CIVT-TV (CTV British Columbia) re reports on CTV News at 11:30 (“Seal Fur Uniforms” & “Oil Spill”)

british columbia regional Panel
S. Warren (Chair), H. Ainsworth, R. Cohen (ad hoc), J. Doobay, G. Leighton, T. Plasteras

THE FACTS

CTV News at 11:30 is CTV British Columbia’s (CIVT-TV) late evening local newscast that follows the national newscast at 11:00 pm.  Two news reports that aired on the May 7, 2009 edition generated complaints from a single complainant.

The first was entitled “Seal Fur Uniforms”.  As it was introduced by anchor Keri Adams, a graphic of the Olympic logo and a white seal were displayed in the upper right-hand corner.  The report then progressed as follows:

Adams: Meanwhile, when our Canadian athletes show up at the 2010 Olympics, should they be wearing seal fur?  The House of Commons seems to think so.  A motion has been passed, unanimously, to have seal fur included in the uniforms.  [Clip of inside of House of Commons]  Politicians think the 2010 Games should be used to promote products from the seal hunt and suggest the uniforms our athletes wear should include at least one seal product.  [Clips showing items of sealskin clothing]  The motion is a reaction the European Union’s decision to impose a ban on the import of Canadian seal products.  [Clip of European Union meeting]  That could have a huge impact on Canadian hunters and exporters.  [Clips of a grey seal sitting on ice; a sealing boat; two sealers walking on ice carrying hakapiks]  The Canada Olympic Committee, on the other hand, says the fur won’t fly because the athletes’ uniforms have already been designed and approved by the IOC.  [Clips of various Canadian winter athletes holding medals, standing on a podium, completing a competition]

The second report, entitled “Oil Spill” was about an oil spill that had occurred in Burnaby.  An image of an aerial view of an oil tank was displayed beside the anchor as she introduced the report and continued with a description of the event:

Adams: For the second time in less than two years there’s been a major oil spill involving energy giant Kinder Morgan in Burnaby.  Two hundred thousand litres of crude oil spilled out of one of its holding tanks on Burnaby Mountain.  [Aerial view of tank]  Hazmat and clean-up crews spent today mopping up the toxic crude.  A contractor was attempting to remove sediment from the bottom of the holding tank when a pressure pump failed, releasing the oil.  [Zoom-in on machinery and oil surrounding tank]  Many North Burnaby residents awoke to the noxious smell.  [Clip of woman walking two dogs]

Interview with Isabelle Hoyle, North Burnaby resident:      I think that whole thing should be shut down.  It should not be this close proximity to, to residential.

[Scene from outside chain-link fence of Kinder Morgan premises showing a man in a hard hat and coveralls walking inside the fence and a sign on the fence that reads “Warning: Hazardous Area”.]

Adams: Fortunately the oil was caught by a protective barrier and did not leak into the nearby community.  [Close-up of sign that reads “Kinder Morgan.  Warning: Hazardous Area”; view of outside tank from ground level].  It was a much messier situation in the summer of 2007, though.  [Series of aerial views from July 2007 showing oil on roads, around homes and covering vehicles]  Homes and cars were covered in oil when a Kinder Morgan pipeline burst, spewing 234,000 litres of crude into the air.

A lengthy letter of complaint was sent to the CRTC on May 8 and forwarded to the CBSC in due course (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix to this decision).  The complainant identified himself as a journalist who was concerned with the “lack of professional journalism standards displayed by the broadcast” because “there were two significant errors of fact broadcast.”  With respect to the first report, the complainant cited the actual transcript of the motion in the House of Commons relating to seal fur and the Olympics as found in Hansard.  He noted that the word “uniform” did not appear in the motion and that the motion only advocated “studying the possibility” of incorporating seal fur into Olympic clothing.  He pointed out that “clothing” meant “branded merchandise”, not team uniforms, particularly since the House of Commons had no role in approving Canadian Olympic team uniforms.  He observed that the report used the word “politicians”, in the plural, when only one Member of Parliament had made the recommendation.  He suggested that the report was not only erroneous, but “the wording shows it to be written with loaded adjectives and adverbs to deliberately enhance its sensationalism.”  He also noted that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had “invoked the 2010 Olympics as part of its campaign to oppose sealing” so this story was “specifically designed – in context – to enhance the politicization of the Olympics in a negative way to a BC audience that has strong opinions about sealing and the Olympics.”

