Failure to Report Publicly Available Information, and Provision of Irrelevant Information Breaches CAB and RTNDA Codes of Ethics, Says CBSC

Ottawa, August 12, 2008 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning a news report broadcast on CTV Toronto (CFTO-TV) about a dispute over a driveway renovation in Toronto.  The CBSC concluded that the report violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics because it: did not provide a comprehensive presentation of the issue; and included unnecessary personal information about one individual.

The newscast reported that a woman in Toronto who had originally received permission from the City to extend her driveway, was told five years later that the City had made a mistake, her permit was rescinded, and she would have to restore the driveway at her expense.  The report implied that the City had changed its decision because some of the neighbours opposed the renovation.  It named one of them, showed his house, informed viewers that he was not home during the day, and reported that he had made a donation to the local City Councillor’s election campaign.  The CBSC received a complaint from that neighbour, who said that the newscast had not provided the full story, since the permit revocation resulted from the woman’s provision of false information to obtain the permit.  He was also concerned about the violation of his privacy.

The Ontario Regional Panel concluded that the report was not comprehensive or fair because the broadcaster had not tried to investigate the reasons for which the City had revoked permission, despite the fact that it had easy access to that publicly available information as well as to statements from the neighbours.

 

[T]he news segment stated only that Alexander “was told that the city had made a mistake,” without advising the audience, or possibly even investigating, what that mistake was.  It appears to have relied on anonymous, or at least unattributed, assertions that the “widened driveway took away a parking spot on the street” and that the “new driveway had a negative impact on the safe and reasonable use of a neighbouring driveway.”  Nothing more substantial or specific than that.  Surely, on the very face of things, information about the nature of the city’s “mistake” would have had to be available from any or all of the neighbours’ complaints, the minutes of the Council meeting, or other public documentation considered at that meeting.  […] [N]othing was done with the information to provide the viewers with a full and accurate story, on the basis of which the audience would have been able to form its own opinion as to the rights and wrongs of Ms. Alexander’s, the city’s and the neighbours’ positions.

The Panel was also concerned about the report of the small donation made by the neighbour to the City Councillor.

 

The clear implication to any reasonable viewer was that there was, at the very least, a link, likely a questionable link, if not outright collusion, between the complainant’s donation and the Councillor’s position on the issue that was central to the story.  The Panel is concerned […] about the irrelevancy of reporting a small, on the record donation, one made after the meeting of the Council at which the vote to revoke the parking space permit was taken.

The Panel also concluded that the report violated the complainant’s privacy by providing his name, civic address, afternoon whereabouts and the sum of money donated to the City Councillor’s campaign.  All of that information was irrelevant to the story.  The Panel also stated that the broadcaster failed to correct their original report, despite the provision of information enabling it to do so.  The complainant contacted the broadcaster to request a follow-up story, but the broadcaster refused because the complainant would not agree to appear on camera.  The Panel observed:

 

While the Panel understands the desire of CFTO-TV to have individuals on tape, since that would make for better television, it considers that the station’s greater obligation is to the audience to present the story correctly.  It had the opportunity to dig up and present corrected information on a timely basis, soon after the original broadcast, but it chose not to do so. […] It is clear that the story in the matter at hand could have been told without a single specific reference to the complainant since there was not the slightest substantive addition to the newscast by the revelations of the name, address, afternoon whereabouts or political donation.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 685 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab