Fixing Flaws

The complainant, Dr. Holly Witteman, objected to an online story about money spent by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She said it contained errors and lacked context to the point of being misleading. CBC then made changes to the story. Did the editors go far enough?

COMPLAINT

You are an associate professor in the faculty of medicine at Laval University who criticized a story CBC published online about expenditures by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The story, headlined Federal agency racks up big expenses after scientists reject web meetings, was published on December 7, 2018. It was based on Access to Information documents which revealed that the CIHR, a federal agency, spent $4.7 million in the 2017-2018 fiscal year on travel and hospitality for members of various panels that reviewed applications for medical research grants.

The article noted that this was a record amount, and more than double the total of the previous year when the agency experimented with a “virtual” review process that scrapped face-to-face meetings in place of online discussion among reviewers. The goal was to save money. However, the scientific community reacted negatively to the virtual system. They argued that it eroded the quality of decision-making, and ultimately persuaded CIHR to revert to holding face-to-face meetings for these peer-review panels.

You were one of several people in the medical field who said the article was misleading and had inaccuracies:

Among them, the previous system is referred to as "web meetings" and the article is accompanied by an image of four people sitting around a table teleconferencing into a meeting held in a large, well-lit room. This is deceptive, as the online "meetings" held by the CIHR were not meetings at all, but rather, online asynchronous discussion.

It is also misleading not to put the costs in context by providing costs of other federal agencies' review processes (e.g., NSERC, SSHRC) and noting that CIHR is returning to international best practices. It would also have been appropriate to put the topic in context by informing readers that the scientists who perform grant review do so as volunteers, whereas in many other countries, reviewers are paid. This is a task that requires many volunteer hours. Scientists do this because we are dedicated to responsible stewardship of Canadian research and the public dollars that fund this research.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the senior producer of political coverage for CBCNews.ca, replied to the concerns you expressed.

He acknowledged that there were flaws in the original article, and as a result CBC made corrections. Editors changed the photograph, adjusted some terminology and added additional background explaining the opposition to the “asynchronous online discussions”.

These corrections were noted in a box at the bottom of the article.

More broadly, Mr. Carter felt that the story included appropriate context:

With regard to concerns expressed about context and balance, the story does quote Dr. Jim Woodgett, who led the protest against virtual reviews in 2016.

In our story, Dr. Woodgett explains why the previous system did not work, says the costs for travel and hospitality are a good investment and calls them “minimal” when compared to the amounts of the awards.

The story also quotes a CIHR spokesperson providing further context for the increased costs.

CBC News previously reported extensively on this controversy – giving voice to many aggrieved researchers – and four of these stories were included as links for readers in the Dec. 7, 2018, story.

REVIEW

There is no question that this article could have been better from the outset - that much is clear from the corrections that CBC had to issue in this instance. I appreciate that improvements were made and done in a transparent manner, just as the corporation’s journalistic policies lay out.

When asking for this review, though, you expressed the view that while the changes made to the article were helpful, they were insufficient. You argued the story needed additional context explaining that the scientists who take part in these peer review panels do so as volunteers. Without it, you suggested, the story left an impression that scientists were benefiting personally from their participation in face-to-face panels.

I understand your desire to include that information, as it might cast scientists in a positive light. It’s relevant information and would not be out of place, but is it imperative for the article to make sense? Not necessarily - the key question raised is not whether scientists behave with integrity, but whether a federal agency is spending its money appropriately. Reporters and editors have to make difficult decisions about what details make it into any story, and this detail would rate as a judgment call rather than a “must include”.

With or without that line, it’s worth noting that this article was not able to give the reader all the facts necessary to draw an informed conclusion about the matter at hand, which is whether our tax dollars are being spent wisely.

The $4.7 million total is characterized in two ways: that it is a “record” amount and that it is more than double the previous year’s sum. But what does that really tell us? It’s hardly a surprise that there was a large jump from the previous year, when the failed “virtual” system was implemented to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings. As for the record amount, was it a record by a lot, or by a little? The answer would certainly influence how a reader might properly respond.

The CIHR is quoted in the story, and explains the higher cost by pointing to the return of face-to-face meetings as well as an increase in the number of researchers applying for funding. That is helpful context, but still doesn’t make it easy for a reader to draw conclusions.

The absence of definitive information to make a judgment is hardly unique in journalism. Many stories develop in an iterative fashion, with each subsequent report adding additional information and insight. Perhaps that will be the case here.

But in such circumstances, journalists should be judicious in how they characterize people and events in their stories. In my judgment, the CBC overstepped in this instance with its use of adjectives - notably when the headline said the agency “racks up big expenses”. There is no one quoted in the story who makes the case that the final total is “big” or inappropriate, so this headline pushes the reader to draw conclusions about the story that may or may not be fair.

CBC managers and programmers should ensure that editors understand fully how much care must be taken with headlines, especially for complicated stories. Headlines have a significant impact on the way readers perceive a story, and editorial nuance should never take a backseat to a catchy phrase.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson