The complainant thought that a series on the high cost and difficulty of renting in Toronto was tainted because it started with a first-person tale of the reporter’s own problems.
By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman
The complainant, Dan Jones, thought that a series on the high cost and difficulty of renting in Toronto was tainted because it started with a first-person tale of the reporter’s own problems. He saw this as a conflict of interest and a slippery slope to reporters choosing issues important to them. Journalists are also citizens – and this issue is clearly in the public interest. The reporter’s story was only one in a series that included many perspectives, but it does highlight the danger of perception of conflict when the reporter starts in her own tale.
You were concerned that CBC News was in violation of conflict of interest rules when it allowed a reporter to create a series of stories about the costs of rent in Toronto. Shannon Martin began the CBC News Toronto series by recounting, both on the evening news broadcast and on the website, her own story of being forced to vacate her apartment because she could not afford the large rent hike. You thought she was seeking public support to make the case to policy makers to do something about the situation. The series was self-serving in your view. You questioned how she could possibly be objective and saw this as a “slippery slope”:
If the reporter found another source and used that in her initial report, would that be more acceptable?… This here sets a slippery slope as any grievance, such as high car payments, utilities and such, the reporter could use their own experience as the first point of reference.
The acting Executive Producer at CBC Toronto, Rita Tonelli, responded to your concerns. She told you that ordinarily news staff would reach out to a member of the public to tell their story to illustrate a broader issue. In this case, they decided to use the experience of one of their own reporters. She said this was “unusual but not unprecedented.” She explained:
Reporter involvement is a stylistic storytelling device embraced by many news organisations in an effort to engage readers and audiences.
She noted that Ms. Martin mentioned in her story that she would seek answers and accountability about the high cost of rental accommodation. It was framed in the broadest sense, on behalf of the many people who are experiencing the same difficulty in the Toronto housing market, and not as a way to find redress for her own particular situation. The purpose of using Ms. Martin’s experience to kick off the series was to look at the broader issue of housing and to seek accountability from policy makers. She added that “pocketbook issues” affect all citizens, including the reporters. She stated there is no inherent conflict of interest when a reporter, who has lived the same experience as many Torontonians, explores the issue:
Reporters, like the rest of us, have these expenses too. Does that affect their impartiality? Would a reporter who uses the TTC, for example, be in conflict if assigned a story about fare increases? We think not. If anything, it makes them better reporters, in tune with the trials of daily living.