CTV's well-known and well-respected public affairs program W5 was, at the time of the
complaint, broadcast weekly on Tuesday evenings. It is a magazine format show, each
episode being composed of multiple news features, investigative reports and current
affairs segments. On April 9, 1996, one of the W5 segments broadcast was entitled “Lawn
Wars”. In brief, the segment, as the title suggests, told the story of the conflict between
two Toronto neighbours who were “warring” over issues related to the states of their
respective properties. Since the way which W5's producers chose to tell the story is a part
of the issue, the Council will not, at this point, delve any further into the characterization
of the issue or the presentation of the segment, beyond providing a transcript of the 8
minute 15 second piece.
Eric Malling (W5 host): Bickering neighbours and their yards. It sounds like the subject
of a National Film Board short subject. But, as Christine Nielsen reports, the neighbours are
real enough and their lawn war is pretty basic.
Christine Nielsen: What better way to unwind from a stressful day teaching kindergarten;
but, as she sits on her front porch admiring beautiful gardens, Hyla Fox is not relaxed.
She's feuding with her neighbour. Let's just say she's not a cat person and her neighbour
is. But it goes much further than that. Hyla complains that the yard next door assaults her
Hyla Fox: It's when I come home and see the dirt and the grossness and I smell it that my
stomach gets into a knot.
Sandy Bell (the neighbour): This piece of land is an ecosystem.
Christine Nielsen: Sandy Bell and Hyla Fox live in opposite halves of a Toronto duplex.
And where their front yards meet, their values collide.
Sandy Bell: It teaches my son that we can coexist with nature. We can be in harmony with
it. We don't have to conquer it anymore.
Christine Nielsen: Hyla says Sandy's yard is unconquered, all right.
Hyla Fox: There's no element of design here. There's no element of thought, of planning.
It's just what comes up, comes up and grows and lasts forever, dies and is still there the
Sandy Bell: My neighbour prefers to have an industrial monoculture.
Christine Nielsen: Industrial monoculture. To environmentalists that means grass and
chemicals. Hyla says she doesn't use pesticides and she admits that she hates having to
cut the lawn. But she thinks, if she can do it, then Sandy should.
Hyla Fox: The environment is not Sandy Bell's concern; it's more or less that she is very
Sandy Bell: Ah! The laziness thing. Right.
Christine Nielsen: Sandy has heard that charge before. But she insists that she works
hard on her wild yard.
Sandy Bell: This is a going concern. This is a cultivated garden that I put time and money
and love into.
Christine Nielsen: And she is not alone on her war on the traditional lawn. Some 400
people showed up in Toronto for a week-end conference on gardening. The message:
lawns are an environmental hazard because of pesticides, excessive watering and all those
lawn mower fumes.
Ken Druse: I think that the lawn as it exists is a dinosaur. It can't persist.
Christine Nielsen: So who is this guy? Some radical eco-zealot who couldn't care less
about landscaping? Hardly. Ken Druse is the gardening editor for the mainstream
magazine House Beautiful. And his message about the lawn strikes a chord with this crowd.
Conference Attendee: I don't think I'll ever look at a lawn the same way.
Second Conference Attendee: Definitely, I'm starting to think that there's something
wrong with it. Definitely.
Third Conference Attendee: I think it's unnatural. I think it's imposed. I think it's eco-system unfriendly.
Christine Nielsen: Mind you, the ladies at the Balmy Beach Lawn Bowling Club won't give
up their grass so easily.
Lawn Bowler: I don't think we could live without grass.
Second Lawn Bowler: I wouldn't enjoy the summer without the lawn.
Third Lawn Bowler: We wouldn't know what to do in the summer without our bowling.
Think of it. It would be terrible.
Christine Nielsen: And they are more than ready to defend their turf should any anti-lawn
activists show up here.
Lawn Bowler: We'll just kick' em off, that's all. “Go home.”
Second Lawn Bowler: Get them drunk and send them home.
Christine Nielsen: But Hyla and Sandy are home and they've been playing real hard ball.
Hyla Fox: May 31st, just after the grand rainfall.
Christine Nielsen: When Toronto City Council was thinking about liberalizing its lawn by-law, Hyla Fox borrowed a video camera and did a running commentary.
Hyla Fox: Here we are at Sandy Bell's. Trash weeds are almost four feet tall.
Christine Nielsen: When it saw these pictures, the Council actually toughened the law.
Sandy was fined $50 and was told, if she didn't cut her lawn, the city would.
Sandy Bell: I just find the whole thing completely violating and quite frightening, really.
Christine Nielsen: Violating, frightening. In Waterloo, Ontario, Elizabeth Vandreunen
[phon.] felt the same way when she heard the city inspector was coming to inspect her lawn.
Elizabeth Vandreunen: I cried. I cried a lot.
Christine Nielsen: But she needn't have. City inspector Brian Desler [phon.] says
Waterloo actually encourages natural gardens. The only rule: keep it short close to the
Brian Desler: The only area concern would be trying to maintain this one-metre buffer strip
back here. Anything growing here is hardly over two feet, so we're not too bad as far as
compliance with the buffer strip.
Christine Nielsen: It's not so easy in Toronto where Sandy Bell ended up in court. She
was fighting the city's order on the grounds that it violates her Charter right to free
expression. Not that Sandy or Hyla have had much trouble expressing themselves, These
days, there's so much tension across the back fence that, when we were talking to Hyla,
Sandy's boarder started shouting from the window.
Christine Nielsen: Why don't you come out and talk to us?
Mary Laughlen: I'd love to.
Christine Nielsen: Mary Laughlen says Hyla just doesn't understand the new landscape.
Mary Laughlen: You know, it's a post-partum period where people have to get used to
chaos and a lot of other things.
Christine Nielsen: But the talk quickly degenerates.
Mary Laughlen: Why do you take my music and play it back to me?
Hyla Fox: It was me playing.
Christine Nielsen: Suddenly it's piano playing, and then the gloves really come off.
Someone mentions cats.
Mary Laughlen: And they're very beautiful cats.
Christine Nielsen: Is this your guy here?
Mary Laughlen: Yeah, this is Beebop.
Christine Nielsen: Hyla says Beebop and his buddies have been trespassing in her yard
and she can prove it.
Hyla Fox: I have photographs of the cats here.
Mary Laughlen: We can't train cats.
Christine Nielsen: Like cats, the natural lawn is not for everyone. You can actually hear
the difference. Hyla's lawn is silent. Sandy's speak for itself.
Sandy Bell: There's lots of insects in here.
Christine Nielsen: So I guess that is part of the idea – right? I mean, you want the bugs
here, I assume.
Sandy Bell: Oh, absolutely, this is at home for them and for the kids, and you know, the
Christine Nielsen: Shh. Don't say the “c” word again.
Sandy Bell's son: I can hear a cricket. Come here.
Christine Nielsen: And to be fair, where else on this street could Sandy's son chase bugs
through tall grass?
Sandy Bell's son: Oh my God, look at them all. They live underneath there. I didn't know
Christine Nielsen: The attractions in this patch of herb and wilderness are best seen at
close range, like the foxglove and the yarrow and the little yellow poppy that matches the
fire hydrant. But what is missing is some kind of neighbourhood harmony.
Sandy Bell: Obviously my neighbour has a different aesthetic, different belief system,
different opinion than I do. I just don't understand why there isn't tolerance.
Hyla Fox: There's a certain element of respect that you have to show your neighbours and
Sandy Bell: Why are two women having a conflict over gardens, for goodness sake?
Christine Nielsen: The answer likely has more to do with the women than with gardening
styles or lawn by-laws. After all, when neighbours get along, they can put up with a lot. But
when they're unhappy with each other, there's no telling where trouble will pop up next.
The Letter of Complaint
The complainant, who was one of the two property owners in question, was very
displeased with W5's presentation of the segment and sent the following letter of complaint
to the CBSC on April 14.
On Tuesday, April 9, 1996, CTV's W5 aired a segment entitled Lawn Wars. I was
interviewed extensively for that piece and participated solely because it was the highly
esteemed W5 doing the story. My trust, it seems was completely misplaced as the story
they broadcast on National Television was slanted, biased, distorted, heavily weighed [sic]
in favour of one side, improperly edited, sensationalized and worse yet, turned into a
comedy, at my expense.
To say that I was embarrassed and humiliated is an understatement.
I'm writing now to request that an independent third party examine the tape to determine if
my impressions are correct and if so, provide the producers with advice on how to present
an accurate story, without distortions, without malice.
Here are the basics. [My neighbour] and I share a wall in a semi attached home in
downtown Toronto. Since she moved in, about 5 years ago, I have been faced with all kinds
of major problems such as: noise, including a year and a half of her learning to play a full
drum set; abuse by her boarders and their pets; dirt and garbage that attracted rodents (the
Health Department ordered her to clean up); garage sale leavings which, although covered
by a giant rug, remained on her front porch for 8 months. The icing on the cake, however,
was her lawn. She refused to take care of her property. Weeds grew and remained there
year after year. Finally, when the City of Toronto fined her and threatened to cut it down,
she suddenly announced that she was doing it for environment [sic] reasons. A save-face
tactic to be sure.
[My neighbour] got the environmentalists behind her and they funded her court
appearances, supplied her with correct information and statistics and helped her find various
weeds to add to her collection.
In frustration, because the City was about to pass a by-law allowing so-called natural
gardens, and believing it incorrectly to be like an English wild flower garden, I took a video.
After seeing it, they changed the by-law, making the new laws even stronger.
I told the producers this story but I also told them the bottom line for me was a market value
issue. Who would want to live next door to this mess? The condition of her property
depreciated the value of mine substantially. That was my issue; my reason for agreeing to
be part of the W5 story. I clearly said it on camera. They left that on the cutting room floor.
Instead they focussed on the cat issue. Yes, I did tell them that her cats dug up most
flowers I planted; that they urinated on them and destroyed most things I put in; that they
sprayed my house and that the smell was revolting. But it was a tiny part of the story I told
them. They blew it up and made it THE story. They portrayed me as an animal hating,
mean-spirited crazy goof. They turned the story into a cheeky, comical cat tale. And, as
the executive producer told me on the phone when he tried to placate me, “Well, [it] was just
a trivial story.” Not to me. All my money is tied up in that house. Not being able to sell it
or losing $20,000 or $30,000 is mightly [sic] important to me. Maybe it's trivial to him.
On [my neighbour's] side were the people they taped at an environmental convention; a
woman in the same position as [my neighbour] but living in a small community; [my
neighbour] herself and her boarder who didn't speak about this issue at all, rather she just
berated me, lying that I taped her playing the piano and then played it back to taunt her????
(I also have a piano and I can play Bach as badly as the boarder, who incidentally moved
out the day after the piece was taped.)
On my side was a brief interview with me (horribly edited, clipped) and some old ladies lawn
bowling. Why they chose them is beyond me since they weren't bowling on their own
properties, weren't experts, weren't involved or knowledgeable about the issue and were
involved in a sport that obviously required a clean, grassy surface. They did not talk to any
of my neighbours, several of whom called the producer …, asking to be interviewed; nor did
they show the petition that was signed by all the neighbours. They did not interview an
expert gardener or horticulturist, nor did they talk to the city inspectors.
I am a freelance journalist. If I submitted such an article my editors would simply send it
back to me and ask to get a more accurate picture of both sides. The fact checkers would
quickly find a story distortion. Who are the fact checkers at CTV's W5, anyway?
