When CBC News reported on the way the Epoch Times was covering issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, it inspired dozens of complaints. Reader David Tencer wrote that CBC had done a “smear job” on the newspaper, and his complaint is the subject of my latest review.

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COMPLAINT

Yours was one of dozens of complaints my office received about a story CBC News published on its website on April 29, 2020. The article was initially headlined: “Racist and inflammatory’: Canadians upset by Epoch Times claim China behind virus, made it as a bioweapon”.

The story reported that the Epoch Times newspaper had created a special edition of its publication focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, and in particular the behaviour of the Chinese government. This edition was distributed to some Canadians through the mail, and as CBC’s headline suggests some of the people who received it had a negative reaction.

You wrote that you were “immediately grabbed by the very provocative headline”, but after reading the article you concluded that CBC was guilty of a “smear job” against the Epoch Times:

When I read the article I was struck by many things. First of all that the headline was in fact apparently supported by the grand total of TWO Canadians who voiced these strong concerns, a homeowner in Kelowna and a Postal worker in Toronto. And I would suggest that to say their comments were hyperbole is likely an understatement, and actually falsely claimed that the Epoch Times was attributing actions to the Chinese People when they clearly were putting the Chinese Communist Party under the microscope. Is it possible to be racist against a government?

The article did some good research in getting opinions of 4 scientific/media authorities but their comments were largely used to discredit either the news organization itself, the Epoch Times, or the Falun Gong movement and the Shen Yun dance troupe. So as enquiring minds should do I reviewed a copy of the Epoch Times in question and found it contained a fairly thorough review of the COVID outbreak. I found it anything but “racist and inflammatory” unless of course criticism of a ruling government party is racist. It seemed to me to be no more biased in pointing to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as complicit in the tragedy of this pandemic than any news organization suggesting they are not. And to be fair most Canadians, I would suggest, are skeptical about the CCP at the best of times. In fact, if you were to read the comments directed to cbcnews.ca attached to this article I would say the headline should more accurately have read “Thousands of Canadians find CBC news article ‘inflammatory and racist’ “

You observed that CBC’s article began the day as a top headline, but later “dropped down to a much less visible location”, and had a correction and clarification added around the text: 

The most damning update at that time though was that the headline was reworked to appear less misleading by moving the words around to say: “Some Canadians see claims in Epoch Times about origin of virus as ‘racist and inflammatory'”. This new headline is likely the one you will find when you search for the URL. You’ll notice they added the word “some”, removed the reference of a claim to a bioweapon, and moved the most attention grabbing statement on “racist and inflammatory” to the end of the headline rather than leading it.

In fact, the headline was changed on multiple occasions that day before CBC settled on the current version. You wrote that all these changes amounted to an acknowledgment of “malfeasance” by CBC, and called for the entire article to be retracted.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Standards, replied to your complaint and many others. 

He agreed that there were problems with the original version of the story:

I do acknowledge that our original headline and subsequent revisions did not do justice to the actual article which was quite simply a piece driven by some public reaction to the Epoch Times, which had arrived unsolicited at some peoples’ homes.

The original headline used a quote from one of the people interviewed about the Epoch Times edition who told CBC News that she felt it was “racist and inflammatory.” 

After publishing, we recognized that her comment was not the best choice for a headline quote, since it was only one opinion, and was not further supported in the article by other people we had been in contact with, as you yourself have noted.

However, Mr. Hambleton wrote, it was a genuine reaction of someone to the Epoch Times’ coverage, and it was a legitimate point of view to include in CBC’s story. He also addressed your critique that CBC’s original story quoted only two people, writing that the story was based on the views of many more who had expressed their concern to CBC. He said the current version of the article includes more “supportive material” to make that clear. 

Continue reading this review on the CBC website, where it was first published.