The CBC ombudsman addresses concerns of a “drive-by-smear campaign” on Everest College.

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The complainant, Serge Buy, wrote in his capacity of CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges to say he thought a story about Everest College was unbalanced and constituted a “drive-by-smear campaign.” The story was critical, but it provided context, and the response from the closed college’s spokesperson. A criticism of one private college is not criticism of them all so the fact his opinion wasn’t sought is not a policy violation.

COMPLAINT

In your capacity as CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges (NACC), you wrote to complain about a CBCNews.ca story concerning Everest College, which had recently been shut down by the Ontario government. On February 19, 2015, the superintendent of private career colleges shut down the U.S. based chain. The reason given was concern for the financial solvency of the organization. Indeed, a day later the parent company, Corinthian Colleges, filed for bankruptcy for its Canadian Everest Colleges, which had operated 14 campuses in Ontario.

The article you objected to was published about a week later and featured allegations of shoddy practices made by former students and an instructor. You called the piece, entitled “Everest College closure no surprise to some who call it a scam,” “drive-by smearing.” You were concerned that no attempt was made to find and feature students who were happy with their education at Everest College.

You were critical of the reporter because she did not approach the right people for response and to balance the allegations:

No call was placed by Ms. Harris to the representative associations – including the association I represent (the National Association of Career Colleges) to try to get a balanced view. Only the Ministry’s – whose job is not to defend the sector and Corinthian – the US parent corporation which is right now run by bankruptcy trustees and therefore are not equipped to respond.

After you received a reply from CBC News management you reiterated your view that the reporter was obliged to seek out and quote people who had positive experience to balance the story. You felt the reporter had manufactured the story, not reported the facts:

. . . the journalists involved in the story saw the closure of Everest and tried to spin this into a story on the quality of Everest’s education. Which, in the end probably would have led to stories on career colleges in general. But the fact is that the story should have been on Everest’s closure or if it really had to be on the quality, they should have presented both sides: they didn’t.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Michael Colton, the senior producer of the Business Content Unit, replied to your concerns.

He pointed out that the story you find objectionable was one of several written within a week or so of each other. He added that there was significant coverage of the impact on the students, faculty and staff of the college, who were left in limbo. He noted you were quoted in one of the stories about the closure. He cited other stories done weeks after the closure was announced. He added:

This highlights something that I believe is central to any assessment of our coverage of Everest College. The story you are critical of was in fact just one of many. It was part of a continuum of coverage. Naturally, not every story contains all the details of previous stories.

He also disagreed that the story was one-sided. He explained the reporter contacted the parent company, Corinthian, several times seeking comment and that they were given more than one opportunity to reply to the allegations. He said that the college spokesperson, Joe Hixson, was quoted from an email he sent refuting the claims of sub-standard education and questionable practices. Mr. Colton also told you he did not agree that it was remiss not to reach out to “representative organizations” because the story was entirely about Everest College and not about career colleges in general:

It was not in any way a story about an entire industry. Recent stories about defects in General Motors cars, as an example, may rightly be judged on their journalistic merit not whether or the extent to which they involve other manufacturers. The story in question was well researched, accurate and fairly presented. I might also add that shortly after you contacted one of our Web writers with respect to this story on February 25th, we did insert your comments.

To continue reading this column, please go to ombudsman.cbc.radio-canada.ca where it was originally published.