CTV re News Item (CO Alarms)

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 98/99-0475)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair),P. Fockler, M. Hogarth, S. Whiting and M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

On February 28, 1999, during its
late-evening news, CTV broadcast a report on carbon monoxide detectors (CO
alarms). The two-and-half-minute report (a full transcript of which can be found
in the Appendix to this decision) was introduced by Sandie Rinaldo, whose script
used, among other things, the terms “disturbing questions … over consumer
safety”, “potentially lethal hazard of carbon monoxide poisoning”
and “a safety issue that is sounding the alarm for a public inquiry”.
The body of the item indicated that, according to a new study, “most
devices don't even meet national standards.” The reporter stated that the
“testing” had been “observed by the Ontario Fire Marshall's
office” and that 26 detectors had been tested. The news report did not give
any further description of the nature or extent of the testing said to have
taken place at Toronto' s Seneca College. It did, however, offer the following
conclusions: “81% [of CO alarms] failed to meet the new national standard
and 58% didn't meet the old standard which had been in effect for years.”

A viewer complained of this report on
March 3. In his letter (which is available in full in the Appendix to this
decision), the complainant stated that “[t]his brief piece attempted to
destroy an entire industry”. He alleged that the “test” referred
to in the report was actually only a “classroom demonstration” and
that the information in the report relating to the Fire Marshall's involvement
was also erroneous.

The broadcaster responded to the
complaint on April 14. (This letter is also available in the Appendix.) In
support of its claim that the report was factually accurate, the broadcaster
stated that “CTV News spoke directly to those who conducted the tests, one
of whom is a professor at Seneca College, and another, an independent
expert”. Responding to the allegation relating to the Fire Marshall's
involvement in the “testing”, CTV wrote:

Seneca College Professor ArmanKassabian attended the testing that was done at Seneca in January andFebruary. In addition to his position at Seneca, Professor Kassabian alsoworks for the Ontario Fire Marshall. In fact, when the Fire Marshall wantedinformation about the Seneca tests, he relied on Professor Kassabian toprovide it.

On April 23, the complainant indicated
that he was unsatisfied with the broadcaster's response and requested that the
Ontario Regional Council rule on the matter. With his Ruling Request, the
complainant also attached a letter in which he stated:

while Arman Kassabian is employed bythe Fire Marshall's office he is also an occasional teacher at Seneca and hewas there as an observer on his own time and not representing the FireMarshall's Office. In addition, the response from CTV leads one to believethat the Fire Marshall “relied” on Mr. Kassabian for information asto the Seneca “tests” when they merely asked Mr. Kassabian for theresults after being told by a CTV interviewer that tests were conducted atSeneca and there was a high failure rate and that Arman Kassabian was present.The Fire Marshall, in fact had no knowledge of the “testing” untiltold of same by the said CTV interviewer.

THE DECISION

The CBSC's Ontario Regional Council
considered the complaint under the Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and
Articles 1 and 3 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics. It viewed a
tape of the report in question and reviewed all of the correspondence. The
Council is very uncomfortable with some of the statements made in the
introduction and in the news report. While it concludes that CTV did not breach
any provision of either of the Codes, it does consider the challenged report an
unfortunate example of on-the-edge journalism.

The Content of the Report

The Council notes that CTV, in
presenting the news item on CO alarms, went further than merely
“reporting” on a public safety issue. While the Council notes,
parenthetically, that it has no disagreement with CTV's statement, in response
to the complainant, that the network's “fundamental responsibility is to
the public, not to the promotion of an industry,” it is troubled by aspects
of the network's approach. With its choice of words and graphics, it appears
that CTV sought to present a story which would jostle the public out of its
potentially dangerous complacency. It appeared to target such a result by the
use of such phrases as “disturbing questions” and “sounding the
alarm” and by flashing the word “Fail” in bold red letters next
to each of the statistical results of the “testing”.

That the broadcaster used such phrases
and visuals to emphasize the importance of its report is not problematic in
principle
. While Article 3 of the RTNDA Code states that “Broadcast
journalists will not sensationalize the news”, the Council takes no issue
with legitimate emphasis placed by the broadcaster on a news story. This
perspective was exemplified by the recent B.C. Regional Council's decision in CHAN-TV
(BCTV) re News Item (Child Pornography)
(CBSC Decision 98/99-0249, October
14, 1999). In that case, the Council dealt with a complaint concerning the
inclusion of pictures of child pornography in a report on a controversial B.C.
court decision regarding the possession of child pornography. Concluding that
the broadcaster had breached no Code provision by airing the pictures, the
Council explained its position on that editorial judgment in the following
terms:

After all, the goal of thebroadcaster, the Council assumes, was not merely to report a verycontroversial story but to underscore the awful result of the judicialdetermination to authorize the possession of child pornography. Could it haveaccomplished its goal by simply telling the story and interviewing theaccused? Probably. It could not, however, have succeeded in conveying thesense of public disgust with the practice without adding a visualelement.

In that case, the story did not grow
out of the news report; it was created by the very controversial decision of a
B.C. Court, which had the effect of legalizing the possession of child
pornography in the province. The issue clearly warranted the emphasis put by the
newscaster on the report through the inclusion of the disturbing photographs.
Nor was the nature of the issue ever in doubt. The matter was obvious. A
provincial Court had legalized the possession of pornography. Period. In the
case at hand, the issue seems unclear. Its seriousness and materiality depend
on the accuracy of the study and the fairness and disclosure relating to
the reporting of that study. After reviewing the tape and the transcript again
and again, the Council has great difficulty in concluding that the emphasis put
on the CO alarms story was warranted and fair. It is, at best, on-the-edge.

The Council's problems with the CTV
report include the following issues. In the first place, the Council does not
find that the report was anything like irreproachably accurate, which it ought
to have been. The inclusion of the declarative words such as “observed by
the Ontario Fire Marshall's office” is a case in point. That the Seneca
professor who conducted the test also works for the Ontario Fire Marshall's
office is hardly sufficient to support the claim that the Fire Marshall's office
was in any way officially involved, which is precisely the
implication of the language used in the newscast. It was likely included to add
credibility to the story when, on that point, the Council is unsure as to
whether such a conclusion was merited.

Similarly, the Council questions
whether the scientifically dependable sense of the phrase “weeks of
testing” fairly or accurately describes the so-called “new
study”, the results of which were reported by CTV. The Council notes that,
in a similar but not congruent case concerning a report on the potential dangers
of indoor playgrounds at fast food restaurants in the Edmonton area, namely, CFRN-TV
re Eyewitness News
(CBSC Decision 96/97-0149, December 16, 1997), the
Prairie Regional Council did not find the news report sensationalized because of
the extent of the broadcaster's disclosure of the relatively unscientific
nature of the testing, among other things.

[T]he reporter describe[d] the methodof conducting the tests, which appears to be reasonable but is not presentedso as to fool any audience into believing that this is the equivalent of aformal study on a grave infectious disease which would merit inclusion in amedical journal.

No such description or disclosure of
the method of conducting the tests was given to CTV's audience by this report.
The viewers were given no solid information relating to the nature
of the testing on the basis of which they might be able to form a judgment
regarding its unimpeachability. This contrasts with the CFRN situation, in which
the Edmonton audience was informed of the relatively unscientific nature of the
study. That, too, is a legitimate form of disclosure which permits a thinking
audience to draw reasonable conclusions on the basis of the information
proferred, an evaluative opportunity which CTV's viewers were unable to
exercise. Moreover, nothing in CTV's response to the complaint negates the
allegation that the so-called “tests” may have been nothing more than
a classroom demonstration, as alleged by the complainant. They said:

A CTV News team researched this storyfor several weeks and learned the tests were conducted at Seneca College inJanuary and February. Twenty-six carbon monoxide detectors, available toconsumers in the greater Toronto area, were tested against Canadian standards.CTV News spoke directly to those who conducted the tests, one of whom is aprofessor at Seneca College, and another, an independent expert. CTV Newsobtained a copy of the test results, which formed the basis of the report. Webelieve this report is factually accurate.

There was an opportunity in their own letter and without the time constraints imposed by a television report
to explain something more regarding the seriousness and reliability of the tests
at Seneca College which would have left the Council (if not the complainant)
with more of a sense of comfort regarding the on-air report of them. They did
not take that opportunity. Once again, the network's very choice of language
used, “testing”, with any qualification or limitation of the term,
left a sense of greater dependability than appears to have been merited.

In CFTM-TV (TVA) re J.E. (Report on
HMS 90) (CBSC Decision 97/98-0472, August 14, 1998) the Quebec Regional
Council considered, among other things, the relevance of the unidentified
inclusion of a leaflet with an inflammatory title in a report on apparent
exaggerated claims made by sellers of a food supplement. The Council found no
breach of the Codes but noted that “the omission of minimal identification
of the document in question constitutes careless, if not shoddy, journalism at
best, and, by one possible interpretation of motive, misleading journalism at
worst.” It concluded that this was a case of on-the-edge journalism,
similar to that dealt with by the B.C. Regional Council in CHAN-TV re
Newscast (Recycling Society)
(CBSC Decision 96/97-0004, March 10, 1997). In
that case, the Council concluded that “the newscasts in question were not
in breach of the Code provisions cited above but that, in some respects … they
were only on the edge of acceptability.” The Council noted

[I]t was the duty of the station toensure that it had all the information it required to tell its story fairly,comprehensively and accurately … In this respect, the Council considers thatthe station and its reporter did not succeed in all respects in meeting thosestandards although it does not believe that the breach was such as to beconstitute a breach of the Code. The Council is of the view that the reporter'sprincipal failure was with respect to the financial issues raised in thenewscasts. There is, for example, a difference between “grants” and”contracts for services rendered”. The Council does not agree withthe broadcaster's justification of the one term for the other as a “break[ing]out of jargon to properly and directly convey meaning”. The word”grant” is not jargon. It has a well-known meaning and animplication of government largesse. It provides an inherent justification forcautious oversight of the activities of an entity benefiting from suchbeneficence. It appears, on the other hand, that the Society workedfor its money, that it rendered services for which it was paid. That does notimply that it can do what it wants; the investigation was not unwarranted. Thereporter ought, however, to have been “tighter” in his choice oflanguage. Words are, after all, his work.

[The reporter] then made thesarcastic and apparently unwarranted comment that the wages of the”administrative staff” rose by “12%, which apparentlytranslates to 2%”. It appears to the Council that the reporter wasreading a line item in a budget and extrapolating from this a conclusion that eachadministrative wage may have risen by an average of 12% rather than that the overalladministrative wage pot may have increased by that amount, which isessentially the information conveyed both by the Executive Director in herinterview and in the letter she provided.

It is, of course, eminently materialthat she was given the opportunity to be on the record and to present herpoint of view but, in viewing and re-viewing the tape, Council members believethat the waters were muddied by the reporter in the confused and unnecessarilysarcastic way he chose to introduce the item.

All in all, the Council considersthat the reporter, the News Director and the station ought to have exercisedgreater vigilance in the way they chose to tell this story which they werejustified in bringing to the attention of the public. It is not, and cannotbe, that every inadvertence or inappropriate comment will fall afoul ofthe various broadcaster Codes. This is a case where they do not but where theCouncil would have wished that the broadcaster had been further from the edge.

As in the CFTM-TV and the CHAN-TV cases referred to above, the Ontario Regional Council considers that, in this
case, the CTV news report of February 28 on carbon monoxide alarms was an
example of on-the-edge journalism.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance
of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness
of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint. In this case, the Council
considers that CTV's response addressed the issues raised by the complainant
fully and fairly. Nothing more is required. Consequently, the broadcaster has
fully complied with the Council's standard of responsiveness.

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.