue is already balanced and appropriate, but he said he would share two observations with his colleagues:

The first is to challenge our news teams to look for some new and fresh points of view from within the gun control advocacy groups, rather than turning to one particular group for comment too often. The second is to encourage more contextual reporting on the gun ownership issue, and work to better reflect the views of people who live outside of our major urban areas, and who do own guns, bearing in mind the overall point which I think you are making here: that there is a segment of society that feels underrepresented.

That type of reflection and responsiveness is welcome. We live in a climate with an unforgiving public discourse, and every cause has supporters who feel their side of the story is being poorly served by the media at large. CBC programmers would be wise to consider whether there are ways to demonstrate more clearly how their coverage of contentious issues - including guns - lives up to requirements for fairness and balance.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson