How much detail is enough?

The complainant, Robert Muir, says there were flaws in an article CBC Toronto published in the aftermath of flooding the city experienced last summer. He felt the article left readers with the wrong impression about the municipal government’s ability to prevent damage caused by heavy rainstorms.

COMPLAINT

You are a professional engineer responsible for developing and administering funding for urban flood risk reduction for the City of Markham, Ontario. You say there were fundamental errors in an article headlined "More flooding, more questions for Toronto politicians", which was published online August 12, 2018.

The article, labelled as ‘Analysis’ and written by Matt Elliott, came in the aftermath of an intense rainstorm in Toronto which caused flooding and disrupted public transit, among other damages. Mr. Elliott’s column focused on whether the City of Toronto is well-prepared to deal with such intense storms, which are considered likely to occur more frequently in the future due to the effects of climate change.

In particular, Mr. Elliott described how political divisions led the city to reject the idea of introducing a so-called “stormwater charge” - a separate fee intended to raise money to mitigate the effects of rainwater. He contrasted Toronto’s situation with that of nearby Mississauga, Ontario, a city which has introduced such a fee and, as a result, raised additional funds.

Your feedback was that the column contained errors and ultimately misled the reader:

Based on my experience and specific understanding of Toronto flood risk factors, and my understanding of the Mississauga's responsibilities for flood control as a lower-tier municipality and detailed knowledge of their stormwater utility fee, there are fundamental errors in (the) story….

There also appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding of the Toronto basement flood damages reduction program, the long term capital plan, and the approved and fully funded remediation projects. The article also incorrectly suggests that a stormwater tax based on paved surfaces would be reasonable, incorrectly linking paved surfaces to flood risks.

That last point received special emphasis in both your original letter as well as follow-up correspondence, along with your belief that the article was misleading on how efforts to mitigate floods are funded:

The article leaves the erroneous impression that there is a funding gap and a stormwater charge is needed to "implement a new charge designed to make up the difference" - please correct the article or explain the "difference" and what specific projects should be funded with a new revenue source.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Laura Green, Executive Producer at CBC Toronto, replied to your complaint.

She indicated that Mr. Elliott is a columnist who covers issues at city hall. The article, she wrote, was not intended to be a detailed report on the issue of flood mitigation, so Mr. Elliott “is not expected to lay out every angle and detail up for debate.”

Ms. Green stated that there were, in fact, reasons to note the association between paved surfaces and flood risks:

“The topic was the subject of a major debate at Toronto city hall and paved surfaces is an issue that has been identified by Toronto Water:

"The stormwater charge was premised on the impact properties have on the City's stormwater management system. As such, the model was based on properties' hard surface areas as a representation of the amount of stormwater runoff they contribute to the City's stormwater management system."

(Source: Proposed Stormwater Charge – Results of Consultation and Next Steps)

Ms. Green also pointed to some of CBC’s earlier coverage on unfunded water-related projects in Toronto as evidence to support Mr. Elliott’s analysis that more money may be needed if the city is to succeed at controlling stormwater in the future.

REVIEW

First let me state how much I appreciate the tenor or your correspondence. You struggled with being described as a “complainant”, emphasizing that you were providing “constructive feedback” and that your intention was “to in fact support the CBC to improve accuracy and value in reporting.”

It will not surprise you that accuracy is front and centre among the key principles outlined in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices. The document reads:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

A recurring challenge for journalists is that most of their work is not long-form. Limited by time and/or space, depending on the platform, they must determine how to distill complex issues into digestible bites of information - without sacrificing accuracy and critical context.

In this particular instance I understand Ms. Green’s point that Matt Elliott’s column should not be expected to delve into the intricacies of flood mitigation. It was fundamentally about the political environment at city hall in Toronto, and not designed to be a detailed explanation of water management issues. That is not to say such a detailed explanation wouldn’t be welcome; simply that it was never meant to be a feature of this column.

The question is, in approaching the matter this way did this article mislead the reader or violate the JSP? In my judgment, it did not - although you have raised points here that merit consideration by CBC.

One of the major themes of your critique is that it is inaccurate to associate hard surfaces (roofs, pavement, etc.) with flooding. Yet Mr. Elliott was able to point me toward several documents published on the City of Toronto website which make that very association. Here are just two of them:

I show these not to take issue with the points raised in your complaint; rather, to demonstrate the reasonableness of the author’s efforts here. Given that his frame here was to describe the political dynamic, I cannot fault his journalism when there was so much public documentation indicating an association between hard surfaces and floods.

I hasten to add in reviewing the article that it does not actually state that hard surfaces were responsible for the floods of August 2018 - or for any particular flood. Also, it is indisputably true that any proposal for a stormwater charge would feature hard surfaces as a determining factor in establishing what fees taxpayers would face.

Having said that, CBC journalists should pay attention to the point you have made in this area. Given we are in a period where mitigating the effects of climate change is an ongoing and important issue, there is value in doing more coverage that would educate the public on what factors contribute most to increased or decreased flooding. I suspect as well that most people do not understand the different challenges of water management that apply to sanitary systems versus storm systems.

Next is the question of whether this article suggests that there is a “funding gap”.

Here I am less comfortable with CBC’s approach. I note that the article does not say anything explicitly about a shortage of money now. We also know that repairing and modernizing city infrastructure is an expensive beast and will get only more so in the years ahead. It is reasonable to identify generally, as the author does, that more money will be needed. However, the article suffers for not being more explicit about the nature of the debate in Toronto over a stormwater charge. The proposed charge was intended to be more or less revenue-neutral compared to the current system of funding stormwater mitigation through people’s water bills. Proponents were not arguing that it would raise more money. Rather, they argued that it would offer greater transparency and also greater equity by charging more to the properties that create runoff instead of basing the fee solely on water consumption.

I suppose it is true that in separating these fees from water consumption bills it might be more palatable politically down the road to raise rates as more intense storms cause problems. If that had been outlined in the article, the link between a stormwater charge and preventing future floods would have made more sense. While I don’t see a violation of journalistic policy here, I do see room for improvement. The absence of context allowed you to presume that a funding gap exists, even though the author never said that.

Next you raise the issue of the “compare and contrast” between Toronto and Mississauga, arguing that the comparison is unfair because Mississauga is a lower-tier government; that in creating a stormwater charge it was, in fact, expanding service and adding new money into its coffers, which would not have been the case in Toronto.

Your facts are certainly correct - Toronto and Mississauga are not exactly alike, but journalistically that is almost beside the point in this instance. The thrust of the column, which felt clear to me, was that one city has changed practices and raised extra money to combat a problem likely to grow in size, while the other city faces political impediments if it wants to find new types of solutions.

There is one additional point I would like to address here. You noted there was a video embedded in the article and the caption beneath that video stated:

More money is needed for upgrades and, with an older city core, options for moving water are limited.

The sentiment of that caption comes from an interview within the video report on the August floods. For anyone who has not watched the video, though, such captions (or “cutlines” as they would be referred to in the newsroom) appear to be based purely on fact unless they are attributed. That is a problem, and staff should be reminded not to use statements as a basis for cutlines unless they are clearly attributed.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson