Reporters can and should synthesize facts and draw conclusions. In matters of controversy, they are obliged to provide alternate perspectives to that conclusion. – See more at: http://jpress.journalism.ryerson.ca/jsource/page/4/#sthash.ZwU0OfNQ.dpuf

By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Mark Patterson, thought that a column by Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald condemning the Canadian government’s response to the jailing of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy in Egypt crossed the line into opinion. I agreed that it did, and it violated policy which does not allow news or current affairs staff to do so.

COMPLAINT

You complained about an analysis column, entitled Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian injustice and Canada’s spineless response, written by CBC News Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald. The piece dealt with the Canadian government reaction to the sentencing and jailing of Canadian journalist Mohammed Fahmy. Mr. Fahmy, who works for Al-Jazeera, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment along with two other reporters.

You asserted that the piece violated a number of CBC News policies dealing with expression of opinion, impartiality and balance. You cited multiple sections of CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices on Opinion that appeared to have been breached in Mr. Macdonald’s essay. You explained:

Under “Values – Impartiality” is the following statement – “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” Clearly, this is a matter of public debate – one needs only read the comments on the story to see that there is considerable debate about this topic, with significant passion for both sides of the debate. However, it is equally clear that the story DOES promote a particular point of view – namely, that the Canadian government’s response is insufficient/unacceptable. The general tone leaves no doubt that this is the author’s view, as does specific phrases such as “spineless” to describe the Canadian government’s position. Other examples include the sarcastic use of “seriously” and the final statement in the article – “you’d think Canada could do better for one of its citizens.”

Under “Values – Balance” is the following statement – “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.” Again, the use of “spineless” and sarcastic mockery (see again the use of “seriously”) does not treat the government view with respect.

Under “Opinion – Expression of opinion” is the following statement – “When we choose to present a single point of view it is clearly labeled, and it does not misrepresent other points of view.” In this case, the piece is not labelled as an opinion piece; indeed, part of the title of the piece is the word “analysis,” which implies the exact opposite (i.e., that the piece is objective and does not include the journalist’s opinion). Further, included on the web page on which the article is published is an “About the Author” area that notes that Mr. Macdonald is the senior Washington correspondent for CBC News, again implying that this is an objective news piece and not an opinion piece.

Under “Opinion – Expression of Opinion” is the following statement – “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.” I cannot imagine how anyone could argue that this article does not express Mr. Macdonald’s personal opinion on a matter of controversy.

Under “Opinion – CBC/Radio-Canada News and Current Affairs Staff” is the following statement – “CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.” Again, I cannot imagine how anyone could argue that this article does not express Mr. Macdonald’s personal opinion, nor how anyone could argue that Mr. Macdonald is impartial in this article.

Under “Opinion – Expression of Opinion” is the following statement – “When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.” I have reviewed the cbc.cawebsite and read it from time-to-time and am unaware of where I can find the promised “diversity of perspective.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Brodie Fenlon, the managing editor of CBCNews.ca, responded to your concerns. He apologized for taking so long to answer your complaint made in June. He explained he had inadvertently filed away your email.

He agreed that CBC journalists must refrain from giving their personal opinions. He added that CBC policy does not “preclude experienced journalists from bringing their knowledge and background to bear on a controversial issue and drawing conclusions based on evidence.” He said CBC journalists are able to make judgment calls; “they are free to reach conclusions, to develop a point of view, if you will, based on facts, on the evidence they collect.” He thought that this article fell within that category.

He added that these pieces are labelled as “analysis” to signal to the reader that there will be a point of view, and that the article is different from regular news coverage. He explained that in analysis pieces, the headline will express that point of view, and attribute it. The reference to “spineless” response was attributed to Mr. Macdonald, who had come to that conclusion based on the facts of the case.

He also told you that Mr. Macdonald’s take on the Canadian government response to Mr. Fahmy’s conviction was not the only one available to CBCNews.ca users.

REVIEW

CBC News policy is clear about its expectations of news and current affairs staff when it comes to expressing opinion. As you cited in your complaint, they are not to do so. The reason is a sound one:

CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

Balanced against that, the policy does allow reporters to draw inferences and conclusions, based on the facts. That can occur in news reports, and it can be more expressly done in analysis pieces. The challenge is that there is a grey zone where analysis blends into opinion. It is a judgment call in each case. The objective of good journalism is, as the policy itself states, to “provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest.”

Reporters can and should synthesize facts and draw conclusions. In matters of controversy, they are obliged to provide alternate perspectives to that conclusion. But even that is a judgment call. Not all perspectives are equal. One of the criticisms of daily journalism is that it reduces complex and controversial matters to a “he said, she said” argument that gives weight to a set of facts that really don’t bear scrutiny.

To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman’s website where this was originally published