CJSB-FM re a news report about an animal seizure

prairie regional Panel
D. Ish (Chair), H. Montbourquette (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), D. Dobbie, V. Dubois, K. Johnston

The facts

CJSB-FM is an adult contemporary and country radio station serving Swan River, Manitoba.  During an 8:00 am news segment on March 14, 2011, newscaster Bill Gade provided an update on a case involving the seizure of animals from a local farm.  A man named Walter Goba had been charged with cruelty to animals and a group called the Swan Valley Animal Protection League (SVAPL) had been involved in removing dogs from the property.  The transcript of Gade’s news report reads as follows:

From the Swan River news room of CJSB-FM this is your CJ Radio news update for eight o’clock.  Good morning, I’m Bill Gade.  News this hour, a presentation of Peavy Mart. [A brief ad for Peavy Mart aired.]

Startling revelations are being made about the care of animals seized by the RM of Swan River.  Last week CJ-104 told you that the Swan Valley Animal Protection League was requesting additional funding from the RM for what it termed “complications” during the spay and neuter process.

But CJ Radio has learned that higher cost was actually due to many of the dogs being pregnant and that the organizers of the sterilization campaign decided to have those puppies aborted to speed the process.  That means that the total number of dogs killed while in custody had risen sharply.  No one from the Animal Protection League has been available to speak to the media; however, it is widely accepted that at least five puppies were frozen to death when a dog was left outside with no shelter days after the seizure.

Those close to the situation suggest the abortions likely account for another thirty-five puppies, bringing the possible total number of deaths to forty.  The total number of dogs seized was only twenty-seven.

Meanwhile, the Animal Protection League’s own website says their mission is to promote animal rights as an extension of human rights, something that doesn’t seem to go along with the forced termination of pregnancies or the freezing death of puppies.

The Goba case returns to court on Wednesday.  He faces forty-four charges of animal cruelty, but is not accused, however, of killing even a single puppy.

The CBSC received seven complaints about the station’s coverage of this case, though not all complainants identified a specific date and time of the report that had concerned them.  Of the four people who did, only one submitted a Ruling Request.  Her letter of March 19 included a copy of the written report that had appeared on the station’s website.  She outlined her concerns as follows (the relevant text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix to this decision):

This 'story' is slanderous and full of untruth.  It also appears to come close to defending Walter Goba at the end and HE is the one who left animals to suffer and die.  Makes a person wonder about the motivation behind this so-called story!

 

Those that handle the animals with the SVAPL do their volunteer work with the utmost in respect and love for animals.  I know of members who will lay inside a dog pen to try and get a dog to trust a human again.  They work long hours working to socialize animals again, find homes, foster, give their money and/or time, etc. – all out of their own hearts.

 

To have our own local radio station insult, degrade, and personally attack this organization and its volunteers is absolutely shocking.  If they want to run a smarmy tabloid, then I guess they could get away with that sort of thing, but they are running a radio station and are bound to investigate and get the FACTS.  On a personal level, they should be supporting their community and not tearing it down.

 

This is not the first time that this sort of false 'reporting' has taken place and that is why so many people don't care to tune into this tabloid, unprofessional radio station.  Please investigate this matter for the SVAPL and our community who deserve an apology and far better.  There should be serious repercussions for CJ104 as well.

The CBSC explained to the complainant that it needed the date and time of broadcast in order to proceed with the complaint process and that it could not address complaints about a station’s website content.  The complainant wrote back on March 22 with the required information.

The broadcaster then responded to all of the complainants on April 11 in a single letter.  In its response, the broadcaster included excerpts of the original complaints (along with their authors’ full names) from all seven complainants.  For four of the complainants, it provided their full names and e-mail addresses at the top of the letter; that is to say, all of the complainants who received this letter were able to see other complainants’ names, e-mail addresses and portions of their complaints.  The broadcaster also included other complaints found via online outlets and the names of their authors (these people had not submitted complaints to the CBSC).  It also copied that response to other organizations, namely, the Rural Municipality of Swan River and the places of employment of two complainants.

In its letter, CJSB-FM defended its news report and denied that any inaccurate information had been broadcast.  It wrote that the SVAPL had started a campaign on its Facebook page to have people complain to the CBSC and, in a few places in the letter, the SVAPL was referred to as “a fanatical fringe”.

With respect to the claims that puppies had died, CJSB-FM stated that eye witnesses had found five puppies cold and unresponsive and attempts to revive them failed.  The station indicated that it appeared “the event occurred when power was interrupted to a heater for several hours.”  The station also explained that it had obtained some of its information about the puppies being aborted at a public meeting at which a SVAPL representative had requested funding to deal with “complications” during the spaying and neutering of some of the seized dogs.  Some of the dogs were pregnant, so spaying them apparently also required aborting the fetuses.  CJSB-FM also obtained veterinary bills which indicated that some animals were pregnant when they were spayed; the station provided copies of those documents.

The station also explained that at some point following the animal seizure, the SVAPL “posted on its Facebook page that they would no longer comment on any matter relating to the Goba animal seizure” and that this is why the report did not contain a statement from the League.  It also stated that a SVAPL representative had contacted the station and behaved in a “belligerent and abusive” manner, so it chose not to air her remarks in a follow-up story.

CJSB also pointed out that Walter Goba had been charged with animal cruelty, but that “[n]one of those charges were related to the death of any animal.”  The portion of the report that stated that Goba had not been charged with killing a single puppy was, therefore, accurate.

CJSB also argued that it had not broadcast any “personal” attacks against the SVAPL because the League is not a person and no persons affiliated with the League were named.  The letter elaborated on this position in the following terms:

The story represented balance within the entire Goba investigation.  Many stories have been done about Goba – to fairly represent the situation the complete story needs to be told.  We have never claimed Goba did no wrong – we, like other sane, reasonable people, are awaiting the outcome of the court process to determine guilt.  He would appear innocent until proven guilty.

[…]

The Swan Valley Animal Protection League easily meets the test of “public interest” in this matter.  As such, our reporting on their actions is valid.

[…]

At no time has CJ Radio personally attacked anyone in the Goba affair.  We have researched our stories and made sure we were fully comfortable with the fact we reported.  We have required more of our sources in these matters than normal given the high profile status of this case.

We have provided balance whenever possible and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead as the Goba case heads to court.  We will also be reporting any additional charges faced by others in relation to this matter such as the alleged break and enter, alleged animal cruelty, etc.

I wish to point out a very simple, but extremely important, fact to the complainants in this matter:

News you do not like and news that isn’t true are two different things.

It is reprehensible that the reporting of actions taken by the Swan Valley Animal Protection League has caused you such embarrassment and alleged hardship.  The insistence of complainant [R.], the president of your group, that the story contains untruths only hurts her standing in the public’s eye.  It’s time for her to be truthful with everyone involved in this affair.

If you wish to not be embarrassed by future actions of your group, I strongly suggest you consider your words, messages and actions before making them public.

The letter then went on to suggest that members of the SVAPL had launched a “campaign of intimidation” against the station and its staff.  It provided specific examples of incidents and comments made by people who are or were apparently involved with the League.  These comments included a posting on the SVAPL Facebook page made by one complainant that directly insulted Bill Gade.  The station also explained that the one complainant’s place of employment had been copied on this letter because she had been using that organization’s letterhead paper to send some of her correspondence related to the animal seizure and her complaint against CJSB.

The complainant in this file sent a rebuttal to the broadcaster’s response on May 5.  The most pertinent parts of that letter were as follows:

I read through your response letter – most of which had no direct applicability or response to my actual complaint at all!  It does strongly appear at the end, however, that I am disrespectfully being called a person with questionable character and part of a fanatical fringe, along with many people.  My complaint was MY complaint – not as a part of any group.  I do know some of the complainants and I do know of their character and their passionate sincerity in helping animals.  While I am a donating member of the SVAPL, I was not told to write my complaint.  I wrote it because I was appalled and it was my opinion.

 

If you knew me, Mr. Gade, or anything about my reputation as a person, you would know how wrong you are.  I am simply a very concerned citizen who loves animals and respects truth and accuracy in reporting.  Your letter went out to many people, but, fortunately, my reputation will stay intact.  My reply is being sent to all those your response was e-mailed to, which only seems fair.

 

As a result of your letter, I am not responding to you any further.  I do not see a point.  My complaint and personal opinion stands as is.  I refuse to listen to CJ104 for this reason and many others.

She then submitted her Ruling Request to the CBSC on May 11.  In her Ruling Request letter, she reiterated her view that the broadcast report had been inaccurate and unfair, but she also objected to what she characterized as “personal accusations and name-calling” made in the broadcaster’s response about the various complainants and the fact that the broadcaster had sent the letter to all complainants with the names and e-mail addresses visible, an act which she deemed to be unprofessional.

CJSB-FM sent an additional letter to the CBSC on September 8 which addressed some of the concerns that had been raised in the complainant’s rebuttal.  It indicated that it stood by its original story and its original position on the story’s accuracy and fairness.  It mentioned that additional research that it had done in the meantime had further corroborated the original story.  The station provided the following explanation for its decision to include all complainants on a single response:

Indeed, CJ Radio did respond to several complainants in one letter.  And, we responded to some “would be” complaints that did not fully complete the process.

We could have addressed an identical letter to each person separately, but we found value in a mass response.  We carefully weighted the need for privacy.  However, we found that given the entire complaint campaign had been orchestrated by a public Facebook group page, that already had published the full identities of each complainant on the internet, privacy was no longer expected.

Indeed, even the manner of each complainant was posted – with many of those involved bragging that they hoped to get the radio station in trouble.  Many of the complaints were initiated by people who never heard the broadcast, and whose only knowledge of it came from reading the Facebook page.  The page went so far as to describe, incorrectly, the dates and times to feed to the CBSC in an attempt to substantiate complaints.

There was no expectation of privacy in this matter.

Further, I would suggest the panel should go further in its ruling regarding the privacy.  As the process involving the CRTC would place the complaint and outcome on the broadcaster’s public file, a complainant in the CBSC process should also expect their complaint to be public.

It seems only reasonable to clarify that a complaint about a broadcaster is in the public domain, including any information submitted as part of that complaint.

Should any of the facts of the story remain unclear to the panel, we would gladly address questions on the matter.

 

The Decision

The Prairie Regional Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, as well as the relevant portions of the CBSC Manual for broadcaster members relating to their obligations to respond to complainants.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 5 – News

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

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

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 4 – Privacy

Broadcast journalists will respect the dignity, privacy and well-being of everyone with whom they deal, and will make every effort to ensure that news gathering and reporting does not unreasonably infringe privacy except when necessary in the public interest.  […]

CBSC Manual, Responsibilities of Membership

Broadcaster members which join the CBSC do so voluntarily and, by so doing, agree to:

[…]

g)         co-operate fully with complainants by responding quickly and effectively to their concerns and informing them of their right to bring the matter directly to the CBSC if they are dissatisfied with that reply.

CBSC Manual, Complaint Resolution

The complaint resolution process has been established to ensure that members of the ordinary listening and viewing audience who have heard something on the radio or seen something on television which concerns them have a place to register those concerns with the expectation that they will be dealt with meaningfully and effectively.  The Council will attempt to render the process as user-friendly as possible.

[…]

A complaint must be in writing, whether transmitted by mail, fax or e-mail and must include the name and address of the complainant.  In general, an e-mail address will suffice; however, to the extent that the Secretariat finds it necessary for communication purposes or determination of other matters relative to the filing of the complaint or processing of the file, the complainant must file his or her civic address upon request.  […]

Where, however, for substantial personal reasons, of whose sufficiency the Secretariat shall be the judge, a complainant requests anonymity as a part of the complaints process, the Secretariat may either:

[…]

The Process

[…]

A copy of the complaint will then be forwarded to the broadcaster with the request that the member respond to the writer of the complaint within 21 days.  The Secretariat expects that the complaint will be given that priority by the broadcaster; however, should there be extenuating circumstances, such as a deluge of complaints, application should be made to the Secretariat by the broadcaster for an extension of that deadline.

The Secretariat advises the complainant at the same time that the broadcaster’s reply will be forthcoming and furnishes the complainant with a form called a Ruling Request, which the complainant need only sign and return to the CBSC, if in hard copy form, or return in acceptable electronic form in order to trigger the next step in the adjudication process in the event that the broadcaster’s response has not satisfied the complainant’s concerns.

The Prairie Panel Adjudicators reviewed all of the correspondence and listened to the report in question.  The Panel concludes that the broadcast breached Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  It also finds that the station did not act appropriately in responding to the complainants, but did not actually violate any specific membership requirement of responsiveness.

 

The Prairie Regional Panel notes that the report in question was obviously an update to an ongoing story in the community and there was some expectation that listeners would have had some prior knowledge of the situation in order to understand the report.  The Panel wishes to begin by pointing out that CJSB-FM clearly had a right to cover this story and provide this update, as the story had local relevance and was clearly in the public interest.  Listeners who had heard previous reports about the animal seizure would have understandably wanted to know what had happened to the dogs and how the case was proceeding against Mr. Goba.

The Prairie Panel also wants to point out that the CBSC has neither the resources nor the mandate to determine the accuracy of some of the statements made during the report, such as whether or not female dogs were in fact pregnant when they were spayed, the number of puppies that were involved in those apparently terminated pregnancies, and whether or not additional dogs died from freezing after being left outside.  The CBSC is not an evidence-gathering body and has no means to assess the veracity of these claims.  Without any specific contradictory facts supplied by the complainants, the CBSC accepts the broadcaster’s contention that it had researched its story and obtained the information from reliable sources.  The Panel thus finds no Code violations with respect to the accuracy of the report.

The Panel also accepts the broadcaster’s explanation for not including a statement from the SVAPL, namely that the SVAPL had publicly announced on its Facebook page that it would not be responding to any further media requests on this matter.

The Code-violating aspect of the report lies in how the story was presented and in some of the words that were chosen to describe the actions of the SVAPL.  As noted above, the Panel does not dispute the broadcaster’s claims that the SVAPL had pregnant female dogs spayed, which would naturally have resulted in the deaths of the puppy fetuses, and that some puppies had died from freezing.  In the second to last paragraph of the report, Gade said that the League’s “mission is to promote animal rights as an extension of human rights, something that doesn’t seem to go along with the forced termination of pregnancies or the freezing death of puppies.”  The latter portion of this statement presented the editorial view that the SVAPL had not lived up to its own mandate due to its actions regarding the seized dogs.  The report further cast aspersions on the SVAPL in the last line “He [Goba] faces forty-four charges of animal cruelty, but is not accused, however, of killing even a single puppy.”  While the statement was accurate, the clear implication was that Goba did not kill any puppies, but the SVAPL did and that this action was worse than any of the charges against Goba.  Although CJSB-FM was not obligated to provide a lengthy explanation for the SVAPL’s decision to terminate the pregnancies, the report offered no acknowledgement that the decision may have been made for valid reasons regarding the health of the dogs.  Instead, the report characterized the actions as “killing” and the information as “startling revelations”, language which suggested a certain level of malice in the actions of the SVAPL.  All in all, the report, particularly the last two paragraphs, presented an unjustified negative impression of the SVAPL.  The Panel concludes that the report contained biased, unfair and editorial statements which were formulated on the basis of the opinions of the report-writer about the SVAPL, contrary to Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

 

Broadcaster Responsiveness

The content of the broadcaster’s letter to complainants was extremely detailed and thorough.  It provided a full explanation of the station’s decision to air the follow-up report about the animal seizure and to include the specific pieces of information that it did.  That the Prairie Regional Panel came to a different conclusion with respect to the appropriateness of some of the wording in the report does not change the fact that the station’s response was an acceptable one in terms of substance.

The Panel does, however, wish to make some observations about the manner in which the radio station responded to the complainants.  It was highly unusual for the station to send a reply to all complainants with the full names and e-mail addresses of complainants visible at the top of the letter.  When a particular broadcast generates numerous complaints for a station, the CBSC understands that a broadcaster will sometimes send the same letter (i.e. a letter containing essentially identical text) to each complainant in the interests of administrative efficiency.  Although the CBSC has pointed out that tailoring each letter to each complainant’s specific concerns is often more useful, a broadcaster will nevertheless meet its obligations of responsiveness by sending a “form letter” to all complainants.

This is the first time, however, that the CBSC has seen a broadcaster send not only the same letter to each complainant, but make the complainants’ names and contact information visible to the other complainants (who are not part of a petition or group complaint).  The one complainant who filed the Ruling Request in this case raised this issue in her Ruling Request letter, calling the act “unprofessional”.  CJSB defended its decision to include the names and e-mail addresses of the majority of complainants at the top of the response because:  1) the complaints were the result of a Facebook campaign; 2) if the complaints had been treated by the CRTC, they would have been placed on the broadcaster’s public file and thus the names and contact information would have been publicly available; and 3) generally speaking, a complaint about a broadcaster should be considered to be in the public domain.

The Panel does not share the broadcaster’s view of the situation.  The CBSC notes that the SVAPL does have a Facebook page and some of the complainants have contributed to this page using their full names; however, not all of the complainants who received CJSB’s letter appear to have participated in that online forum.  CJSB’s argument that it included the complainants’ names because those individuals had already gone public with their complaints on the Facebook page is not accurate in all cases.

Second, although the broadcaster is correct that any broadcast complaints examined by the CRTC are made public, the CBSC’s process does not work in a parallel manner.  CBSC complainants’ names are never made public (unless the complainant is an organization with a public role in the subject area of the complaint or is evidently seeking publicity regarding its complaint).  The CBSC only provides the complainants’ names and contact information to station management for the purposes of facilitating the dialogue between broadcasters and audience members, and allowing the station to send its thoughtful response to the complainants.  The CBSC expects that complainants’ personal coordinates will not be circulated beyond the appropriate individuals tasked with drafting those responses.  Audience members who avail themselves of the CBSC’s complaints-resolution process should have some level of comfort that their complaints will be dealt with seriously and tactfully.

All that being said, the Prairie Panel acknowledges that the CBSC Manual for broadcaster members sets out that complainant identifying information shall not be disclosed beyond station management only when a complainant specifically requests anonymity and the CBSC has agreed to respect that request.  Without any precise prohibition against circulating complainants’ identifying information to other complainants, the Panel cannot find an actual breach of the requirements for responsiveness in this case.  It does, however, wish to put all broadcasters on notice via this decision that it strongly discourages such a practice.  The Panel considers that revealing complainants’ names and e-mail addresses to other complainants in mass correspondence negatively impacts the customarily-productive dialogue process of the CBSC’s system, violates the spirit of the responsiveness requirements set out in the Manual, and potentially raises broader privacy issues.  The Panel’s concerns about that principle in this case were exacerbated by the content of the actual letter because it cast aspersions on some of the complainants.

In sum, CJSB should not have made the complainants’ names and e-mail addresses visible to others.  The CBSC expects that this practice will not be repeated by either CJSB or other CBSC members.

 

Announcement Of The Decision

CJSB-FM is required to:  1) announce the decision, in the following terms, once during peak listening hours within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which the news report was broadcast, but not on the same day as the first mandated announcement; 2) within the fourteen days following the broadcasts of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by CJSB-FM.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CJSB-FM breached the Codes of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and the Radio Television News Directors Association in its broadcast of a news report on March 14, 2011.  The report about the events following an animal seizure was unfair, biased and contained editorial elements, contrary to Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of Ethics.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.