CBC ombudsman: Is it okay to feature family members in a story?
The complainant questioned the use of the husband of a reporter in a story about problems with the renewal of New Brunswick health care cards.
By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman
The complainant, Lauchlin Murray, questioned the use of the husband of a reporter in a story about problems with the renewal of New Brunswick health care cards. He thought this was a conflict of interest, and someone else should have done the story. The relationship was clear in the reporter’s TV piece. The online version was written by someone else. There’s no conflict since many others were affected by the same glitch in the system. But the online writer should have made clear the person featured in the story was related to staff at the station.
You were concerned that a story entitled “Medicare card delivery problems raise identity theft concerns” abrogated CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices because it featured the spouse of the reporter who presented the story. You felt this was a conflict of interest. You also were concerned that George Butters, the spouse, was the only person cited as an example of the problem.
You believe that “if a journalist has a story involving a friend, family member, business associate or similar; that journalist must find other sources. If a story involves a friend, family member, business associate or similar; that journalist should pass the story off to a colleague; where another source cannot be found or even when another source can be found. I believe a story involving a friend, family member, business associate or similar; can easily be perceived as involving bias, independent of the degree of bias. I believe if no other sources can be found, and the story is still considered to be in the public’s best interest and must proceed, it should have a disclaimer attached.”
You also thought the story was not balanced because there was only one complainant in the piece and there were “no quotes or response from Medicare, N.B.” After making CBC News in New Brunswick aware of your concerns through the online comments, and receiving no response, you asked me to consider the matter.
Denise Wilson, the Senior Managing Director for CBC Atlantic, replied to your concerns. She explained that the reporter, Catherine Harrop, prepared a television news report about the problems with the provincial health cards. It originally aired on CBC News on the evening of January 21, 2014, and was embedded with the online story. It was placed just under the headline and before the text of the story on the same subject.
She noted that in the TV news story Ms. Harrop briefly mentioned her husband twice. She said that while this isn’t common practice, she did not agree that it met a definition of conflict of interest. She explained why the reporter’s husband featured prominently in the web story that accompanied the video online:
Later that evening, a CBC News online writer based in Halifax watched the television report. With an eye to freshening the story for his CBCNews.ca readers, he telephoned Ms. Harrop’s husband, George Butters, to ask him directly about what had happened. The writer subsequently included several quotes from Mr. Butters with additional information about his experience. Some hours later, CBC News in Halifax posted the online story which began with Ms. Harrop’s report followed by a brief written story with the added information.
She told you the story would not be retracted, nor would there be a disclaimer added.
You are concerned that featuring the spouse of a CBC employee in a story about problems with the renewal of New Brunswick health cards constitutes a conflict of interest. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has some specific things to say about conflict of interest but it also refers to the corporate policy which provides the overarching framework.
The introduction to the journalistic policy focuses on journalists’ memberships in any outside organizations, and what public statements they make, so that they are not perceived to be in conflict if they must cover an issue related to an organization.
To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman’s website where this was originally published.