The complainant’s concerns about the second report also related to choice of wording.  He indicated that the anchor had, in the introduction, stated that the oil spill was the “second” spill “caused” by the energy company Kinder Morgan.  The other contentious terminology occurred in the extro when the anchor referred to a previous occasion when “a pipeline owned by Kinder Morgan blew up.”  He argued that the pipeline had not “blown up”.  The complainant also explained that, in that previous incident, a back-hoe digging up a road, which had not been contracted by Kinder Morgan, had severed a pipeline.  In addition, the pipeline had actually been installed by Imperial Oil and “[t]he cause was later discovered to be due in part to poor location record-keeping by Imperial Oil, which Kinder Morgan unknowingly inherited when it purchased the assets.”

Another concern with the “Oil Spill” report was the inclusion of the interview with a resident.  The resident expressed the view that the oil tank farm should be shut down because it should not be so close to a residential area.  The complainant argued that the oil tank farm had actually been there prior to the development of the residential area nearby.  He suggested that “[i]t was the equivalent of a person building a house close to an airport and then complaining about all the aircraft noise.”

The complainant insisted that CTV British Columbia had accurate and complete information about both the seal fur and oil spill situations, but chose to leave “erroneous impressions with its audience”.

CTV replied to the complainant on May 20.  The station defended its “Seal Fur Uniforms” report by citing another portion of Hansard in which the same Member of Parliament who introduced the motion did make specific reference to “uniforms” and advocated that the government take “concrete action” by “perhaps using them [seal products] in Canadian Olympic athletes’ uniforms.”  CTV also stated that it believed the “wording of our story was accurate and was in no way ‘designed to enhance its sensationalism’ as alleged.”  It pointed out that the report also included the information that the uniforms had already been designed and approved by the IOC.

With respect to the “Oil Spill” report, CTV cited a transcript of the report and pointed out that at no time had it stated that Kinder Morgan had “caused” the spills; rather it said that the spill “involved” the company, which was accurate.  In addition, CTV had used the word “burst”, not “blew up”, which again it considered to be accurate.  As well, CTV insisted that it was in the public interest to report the concerns of nearby residents about the very presence of the oil facility “regardless of whether or not Kinder Morgan was responsible for the incidents.”  It added, “The report was not on fault, but on residents’ concerns.”

The complainant submitted his Ruling Request on May 22 along with a detailed explanation of why he remained concerned about the two reports.  He provided a sentence-by-sentence dissection of the “Seal Fur Uniforms” report, disputing each of CTV’s points, and indicated that he would have done the same for the “Oil Spill” report, but such an exercise would have been “redundant to [his] original complaint”.

In general, he characterized CTV’s letter as a “self-serving justification for the fabrication of” its stories and “using the same style of reporting as [its] newsroom:  editorial commentary sloppily disguised as fact, errant logic, poor research, failing to reveal key information, imbalance and taking things completely out of context in order to make them fit a preconceived notion of the event.”  He asserted the broadcasts violated Clauses 5 and 6 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and numerous Articles of the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada’s (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

THE DECISION

The British Columbia Regional Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada’s (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 5 – News

1)         It shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias.  Broadcasters shall satisfy themselves that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result.  They shall also ensure that news broadcasts are not editorial.

2)         News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be formulated on the basis of the beliefs, opinions or desires of management, the editor or others engaged in its preparation or delivery.  The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster.  This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.

RTNDA Code (Journalistic) of Ethics, Article 1 – Accuracy

Broadcast journalists will inform the public in an accurate, comprehensive and fair manner about events and issues of importance.

The BC Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed both reports.  The Panel concludes that neither report violated any of the above-cited Code provisions.

The Seal Fur/Skin Issue

To better understand the seal fur/skin issue, the Panel considers it useful to reproduce the actual contributions  to the Parliamentary debate on May 6, 2009 of Member Raynald Blais (Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine), in both official languages, bearing in mind that his words were first spoken in French.  In his first of three interventions on the issue, the last of which ended with the formulation of a motion, Mr. Blais said:

Monsieur le Président, la décision de l’Union européenne d’interdire toute commercialisation ou importation des produits du loup-marin dans les 27 pays membres dès 2010 aura un effet dévastateur sur toute la communauté des Îles de la Madeleine. Tous s’entendent pour dire qu’il faut davantage de pression et d’information pour contrer toute la désinformation qui s’est faite autour de cette chasse bien encadrée.

Le gouvernement s’engage-t-il à investir davantage dans une campagne de promotion des produits du loup-marin?

And in English translation:

Mr. Speaker, the European Union’s decision to ban the sale and import of all seal products in the 27 member countries as of 2010 will have a devastating effect on everyone in the Magdalen Islands. Everyone agrees that we have to exert more pressure and raise awareness to counter all of the false information surrounding this well-managed hunt.

Will the government invest more money in a campaign to promote seal products?

And then, in the second intervention, the Member of Parliament used the following language (emphasis added):

Monsieur le Président, s’il veut poser un geste concret, le gouvernement devrait profiter de la tribune qui lui sera offerte par les Jeux olympiques d’hiver de 2010 à Vancouver pour faire la promotion des produits dérivés du loup-marin, notamment en étudiant la possibilité d’en intégrer au costume des athlètes olympiques canadiens.

Le gouvernement est-il prêt à poser des gestes concrets comme celui-là pour sauver cette industrie dont dépendent plusieurs familles de ma circonscription?

And in English translation (emphasis added):

Mr. Speaker, if the government wants to take concrete action, it should take advantage of the forum provided by the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver to promote seal products, perhaps by using them in Canadian Olympic athletes’ uniforms.

Will the government take that kind of concrete action to save the industry that many families in my riding depend on?

This was followed by a third intervention, which was the motion (emphasis added):

Monsieur le Président, je demande également le consentement unanime de la Chambre pour l’adoption de la motion suivante:

Que, de l’avis de la Chambre, le gouvernement devrait profiter de la tribune qui lui sera offerte par les Jeux olympiques Vancouver 2010 pour faire la promotion des produits dérivés du loup marin, notamment en étudiant la possibilité d’en intégrer aux vêtements olympiques canadiens.

And in English translation (emphasis added):

Mr. Speaker, I also seek the unanimous consent of the House to adopt the following motion:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should take advantage of the opportunity provided by the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games to promote seal products, particularly by studying the possibility of using these products in the making of Canadian Olympic clothing.

Seal Fur/skin and Olympic Uniforms: The Complaint

In the complainant’s words, “The first instance involved a report to the effect that the House of Commons had voted to approve the addition of seal fur to the uniforms of Canadian athletes attending the 2010 Winter Olympics.”  He went on to explain why, in his view, this was “simply untrue”.

You will note that the word “uniform” does not appear in the motion, nor does the concept of requiring the application of seal products to any Olympic clothing.  Hansard shows there was no debate of the motion in which these concepts could have been elicited.  Studying the possibility of doing something is a far cry from actually doing something.

So the CTV-BC story as broadcast was a fabrication from beginning to end.

But it was not simply an erroneous report, but the wording shows it to be written with loaded adjectives and adverbs to deliberately enhance its sensationalism.

The complainant’s explanation of the motivation was as follows: “the Olympics-clothing story thus broadcast was specifically designed — in context — to enhance the politicization of the Olympics in a negative way to a BC audience that has strong opinions about sealing and the Olympics.”  He went on in his reaction to the broadcaster’s response to accuse CIVT-TV in its letter of explanation, as well as its news report, of “editorial commentary sloppily disguised as fact, errant logic, poor research, failing to reveal key information, imbalance and taking things completely out of context in order to make them fit a preconceived notion of the event.”  The complainant then parsed every sentence, indeed every word, in the report, in his May 22 communication to the CBSC.  Those detailed arguments can be found in the Appendix.

In general, the Panel considers that the complainant has engaged in hair-splitting.  In the view of the Panel, what matters far more to audiences is the forest rather than the trees.  On that larger level, the Panel does not find the report inaccurate, misleading or even deceptive in any material sense.  In arriving at this conclusion, the Panel places some emphasis on a word that the complainant himself has used several times in his letters of May 8 and 22, namely, context.  It begins with the notion that the motion is a motion, not a statute, in other words, the enunciation of a principle or a direction rather than the legislative fruits of a declaration of policy.  There is a chasm of difference between the two.

On a practical level, the complainant’s assertion that none of the broadcast words “seal fur”, “included” or “uniforms” are part of the Blais motion ignores both the context of the motion and the interest of the public in the story.  As to the context, the Panel notes the original references in the first intervention by M.P. Blais in the Parliamentary debate to the European Union’s decision to ban the sale and import of all seal products (“la décision de l’Union européenne d’interdire toute commercialisation ou importation des produits du loup-marin”).  That was followed by a second intervention in which it appears that the idea of formulating a practical political response was gelling.  The idea that emerged in the language was to perhaps promote seal products by taking advantage of the forthcoming Olympic Games to use them in Canadian Olympic athletes’ uniforms (“la possibilité d’en intégrer au costume des athlètes olympiques canadiens”).  Then, when the motion emerged as a part of the Member’s third intervention, the language used was to “promote seal products” in the fashion mentioned in the second intervention.

The Panel acknowledges that the term “seal fur” was not a part of the motion.  It is undeniable that what was stated in the French version was “produits dérivés du loup-marin” and in the English “seal products”.  That said, the Panel is utterly unable to fathom what products derived from seals (to use the full original expression) could logically or reasonably be understood as possibly incorporated in clothing (or uniforms) other than the skin or fur.  Surely, the complainant was not trying to suggest that it could have been any of the other products of the harvesting of seals, namely, seal meat, seal blubber, seal oil (derived from the blubber), the pharmaceutical product omega-3 fatty acids, or seal organs.  It is so patently evident that what was intended in the motion was seal skin or fur that there is no need to take this argument any further.

Next, the word “included”.  True again, the motion said “using these products in the making” of the clothing.  The Panel has reverted, as CBSC Panels regularly do, to the Oxford English Dictionary, in which the adjective “included” is defined as “enclosed, contained, comprised”.  The verb form, “include”, is further elaborated as “To contain, comprise, embrace. […] To contain as a member of an aggregate, or a constituent part of a whole; to embrace as a sub-division or section; to comprise; to comprehend.”  Here, too, the Panel is hard pressed to draw a distinction between using the products in the manufacture of clothing (“d’en intégrer aux vêtements”), with the result that they would be anything other than included, contained or comprised in that clothing, or being a constituent part of the resulting clothing.  It can be nothing more than, at best, a distinction without a difference, a meaningless bit of pedantry.  There was simply nothing problematic in the use of “included” in the report.

Finally, “uniforms” versus “clothing”.  Technically, the complainant is again correct, but, in the view of the Panel, his observation does not amount to a material distinction.  Once again, an examination of the context reveals that the Member of Parliament, in his second intervention, proposed the possibility of the use of seal products in Canadian Olympic athletes’ uniforms, the proper translation of his words, namely, “la possibilité d’en intégrer au costume des athlètes olympiques canadiens”.  When, however, the motion was formulated, he used the word “vêtements”, rather than “costume”, which was properly translated in Hansard into “clothing”.  And yet once again, the Panel repeats its earlier observation that the motion is a motion, not a statute, an enunciation of principle or a direction rather than the legislative fruits of a declaration of policy.  M.P. Blais’s goal was clear.  Parliament ought to manifest its opposition to the E.U.’s position regarding the embargo against the importation of Canadian seal products by taking advantage of the public awareness of the coming Olympic Games.  Show off those products to the world in a bold way, namely, by their inclusion where they would be seen, on the athletes’ uniforms.  It is undeniable that he used the word clothing in the motion, when he had moments earlier used uniforms.  The Panel considers that this was likely the result of careless wording or possibly the fact that the mover of the policy saw no material distinction between the two terms.  Nor, in the view of the Panel, would the CIVT-TV audience.  The Panel is of the view that, in choosing the word “uniforms” rather than “clothing”, the broadcaster was making a reasonable effort to convey the intention of the mover and the unanimous Parliament.  In the view of the Panel, that was an eminently logical interpretation of the debates on the subject.  That was the cautious and thoughtful path.  That was the language that would best provide the audience with a reasonable interpretation of the Parliamentary perspective.

Was the Keri Adams report glib or presented in common and comprehensible terms?  Probably a bit so.  More important, was it inaccurate or misleading?  Not in any material way, if at all.  Was it sensationalized?  Hardly.  And even then Ms. Adams’s report pointed out that the effect of the motion would be nil “because the athletes’ uniforms have already been designed and approved.”  The Panel finds no breach of any of the above-cited codified standards resulting from the report on the seal products.