For your information, I did write a piece for THE GLOBE AND MAIL on this very issue.
Please note how I carefully examined both issues. Mine and hers. How come television
journalists are exempt from using the same code of ethics the rest of us have to follow?
When I speak to groups about the media, writing, interviewing, journalistic morals, values
and expectations, you better believe this story will be told and retold. I'll do everything in
my power to let the public know how W5 and CTV works; to show the public that in Canada,
there are very few broadcast standards. People who do taped interviews should have a
written contract and be given other protections so that con artists like [the producer] aren't
given free reign to cause pain and humiliation.
The Broadcaster's Response
The Vice President of CTV News replied to the complainant on May 21.
I am sorry you did not like the segment. I have reviewed the tape of the story and cannot
agree with your claim that the segment was “slanted, biased, distorted, improperly edited,”
and so on.
You seem to be upset by the fact that [your neighbour] was given air time to explain her
views. But you were also interviewed. While not everything you said was used — a normal
practice in television — your statements make your opinion clear. You accuse Sandy Bell
of laziness and that suggests that she doesn't really believe in the environmental aspect of
It is a quite simple story about differences in horticultural philosophy between two
neighbours. Not every issue was covered. For example, the reporter and producer chose
not to deal with the market value issue. That was a subjective choice but that does not
mean that the story was not valid and that it deserves the kind of condemnation you have
given it in your letter.
The complainant was unsatisfied with this response and requested, on May 25, that the
CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Regional Council for adjudication.
The CBSC's Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under Clause 6 of the
CAB Code of Ethics as well as Article 1, 3 and 4 of the Radio Television News Directors
Association (RTNDA) Code of Ethics. The texts of these clauses read as follows:
Clause 6, CAB Code of Ethics (News and comment):
It shall be the responsibility of member stations to ensure that news shall be represented
with accuracy and without bias. The member station shall satisfy itself that the
arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result. It shall also ensure that news
broadcasts are not editorial. News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or
hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be designed by the beliefs
or opinions or desires of the station 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.
Therefore, nothing in the foregoing shall be understood as preventing news broadcasters
from analyzing and elucidating news so long as such analysis or comment is clearly labelled
as such and kept distinct from regular news presentations. Member stations will, insofar as
practical, endeavour to provide editorial opinion which shall be clearly labelled as such and
kept entirely distinct from regular broadcasts of news or analysis and opinion.
It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and
editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.
Article 1, RTNDA Code of Ethics
The main purpose of broadcast journalism is to inform the public in an accurate,
comprehensive and balanced manner about events of importance.
Article 3, RTNDA Code of Ethics
Broadcast journalists will not sensationalize news items and will resist pressures, whether
from inside or outside the broadcasting industry, to do so. They will in no way distort the
news. Broadcast journalists will not edit taped interviews to distort the meaning, intent, or
actual words of the interviewee.
Article 4, RTNDA Code of Ethics
Broadcast journalists will always display respect for the dignity, privacy and well-being of
everyone with whom they deal, and make every effort to ensure that the privacy of public
persons is infringed only to the extent necessary to satisfy the public interest and accurately
report the news.
The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the broadcast in question and reviewed
the correspondence. The Council members consider that, for the reasons discussed at
greater length below, W5's treatment of the issue was not “full, fair or proper”, and that,
while not in breach of the terms of either Article 3 or 4 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic)
Ethics, the network had contravened Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of
the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.
Which Story to Tell?
In a general sense, the Ontario Regional Council agrees with the position which the CTV
Vice President takes on the matter of the focus of feature stories told in the context of a
program like W5. When he points out that “not every issue was covered”, the head of the
CTV News Department is also saying that a broadcaster is under no obligation to cover
every angle of every story. With this generalized position, the Council has no
disagreement. The Council is fully aware of the pressures of deadlines, and the resource
and time restrictions which are a fact of life in broadcast journalism.
It would extend this generalization further to say that, most of the time, viewers should not
expect that every issue, every facet, every nuance of every story can be covered. The
Council also agrees with CTV's position that the “subjective choice” made by the show's
producers to leave out an item of concern to the complainant does not, in and of itself, lead
to the inescapable conclusion “that the story was not valid.” While, as noted above, the
CBSC considers that this segment was in breach of the two Codes of Ethics, it is because
of the way this story was handled, and not because the CBSC takes issue with the two
general principles dealt with in this paragraph.
A CBSC Precedent
The CBSC has previously explained its position on the entitlement of broadcasters to
choose the story which they wish to tell. In CFTO-TV re News Report (Pollution Study)(CBSC Decision 92/93-0178, October 26, 1993), the broadcaster aired an news story in
which it had referred to a U.S. air pollution study but basically focussed on the related local
issues which it considered relevant to its viewers. The newscast cited certain results of the
study, but also referred to efforts of the Canadian federal and provincial governments to
issue smog warnings and encourage Canadians to help reduce levels of air pollution, and
included interviews with representatives of the Ontario Government and the consumer
advocacy group, Pollution Probe. The emphasis of both interviews was on the relationship
between the motor vehicle and pollution.
On the day of the broadcast, a viewer wrote a lengthy letter, in which he stated, among
other things, that the report was “particularly shameful and irresponsible [because the
station had] turned it into a sensationalized philippic against the pettiest and least
meaningful target available, while totally ignoring the significant sources of the problem
….” The Council considered that the special knowledge of the complainant and his
familiarity with the study had led him to prefer that the broadcaster deal with the American
pollution study in depth rather than with the local Canadian concerns to which the
broadcaster had seguëd. While the Council took no issue with the complainant's
substantive position on the American study, it disagreed with his expectation that he was
entitled to force the broadcaster to tell the story which he believed should have been told.
The Ontario Regional Council stated:
It should first be noted that the complainant's letter revealed in-depth technical expertise in
the area. Indeed, this seemed to be at the root of the complaint. CFTO-TV's report had
deviated from the thrust of the American study, but the Regional Council did not consider
that the station had foisted an inaccurate report upon the public. The reporter had brieflyreferred to the American report as the lead to his story. In stating (emphasis added), “The
fine particles come mostly from the burning of fossil fuels which, among other things, power
our cars,” he seems, even according to the complainant's explanation, to have not
inaccurately reflected the summary of the American study.
It is here that the complainant and the station parted company, for CFTO-TV used the
American report only as a “top” to its story, which dealt with a local perspective, oriented
more particularly toward the automobile. It did not represent that this was the essence of the
study, or even a part of it. The complainant was obviously dissatisfied that the report did not
adequately explain the American study; this was not the story which CFTO-TV chose to tell.
In that, it was not inaccurate or biased. At worst, it simplified the more complex issues
raised by the study. This does not, however, constitute a breach of the CAB Code of Ethics.
The Application of the Precedent to This Case
While the Council strongly agrees with CTV's Vice President that, in general, a citizen
cannot force a particular story to be told or insist that a particular perspective on a story
be taken, it does not agree with his application of the general principle to this case. The
relevant excerpt from his letter follows.
It is a quite simple story about differences in horticultural philosophy between two
neighbours. Not every issue was covered. For example, the reporter and producer chose
not to deal with the market value issue. That was a subjective choice but that does not
mean that the story was not valid …
The CBSC's disagreement with the broadcaster flows from the fact that the Council
members do not consider that the segment was, as represented by CTV's Vice President,
“a quite simple story”. It is the broadcaster which so characterized “Lawn Wars” because
it chose to tell the story that way when, in reality, the story had a far more serious side to
it. It is the broadcaster which chose to tell the story flippantly, although invited not to do
so. While there is a side to the story which is undeniably amusing, there is surely a
serious dollars and cents issue, one which the complainant described in the following way
in her letter: “I told the producers this story but I also told them the bottom line for me was
a market value issue.” Distilling complex issues into understandable elements for their
audiences is a daily fact of life for broadcast journalists; however, simplifying a story and
trivializing a story are two very different acts.
While the refusal of W5 to deal with the “market value issue” was, as the broadcaster
admits, “a subjective choice”, the Council does not believe that is was a fair and proper
choice. The segment could certainly have focussed, as it did, on the light side of the
issue, while being prepared with some attention to the financial and social component of
the neighbourhood problem. The total elimination of that element resulted in the
conversion of a matter with a serious aspect into a buffoonish tale. It was W5's choice to
do the story or not, but, in telling it the way it did, it used its enormous national credibility
as a leading public affairs program to unfairly denigrate the complainant's very real and
substantive concerns. It stepped outside of its own serious journalistic tradition to
marginalize the concerns of the complainant, to trivialize what for her was a serious
predicament and, in the view of the Council, to make her look foolish.
In this sense, the Ontario Regional Council believes that, contrary to the requirement of
Clause 6, paragraph 3, of the CAB Code of Ethics, CTV's treatment of “Lawn Wars” was
not the “full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion [and] comment.” It also
considers that the treatment of the segment was not “accurate, comprehensive and
balanced”, as required by Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.
When the Council refers to balance, it is not referring to the reportage of evolving stories
or events of a fixed duration such as an election campaign, where issues of balance and
comprehensiveness can be judged over time, with the expectation that, over the course
of the extended coverage, most if not all points of view connected with the issue will be
addressed. In this particular instance, it was clear there would be no additional report.
Consequently, the Council believes that the responsibility of the broadcaster to ensure
balance and comprehensiveness, as expressed in Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of
(Journalistic) Ethics, would, if anything, be slightly greater on the basis that this was a
The CBSC agrees with the view expressed by CTV's Vice President, News, that “While not
everything you said was used, [this is] a normal practice in television.” It is, in the
Council's view, important that members of the public appreciate that this is the case. All
news and public affairs stories, whether in the print or electronic media, begin large and
are pruned small. The result is that, in all likelihood, only a part of what any interviewee
says to a reporter in any medium will be used. The question ultimately relates to the
choice which is made.
The Council does not consider that there was any editing of a taped interview so as “to
distort the meaning, intent, or actual words of the interviewee” in breach of Article 3 of the
RTNDA Code of (Journalistic Ethics. The editing choice made by the broadcaster was to
eliminate an entire issue from treatment. While the brief interview with the complainant
was, in her view “horribly edited, [and] clipped”, there was no distortion of her point of view
on the issues retained in the segment. She (and the Council) would have liked to see
another issue treated but the decision not to do so has nothing to do with the prohibition
in Article 3.
The CBSC always recognizes the broadcaster's obligation, as a CBSC member, to be
responsive to complainants. In this case, the Regional Council considers that the
response from the broadcaster dealt directly with a number of the issues raised by the
complainant. It was not lengthy but it was sufficiently responsive. Consequently, the
station did not breach the Council's standard of responsiveness.
The station is required to announce this decision forthwith, in the following terms, during
prime time and, within the next thirty days, to provide confirmation of the airing of the
statement to the CBSC and to the complainant who filed a Ruling Request.
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CTV breached
provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Code of Ethics and
the Radio Television News Directors Association's Code of (Journalistic)
Ethics in its broadcast of “Lawn Wars”, a segment of W5, on April 9, 1996.
The CBSC found that, by dealing with a dispute between neighbours
flippantly and failing to consider, even briefly, the significant social and
financial implications of the story, W5 had not provided the “full, fair and
proper presentation” of the subject as required by the CAB Code of Ethicsor the “accurate, comprehensive and balanced” presentation pf the subject
required by Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.
This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards