Friday, 7 February 2014

CBC Ombudsman and Management Agree CBC Contravening Journalistic Standards

CBC agrees that it has contravened its own journalistic policies.  CMRI found several instances where CBC failed to live up to its standards. First, we observed how public opinion polls were being reported without adhering to policies established decades ago. These policies ensure that the methodology in polls meet high research standards and are reported in a transparent fashion for the audience.

Then, we highlighted the improper use of online surveys, which CBC has of late implied are representative of public opinion or the audience’s views, rather than those who choose to respond to such online questions.  It is CBC policy to ensure the audience understands such survey results are not representative and CBC is violating the policy.  

Finally, we brought attention to the fact that Rex Murphy’s regular segment on The National was being presented as CBC’s opinion rather than that of Mr. Murphy. CBC had not noticed that the label identifying the segment as Mr. Murphy’s opinion had gone missing from the program almost five years earlier, prompting John Doyle to tweet that it was “shocking laxity.” CBC quickly re-introduced the label “Point of View,” which now appears throughout the segment.

CBC’s Ombudsman wrote a thorough and clear review of CMRI’s complaint.  The summary stated: “The complainant, Barry Keifl (sic), who runs Canadian Media Research and used to work here at CBC, had some concerns about some features on Power and Politics. He thought other programs were not living up to CBC’s polling policies either. He was right in at least two cases. Power and Politics is not living up to the rigors of CBC policy on polling in a couple of their regular features. I suggested CBC lay out some standard processes for polling approval and presentation.”

As a result, some changes in how poll results are presented on Power and Politics have already been introduced and the producer has indicated changes will be made in how online survey results are presented.  The latter, by policy, should not be characterized as percentages, only as raw vote totals, and it will be interesting to see if the program abides by the policy in future. 

The Ombudsman and CMRI disagreed about a segment of the program called Political Traction.  CMRI felt that it was being presented as though it were a poll, possibly misleading the audience.  The Ombudsman disagreed but the segment now concludes with a description of the methodology, where none had been present.  The very day the Ombudsman released her review, Political Traction contained a statement about “what Canadians are saying” about Justin Trudeau’s Senate decision.  Such a statement suggests that the results are representative of Canadians, i.e., a poll, when clearly they are not.

Political Traction Says it Knows What Canadians are Saying (@1'50")

CBC management responded positively to the complaint about polls and online surveys in a separate communication: “…the Ombudsman review reminds us that new ways of storytelling can't come at the expense of our journalistic standards. You can be sure we'll re-examine and tighten up our processes where necessary.” 

As for Rex Murphy, CBC management also addressed his status in a another communication this week: “The most important thing to understand is that Rex is not a regular reporter. He appears on The National as a commentator precisely to do analysis and offer his point of view on issues of the day…. As much as Rex is identified with the CBC, he is not a full-time employee of the CBC….his point of view is his own.”  Several people responded to this defense of Rex Murphy’s segment and raised some important issues, which I recommend you read.

This is fascinating in one very important respect.  CBC has for decades employed commentators or outspoken journalists like Rex Murphy, Jason Moscovitz, etc. Their role has always been explained as it was this week by the head of CBC News.  There is a sense of déjà vu.  CBC has been through all of this before but, like the forgotten label, seems to be forgetting its roots.

CBC journalism has traditionally occupied the high ground, providing the best news and current affairs, including commentary.  In a broadcasting environment controlled by Rogers, Bell and other conglomerates, the future of the CBC rests on its journalism.  Sports, such as the NHL, will henceforth be controlled by the conglomerates.  They can also purchase the best entertainment programming from Hollywood and the rest of the world and they have the resources to take greater risks in Canadian entertainment programs.

The one area where CBC can still compete is news and current affairs. CBC TV and CBC New Network spent over $200 million on news and current affairs in 2012, according to the CRTC, so we expect and deserve high quality from the public broadcaster.  Even if competitors wanted to spend more on news, it wouldn't necessarily displace CBC's central role.  Thus, any relaxation of CBC journalistic standards only plays into the hands of those who want to get the CBC on their ‘level playing field,’ which will be the undoing of the public broadcaster.