Letters from Green Island

Oct 26 2008

CBC election coverage 'fair and balanced' - HUNHH?!

Dear Mr. Spears, et al.,
(George Spears, President, Kasia Seydegart, Vice-President, Pat Zulinov, Director)

CC: CBC The House, CBC The Sunday Edition, CBC The Current, CBC Ombudsman, Rabble

Re: Canada Votes: well done Independent report shows CBC coverage balanced and fair

(original story also copied at the end of this letter)

I read with some amazement today that your company had given the CBC a good rating in terms of their election coverage, as they brag about here - Canada Votes, Well Done. I must disagree seriously. I cannot speak for the television coverage, as I never watch television, but I listen to the CBC radio 3-4 hours a day, a local morning program plus the Current most days, and then the House on Saturday and Michael Enright's Sunday Edition on Sunday, with of course the hourly national and half-hourly local newscasts throughout. And it has been my perception the last couple of years, and throughout the recent election notably, that the CBC, far from any kind of neutral broadcasting such as one should expect from a public broadcaster which once was world-class, in actuality is engaged in promoting or marginalizing certain POVs through time allotted and preponderantly positive or negative presentation and spin, and simply ignoring other stories of importance. In no way, it is my opinion after long exposure to the CBC, could you call what they do 'balanced and fair', from any intelligent, neutral, engaged perspective. (all Canadian media, actually, but this involves the CBC only).

A couple of examples:

To say that 'more or less equal time was given to each major party' during the election coverage may be more or less true, but is a very superficial assessment, and quite meaningless, really. What about the quality of that time? For example, if the time spent with a Party A speaker is predominantly hostile time, with the 'host' attacking and otherwise being negative towards the guest, whilst the time given to a Party B person is in a genial mode, easy questions, supportive, etc, you cannot really call that 'equal' time, although of course if you judge only by minutes of time you would not be aware of that difference. (And this does not even begin to address the notion of a fair start for all people who would contest an election - you seem to find no quarrel with the idea that certain contestants start halfway or more around the track, with eager media appraisal and attendance to and analysis of their every word, whilst 'newcomers' start at the beginning, ignored for much if not all of the campaign? That's not really fair at all, although standard behavior for our media. But not the subject of this essay, either.)

I am fully aware that such judgements are quite subjective in nature, but a proper analysis of 'fair and balanced' would at least require acknowledging the existence of such potential problems, and making some effort to see if they did indeed exist, and if so, to quantify them at least with broad strokes. And it is not as difficult as one who wished to avoid such an examination might argue - there are some quite obvious instances to point to, where no reasonable listener could say that two given interviews were equal in terms of support or hostility of the interviewer, or general POV of the interview or report in question. And it has been my listening experience that the CBC regularly and frequently conducts its interviews or gives its news reports with quite blatant interviewer-reporter bias, either supportive or hostile. Strong interviewing can, of course, be a positive attribute of a good journalist - but when that strength is selectively applied to some interviewees, whilst others are treated much more gently, you cannot avoid the charge of at least apparent bias.

A couple of examples: Thurs Sept 11 on the Current, Ms Tremonti interviews NDP leader Jack Layton, and Wed Sept 17 interviews Liberal leader Dion on the Current, in both cases Ms Tremonti is very aggressive, shouting and interrupting, obviously dislikes both leaders, even though they handle themselves very well; there is no interview with Harper to compare her style with, if she would show the same aggressiveness or not, but there are various shows on which some Conservative is interviewed, or stories about them, that are much more favorable - for instance, Sept 20 on The House, several reports doing their best to put Harper and the Conservatives in a good light, softballing 'hard' questions and giving the respondents lots of chance to defuse the unfavorable points in calm and reassuring voices, very much unlike the attacks on Dion and Layton. We might also note that Elizabeth May, leader of a party with no members elected, gets regular favorable time, such as Tuesday Sept 16. (You may be able to find a segment with more friendly treatment of a Liberal or NDP member, or more hostile towards a Conservative, but it has been my observation over many months that overall Conservative spokespeople (and Ms May) have been dealt with gently, and NDP and Liberal people much more aggressively.) (I am attaching a 'CBC Chronicles' file which I have been keeping which gives some particulars - not written up in any academic way yet, but useful if you want to find some places to look for obviously biased 'reporting')

And aside from simply measuring time devoted to the major political parties, did you check the time and presentation devoted to issues rather than people, such things as the Afghanistan 'mission'? I can tell you for an absolute fact that the pro-mission coverage of the shows mentioned above, including the 'news', has been approximately 90% pro-'mission' (and this, of course, even though survey after survey tells us that somewhere around 60% of Canadians think we should not be in Afghanistan (and we can only assume that figure would be larger if the media was reporting fairly) - and this kind of disparity could only be called propaganda, trying to sell something to the people they do not want). For instance, just a few days after the election was called (Friday Sept 19), without to date a mention by anyone of this important issue in Canada, we got a full hour on the Current devoted to telling people why the Afghanistan invasion was (a) not an election issue at all, no matter what Canadians thought or wanted, and then (b) issue or not, it was a GOOD mission people so get with the program! (this is the dominant theme of 90% of CBC Afghanistan coverage) - with one short taped conversation with a woman near the end saying maybe it wasn't such a good idea at all, which the final few minutes of the show was then given to an on-air guest talking with the supportive host about why the lady was mistaken, and it was, really, a good mission, she just didn't understand etc. This is about as impartial as George Bush's attitude towards Iran.

There were a number of other issues of considerable importance that the media, including the CBC, did not even touch on during the election, such as the SPP/NAU. This does indeed speak to fairness - it is understandable that those promoting the SPP wish to keep it quiet, as they well know most Canadians do not want closer and closer ties to the US, although the business community does - so by not quizzing politicians about this, the CBC, and other media, are tacitly supporting the Big Business lobby, which is a minority of people but certainly a majority of money and influence - and is anything but 'fair' and balanced', when you consider the wishes of most Canadians as opposed to the wishes of the CCCE (Tom d'Aquino's elite business lobby group, influential FAR beyond their actual numbers). There is no defence to be had in opining that the media follows the lead of the politicians -the media was VERY 'proactive' all summer long, for instance, in the leadup to the election, in looking for ways to tell Canadians that the Liberal Green Shift plan was too hard to understand, with no politician pushing the story at all, and they have been aggressively pushing for Dion's resignation since - as always, there is a very large number of stories that could be presented on the media, and several perspectives from which any story could be spun, and there is a disturbing trend to the spin of the CBC, in support of 'neocon' policies and people, and against progressive, democratic policies and people (opposition to PR voting, for instance).

Today, for instance, again, Saturday Oct the 25, the day that I begin this letter, not long after reading the article on the CBC website that provoked this short letter, Kathleen Petty provided a perfect, and not uncommon, example of the CBC doing their best to direct the way Canadians think about 'news' on her The House. She started off with an interview with the governor of the Bank of Canada, which was nothing more than a puff piece designed to reassure worried Canadians that even though the financial world was crashing around them, all was more or less under control in Canada, and they were in good hands, and times might get a bit tough, but there was nothing more to be done than your able handlers were doing already. And then Ms Petty had a little documentary casting various aspersions on those darned NDP socialists, who apparently did a bit too well during the election and needed a bit of taking down. And then she finished with a piece on selecting the upcoming Harper cabinet - let's all think positive things about the new Harper gov, folks! And I won't go into details, but would note that all three pieces were giving very definite POVs that others could and would talk about very differently, if given a chance, and if the CBC was truly 'fair and balanced', such chances would be given, but rarely are when the CBC is in its 'this is the way it is' mode.

As a research group, did you consider doing a survey of 'we the people' to ask about how well 'we' thought we were served by the CBC (or the media in general) during the election, how 'fair and balanced' we thought their coverage was? You could ask if we/they thought the endless stories about bird poop and other trivialities, to the complete exclusion of much more relevant coverage of such things as the SPP etc, served them well. Did you think to get some input on your analysis from someone in the alternative Canadian media about the activities of the mainstream media, including the CBC? (For a bit on CBC television coverage from such alternative media, I would direct you to a recent piece in the alternative Canadian media called MDD events look at 'what's missing in media', in which the following quote appears: "... Derrick O'Keefe, the editor of rabble.ca, is co-facilitating a workshop with Andrew Mindszenthy of the Housing Not War campaign with a title that he says is only slightly tongue-in-cheek, "Beyond CBC-Pravda," looking at media spin on Afghanistan as well as the coverage of the homelessness crisis... Such media criticism, he argues, "is really not even hyperbole at this point. The coverage that The National in particular but the public broadcaster in general has been providing represents a major disservice to democracy and public debate in Canada. Peter Mansbridge is, clearly, personally very committed to promoting Canada's war effort. In many ways, the anchor views himself, in my opinion accurately, as an important figure in the Canadian establishment."

I also wrote an essay near the beginning of the election that gives more detail of the things I talk about here in the bigger picture if you are interested - you can read it here - Canadian Media: Reporting or Managing the News of the 2008 Election?.

Well, I shall leave it here for now, although a thorough deconstruction of the Canadian media could fill books - I have written various people at the CBC before about this and related things (you could find many of these letters here if you were interested in some serious criticism of the CBC, and the Canadian media), and found little interest, and to be honest I expect the same response from you, but in case you are truly well-intentioned but simply a bit - ummm - innocent in your researches and polling interpretations etc, I have given you enough to start with if you are seriously interested in an honest report about the activities of the CBC, and if you want more, you can certainly get in touch.

I would close by saying, Mr Spears et al., that the media in Canada, including the CBC, is very demonstrably NOT 'fair and balanced', and companies like yours which attempt to cast a favorable light on their activities through analyses as obviously telling less than the truth as the media themselves are not contributing to solving the various problems we currently face in our democracy, for which serious media reform is seriously needed.


Canada Votes: well done Independent report shows CBC coverage balanced and fair

By John Cruickshank, CBC News

CBC News has always used a variety of tools and measures to gauge how well we do our job covering the news. Because they own us, Canadians expect a higher degree of fairness from us than from other broadcasters. Fairness and balance are qualities we always strive for, and during an election campaign the stakes are even higher.

One of the checks and balances that people are most familiar with is the Office of the Ombudsman. CBC is the only news organization in the country with an ombudsman who is an impartial voice for complaints from viewers, readers and listeners. Every year, the ombudsman responds to more than 1,000 inquiries dealing with issues of accuracy, integrity and/or fairness.

Another touchstone is our Journalistic Standards and Practices Handbook, also available online. It is a valuable tool that we use on a daily basis to help guide us through legal, ethical and journalistic land mines. Again, no other journalistic organization in the country has a similar set of formal guidelines, and most are not as transparent as we are about how they do their jobs.

And in each of the last several election campaigns, we have gone one step further and implemented a series of monitoring strategies.

Erin Research is an independent Canadian research firm that specializes in media analysis. We commissioned it to study our content on television, radio and online for the duration of the campaign from several vantage points:

  • The amount of time we devoted to specific parties, issues and individuals.
  • The direction (positive, negative or neutral) of every statement made.
  • Gender equality and minority reflection.
  • The relative proportion of analysts, politicians and citizens.
Erin also attempted to benchmark our coverage against some of the programming on our major broadcast competitor, CTV. Balance is a difficult concept to capture and quantify. There is no gold standard. These indicators, however, helped provide a snapshot in time.

Overall, in an interim report, Erin deems that our coverage was fair and balanced. Among the findings:
  • Total airtime seems to be adequately divided among the parties, citizens/interest groups and analysts/experts. This suggests that the coverage provided a forum for discussion and was not just a reflection of events and agenda news.
  • Interview time was almost equally divided among the three main parties, with the Conservative Party receiving slightly more time. This is a reflection of their status as the governing party going into the election.
  • Being the ruling party, the Conservatives also received a larger proportion of negative comments. This is consistent with governing parties in past campaigns and was mirrored in our competition.
  • While we did better than our competitors in reflecting visible minorities and women, there is still some work to do on that front.
Erin also provided us with weekly reports during the campaign. It helped guide our coverage and decide if course correction was needed; it allowed us to make informed choices about what we covered and how we covered it. In addition, again this year, we convened an independent panel of engaged citizens to give us weekly feedback on our programming. The six-member panel included input from all reaches of the political spectrum from across the country. Their weekly discussions with our programmers were invaluable in helping us fine-tune our coverage.

You can read the detailed interim report for yourself. The final report will be available in mid-November.

One of our guiding principles during the campaign was to be as open and transparent with our viewers, listeners and readers as possible. We encouraged their contributions to stories and endeavoured to reflect their concerns. Making the Erin Research report public is another step in that process.

Our commitment to Canadians will not end with the campaign. We will continue to monitor what we do and provide feedback to you on a regular basis. As always, we are interested in hearing what you think.
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