Claims About Trains

The complainant, Bryan Halliday, was extremely skeptical about a claim that new trains being built for Via Rail will come with carbon emissions up to 80% lower than the current fleet. He wondered why CBC would bother to report a claim without testing it.

COMPLAINT

You were troubled by the final sentence of a story published in the business section of the CBC News website on December 12, 2018 under the headline Via Rail places $989M train order with Germany's Siemens instead of Bombardier. That sentence reads:

Siemens says its trains will offer passengers a quieter, smoother and more accessible ride, with carbon emissions as much as 80 per cent lower than the current fleet.

You were frustrated that this claim went unchallenged, arguing it would be next to impossible:

But ask any power engineer: a 5% or 10% reduction in carbon emissions (in proportion to a 5% or 10% reduction in fuel consumption) would be a significant achievement; an 80% reduction would require defiance of the laws of thermodynamics.

You say that other news reports you saw did not include the claim in its coverage. You also noted that both Siemens and Via Rail issued news releases about the deal, but only Siemens’ announcement made this particular claim. This, you suggested, should have raised suspicions about its veracity.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Michael Colton, the Senior Producer of CBC’s Business Content Unit, replied to your concerns.

He explained that the core of the story was provided to CBC by the news agency Canadian Press and agreed with you that the main focus of the story was the fact that Via Rail had chosen to go with a foreign company for this significant contract.

He said that CBC editors added the reference to emissions because they thought it would be of interest to the audience. At the same time, he said, it was not central to the story, and “we did not feel it important enough to dwell on or explore in any detail.” He added:

By its very nature, a short web story of just a few hundred words cannot be a fully comprehensive exploration of a story that thoroughly covers all the issues and questions it may generate. In one sense, your complaint points to a possible related future story where a science and technology reporter might investigate with qualified experts the veracity of Siemens claim re carbon emissions. However, this was not the purpose of the story we published Dec. 12, 2018.

REVIEW

For two weeks prior to filing a formal complaint to my office, you engaged in an exchange of emails about this story with one of the editors at CBC online. I have seen that correspondence and I want to compliment both sides for engaging in a civil, constructive conversation. I especially appreciate CBC’s willingness to respond to you and to be accountable for its choices.

It is always interesting to analyse the decisions journalists make about what information to include in a story. This is harder than many people imagine. There are typically myriad facts and multiple perspectives to consider, with limited space to tell a story, and short timelines in which to make a decision. The goal for any reporter or editor is to select the elements that are most important, most interesting, and most novel.

Ultimately, these are professional judgment calls, and it was well within the prerogative of the editors to decide that Siemens’ claim about reduced emissions was relevant for this article.

Having made that choice, it is important for the journalist to take into account that this was a claim, not a fact, and that means it must be handled with extra consideration.

There are two ways this can be done: through attribution and by holding it up to scrutiny.

Attribution matters because it signals to the audience that this is the view of an interested party, not an unassailable fact. In this case, you felt the attribution offered by CBC was not sufficient, asking:

Why isn't this claim attributed: to an individual at Siemens; to a technical document; to a news release? If it can not be attributed, it shouldn't be published! "Siemens says..." is not an attribution.

In fact, “Siemens says…” IS an attribution. It tells the reader that the company was the source of the claim. Additional information about a news release, or a technical document, would be nice, but it is not necessary for a reader to make heads or tails of who made the claim - that it IS a claim. In this respect the story lives up to CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Holding a claim up to scrutiny can be trickier. In this instance Mr. Colton is correct that the emissions question was a tangent of the story, and so it did not require further immediate development. There is no policy violation here. Still, I would strongly encourage CBC to do more. The editors made a deliberate choice to include this information, and one would hope it sparks the curiosity to test a claim that sounds so impressive. In his reply, Mr. Colton held out the possibility of such a story in the future, and it would be wise for CBC News to follow through and pursue one.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson