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CBC Officially Responds To My Blog on Mixing Journalism and Personal Opinion

December 15th, 2015

This afternoon, I received the following letter from Jack Nagler, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replying to my blog on what I see as a worrisome trend at CBC of mixing journalism and personal opinion. As you will see, Jack’s letter is written on behalf of both Heather Conway, Executive Vice-President of CBC’s English Services and Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News.  (This is the full unedited text of Jack’s letter.)

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Dear Frank:

I read with interest, as always, your thoughts on the current state of journalism here at CBC News. I am replying on behalf of both Heather and Jennifer.

With your experience and commitment to the quality of our craft, you’re well placed to offer feedback. You worked at CBC as a journalist for over 25 years and know the overarching importance of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices in every facet of our work. It guided your work at CBC and it continues to guide the work of every single journalist working for us now. That policy stands on integrity, fairness and accuracy. Yes, facts: the cornerstone of every story we produce. And context, too – it is always an expectation on us, and on you as well.

The policy acknowledges that making sense of stories takes more than just listing facts. We expect our journalists to add context, to add information about why stories happened, what they mean and how those events fit in a larger picture. Without that, stories can be meaningless, even misleading.

In practice, that means senior journalists – you referred to Keith Boag and Terry Milewski – who have been reporting political stories for decades can bring insight, judgment and experience to inform a story and convey significance not otherwise available. We call it analysis and we clearly identify it for readers in our online stories.

Terry’s recent piece on Mike Duffy is not a report of what happened in court that day. You will find other places on our web pages that cover that. Terry’s piece, “Forget Mike Duffy – the scandal is in the Senate”, is posted under the heading “Analysis”. It is a commonly seen heading on our pages and signals to readers that what follows is not a news story, but an experienced journalist who brings his grasp of the facts, his understanding of the context to add his perspective to the story.

The challenge for all of us at CBC News is doing that effectively without going so far as to express personal opinions on matters of public controversy, which would be a violation of our JSP.

Two years ago, CBC News General Manager and Editor in Chief Jennifer McGuire wrote an excellent blog post on this very subject, entitled, not surprisingly: Opinion vs. Analysis. Jennifer wrote the following:

Our hosts and reporters don’t have free rein to say what they want about the issues of the day. Our (JSP) makes it clear that we’re guided by the principle of impartiality, and that CBC journalists don’t express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

The key word here is “personal”. An observation based on the facts of the issue, and years of experience covering a beat, which I would describe as analysis, isn’t the same as a view that comes out of left field without supporting arguments, or in other words, opinion.

Terry’s analysis was largely just that – his perspective and his interpretation of events, but based on the facts.  He definitely uses colorful and deliberately provocative language. And it is possible that the wording used in the section you quoted went too far. Of course, it was not the only paragraph in the story, nor was it the main thesis. But we’ll take a thoughtful look at the whole piece. At CBC News, we argue and debate all the time about where the line is on what reporters are and aren’t allowed to say – just as we did a decade ago when you were reporting from Washington and I was producing The World at Six.

You’ve offered views on Terry’s piece, as well as Keith’s. I am happy to share those thoughts with my colleagues, because this is an issue we will be wrestling with for a long time in a business that is always subjective. The CBC Ombudsman has looked at what she calls “the grey zone” between analysis and opinion on several occasions. Sometimes she has sided with our writers, and sometimes she has ruled that a certain story went too far.

But these are isolated stories. Your blog pretends that this is rampant, and as a result you paint a highly distorted picture of what CBC News is all about.

Instead, you could focus on the literally thousands of stories we produce each week from every corner of the country. The devotion to investigative journalism. The award-winning coverage of important issues from Ebola to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Or the groundbreaking work done every single day on our digital platforms, as we seek the best ways to serve Canadians with the latest news, and the most important public service journalism.

I should note that other public broadcasters grapple with the same dilemma. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for instance, allows some of its staff to contribute analyses and opinions, and showcases them in a special section of its website known as “The Drum”. You can check it out at http://www.abc.net.au/news/thedrum/about/. I think it’s a fairly innovative approach. And maybe it’s an option we should look at down the road.

But to get back to the very core question: is CBC journalism now mixing fact and opinion, as you suggest? No, it’s not. We are not, as you fear, ignoring our own policy or forgetting what it says. CBC’s journalistic policy remains as strong as it always was and remains the touchstone of our journalism.

I will add a reminder that one of the ways we demonstrate our values is by being accountable through a very public and very effective Ombdusman complaint process. It’s probably the best way to ensure that your concerns get full consideration.

Thanks again for sharing your take, and allow me to wish you a very early happy 2016.

Jack

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2 Responses to “CBC Officially Responds To My Blog on Mixing Journalism and Personal Opinion”

  1. Neil Sandell says:

    Well, Frank. I side with you on this one. The Milewski piece is rife with opinion, both direct and implied through its use of language. Declaring it “colourful” is merely a deflection.

    To me, the test is this. Having declared his views on the Senate or the Duffy trial, can Milewski still report on either and claim objectivity? If I were their editor, I would have real trouble assigning them to either.

    Best,

    Neil

  2. Donn Lovett says:

    As with any problem, there needs to be an acknowledgement there’s a problem, CBC does not do that, sadly. I am in agreement with your position.

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