Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Is CBC Abandoning the Basic Principles of Public Broadcasting?

Important update:  After being notified that the label "Point of View" no longer appeared on Rex's segment, CBC informed me that it will be re-introduced within a few days.  Kudos to Peter, Rex and CBC News.

Another Update: Rex Murphy's "Point of View" returned on January 17, 2014, as shown in the photo at bottom of post.

Has CBC deserted its journalistic standards? CBC has mission statements and policies that are appropriate to a public broadcaster, including extensive policies relating to journalism, the crown jewel of CBC.  But CBC is ignoring these journalistic standards and appears to be in violation of its own policies virtually every day.  We will examine some concrete examples. 

A small but telling example of CBC veering from its own journalistic policies is the case of opinion polls, which was dealt with in an earlier post.  During the 1980’s, following the first Quebec referendum, senior management grew concerned about journalists designing and reporting on polls and possible effect of polls on elections.  A policy was created to ensure oversight by the professional survey researchers in the CBC research department, and reporting standards dealing with survey methodology were established. Most major newspapers began following CBC’s example and started reporting sample size, margin of error, etc.  

The policy on polling appears to have been jettisoned by both CBC radio and TV.  Programs like The House, The National, Day Six, Power and Politics and regular newscasts present poll results with little and sometimes no reference to methodology. 

Online surveys are another case in point.  They are being used virtually every day by CBC programs— ignoring the CBC policy that “If programs refer to online questions, the results are reported in a way that clearly indicates it has no scientific validity and are not meant to represent the accurate range of either public opinion nor the opinion of our audience.”  Such surveys are specifically prohibited by the policy from “giv(ing) the results as a percentage, as we normally do with bona fide polls.”  Yet they all do, in direct contradiction to the policy. 

Decades ago CBC research determined that callers to Cross Country Checkup or those who write to CBC, i.e., online surveys, are not representative, but this knowledge has seemingly been discarded, along with journalistic policies.  How can legitimate polls possibly have any credibility in this environment?

A more serious concern is the CBC’s new-found approach to presenting opinion in news programs.  CBC TV and radio have journalistic policies dealing with the expression of opinion.  The policy states: “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.”  If a guest or commentator offers an opinion, CBC must identify their affiliation or special interest.  The policy also states: “We maintain the same standards, no matter where we publish - on CBC platforms or in other media outside the CBC.”

Yet, Rex Murphy, one of CBC’s best known broadcasters, offers a regular opinion segment on The National, the nightly news program, and his pieces are archived on the CBC’s web site and YouTube, where there is no reference to his segment being commentary or opinion.  That was once the case, as per policy, but now it is implied that Rex represents not himself but CBC.

Rex’s segment ceased being labeled "Point of View" five years ago but nobody seems to have noticed.  The change occurred the same week that the news anchor for The National began reading the news standing up, emulating the sense of urgency in Eyewitness news programs.  Likewise, CBC Radio newsreaders have taken to offering spontaneous opinions about people and events, albeit usually celebrities and lighter items, in hourly newscasts.  This practice, along with a private media-like emphasis in local news on accidents, fires and crime, has crept into the radio news service the last few years.

The reasons for this are complex and will be addressed in future posts. What is clear is that CBC journalistic standards are now similar to those of any other broadcaster. Have CBC senior managers and its Board of Directors carefully considered the strategic direction being taken by the radio and TV networks?   

Rex Murphy October 22, 2009
Rex Murphy October 30, 2009
Rex Murphy January 17, 2014