The Oil Spill Report

As the complainant’s presentation indicates, he had fewer problems with the report of the oil spill from the Kinder Morgan tank farm in Burnaby.  He reduced his concerns to a single issue, which he explained as follows:

In the intro, Ms. Adams announced that it was the second spill caused by Kinder Morgan, and in the extro, she announced that in the other case, “a pipeline owned by Kinder Morgan blew up.”  This implied, in context, that both oil spills were the fault of Kinder Morgan.

In his elaboration of his perspective, he pointed out that the pipeline did not “blow up” and that Kinder Morgan was, in any event, not responsible for the event.  He also explained the role of Kinder Morgan’s predecessor in title, Imperial Oil, in the evolution of the problem, and he added that “Kinder Morgan, which took full responsibility for its portion of the situation, was essentially as much a victim of the situation as those on whom the oil from the pipeline was sprayed.”

As in the case of the seal fur/skin report, the Panel does not share the complainant’s view of the words used in the newscasts.  There are only two sentences in the news report that could reasonably be understood as having anything close to a value judgment in them.  In the first, Anchor Keri Adams began the report with the sentence, “For the second time in less than two years there’s been a major oil spill involving energy giant Kinder Morgan in Burnaby.”  In the second, namely, the extro, she said:  “It was a much messier situation in the summer of 2007, though.  Homes and cars were covered in oil when a Kinder Morgan pipeline burst, spewing 234,000 litres of crude into the air.”  The complainant acknowledged, in his communication of May 22, that he was in error when he complained about the use of the verb phrase “blew up”, since, as CIVT-TV pointed out (and the CBSC confirms), the verb “burst” was used.

Simply stated, the Panel does not find the least attribution of fault in either the intro or the extro.  In the intro, there was a dispassionate factual observation that there had been a major oil spill involving energy giant Kinder Morgan.  The piece was not in the least focussed on any issue of fault.  There was no probing or suggestion even of a putative reason for the pressure pump failure.  If anything, there was a mention of “a contractor” working on the holding tank that leaked the oil, with no indication of his association with Kinder Morgan or another company, although it seems a reasonable interpretation that he was working with an outside company.  Nonetheless, there was no finger-pointing at all, in the view of the Panel.  That, after all, was not the story on May 7.  The story was the leak, not any attempt to get to the bottom of its cause.  And it made eminent journalistic sense, in the Panel’s view, to tie the current event with the circumstance involving the same company in the same urban area.  Once again, there was no imputation of fault in the 2007 pipeline rupture.  In the Panel’s view, the report was absolutely benign, and the complainant’s perspective, in his original letter of complaint, that, in his words, “Ms. Adams announced that it was the second spill caused by Kinder Morgan” was wrong.  That word was not used.  Nor was there any correlative, judgmental term employed in the news item.  The Panel finds no breach of any of the above-cited codified standards resulting from the report on the oil spill.

As to the complainant’s concern with the inclusion of the brief (19-word) interview with the North Burnaby resident, in which the latter asserted that the “whole thing should be shut down” as too close to a residential area, the Panel finds no significant problem.  There was certainly no need for the broadcaster to elaborate on this clearly minor aspect of the issue.  While the complainant’s point regarding the prior presence of the oil tank farm would be weighty in any judicial conflict, the Panel does not consider that small intervention an attempt to polarize the discussion or to express an editorial perspective on the inappropriateness of the Kinder Morgan presence in the area.  It rather understands it as an attempt by the broadcaster to add some “local colour” to the story by reporting on the “residents’ concerns [which] are newsworthy regardless of who is at fault for the spills.  The residents who complained to CTV say they don’t like the location of the facility, because when there is an accident, they suffer.”  The Panel finds no breach of any codified standard on account of that cursory interview reflecting local residents’ concerns.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Council’s Panels assess the broadcaster’s responsiveness to the complainant.  In the present instance, the Panel finds that the response of CIVT-TV/CTV British Columbia’s Managing Editor to have been thorough and focussed on the issues that concerned the complainant.  The Panel understands entirely that the complainant would not agree with that assessment, but that is, after all, the nature of the process.  No complaint gets to the Panel adjudication stage without arousing the dissatisfaction or discontent of the complainant.  While the Panel does, of course, appreciate the detailed rebuttal of the complainant to the response of the Managing Editor, it does not agree with him, for the reasons given above, that the broadcaster has failed in either defending its broadcast or responding in detailed fashion to the complainant’s issues.  In sum, the Panel concludes that the broadcaster has fully met its responsiveness responsibilities of CBSC membership on this occasion.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.