TQS re a News Report on Le Grand Journal

QUéBEC REGIONAL PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-0512)
G. Bachand (Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), R. Parent, T. Rajan (ad hoc), and P. Tancred

THE FACTS

During its midday broadcast on December 6, 2001, TQS's news-style program Le Grand Journal covered the story of a woman in Ste-Sophie who had been sheltering nearly 150 (originally estimated in the news report as 200) cats and dogs on her property.  The report explained that the municipality had received permission from the courts to evict the woman from the property because it did not have electricity or running water.  The report showed footage which included the animals as SPCA workers gathered them up for relocation and which focussed on a couple of occasions on apparently sick and injured cats and dogs.  Because the SPCA activity was occurring at the time of the broadcast, Le Grand Journal provided numerous updates throughout the hour and a half long newscast.  The event also inspired the viewer survey question of the day, “[translation] In your opinion, are pets well treated in Québec?”

Le Grand Journal was hosted by Gilles Proulx, who introduced the Ste-Sophie story, referring to the animals as “des chiens-chiens”, “des pits-pits” and “des kikis” (“doggies”, “mutts”, and “bow-wows”).  During a video clip showing wounded animals, he pretended to talk like a dog, saying “Kiki, calme-toi, woof, calme-toi, kiki” (“Doggie, down boy, woof, down boy.”).

The viewer could see trucks and SPCA workers performing their duties behind reporter Jean Lajoie as he described the scene and provided some background information.  Proulx stated that he would like to know who the government “Minister of Dogs” was and said “[translation] If he exists, he is not barking loudly, woof, woof, woof.”  He asked this question repeatedly throughout the broadcast and eventually revealed that the government department responsible for such cases was the Ministry of the Environment.

Proulx also interviewed the Montréal SPCA's Director of Operations.  The Director stated that this was one of the largest and most complicated operations his SPCA had been called upon to undertake.  He explained that the animals that he had examined earlier that day had been in bad shape, suffering from viral and bacterial infections, as well as lice and fleas.  He said that the SPCA would treat all of the animals and put them up for adoption once they were healthy.

Proulx re-joined Lajoie in Ste-Sophie for a subsequent segment, which he introduced with the sentence “[translation] So, Jean, that rare animal Madame [L.], is she in a good mood or a bad mood?”  The camera then focussed on a woman sitting in a truck while the reporter responded that she had been in her vehicle since SPCA workers had arrived.  He advised that she was granting interviews.  Lajoie went on to describe in more detail the conditions at the property, which he said were conducive to the spread of infection amongst the animals.  As the footage of the wounded dog, the animals generally and the food that they had been provided were repeated, Lajoie explained that their diet consisted of old fruits and vegetables and that their water looked more like mud or urine.  He also said that the odour there was nauseating.  Lajoie went on to describe the history of the situation and how it had been difficult for authorities to obtain permission to take the animals because there was no law in Québec that specifically dealt with living conditions for domestic animals.

Later in the broadcast, Lajoie was able to interview the woman who was being evicted.  Lajoie stated that there had reportedly been 200 animals, but now there were only 120 and he questioned where the other alleged 80 animals had gone.  The woman responded that that did not concern him.   He then asked her if the missing animals had died, to which she very sarcastically said yes and that she had “[translation] put them in the garbage.”  Lajoie responded that that was not funny, to which the woman replied that she did not find him funny.  When Lajoie asserted that she had treated the animals inhumanely, her response was that she did not consider the treatment inhumane.  Immediately following this interview, Proulx suggested to Lajoie that the woman “[translation] be given a contract for the Mecs comiques [a Québec comedy troupe].”

The broadcast also included separate interviews with an SPCA agent at the Ste-Sophie site and a veterinarian.  Both described the conditions of the animals and what they hoped to do with them; the SPCA's Executive Director alone discussed the standards and laws related to the care of domestic animals in Québec.

The CBSC received a complaint dated January 2, 2002 from the woman who was the subject of the report (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix to this decision, available in French only).  She wrote that she had been the “victim” of a negative report because the information and images contained in the report had been inaccurate.  She also stated that M. Lajoie “came across as a fool” in presenting this report, which was in “poor taste”.

In her letter of March 1, TQS's Vice-President of Communications responded to the complainant's accusations of poor journalism with the information that the municipality of Ste-Sophie had obtained a ruling from the Québec Superior Court enabling the SPCA to come to collect the animals.  This had occurred, she explained, because the shelter did not have running water or electricity and the woman did not have a permit to operate a shelter. She also noted that a representative of the SPCA had described the state and health of the animals.  She added that the complainant was entitled to have her own opinions about M. Lajoie, but that he had reported the facts of the situation in an accurate and professional manner.  She also reminded the complainant that she had been interviewed and given the opportunity to explain the situation.

The complainant was unsatisfied with TQS's response and requested that the matter be adjudicated by the CBSC.  She sent the CBSC a lengthy letter on April 24 detailing her side of the story.  She explained that the property in question was in fact a farm and that the municipality had denied her a permit to operate a shelter, after which she had signed a confession of judgment pursuant to which she tried, unsuccessfully, to find a new location for her animals.  She complained that the report on Le Grand Journal had been sensationalized and had tarnished her reputation.  She emphasized that the SPCA had not been called in due to allegations of cruelty towards animals, but rather because she had not relocated the animals within the time prescribed by the court-approved agreement. She went on to state that the animals had not been ill and that the majority had been spayed or neutered.  She also expressed the opinion that some of the representatives interviewed for the report were not reliable sources.  She summarized her position by stating that such inaccurate reports were unfair for both the “victims” and the general viewing public.

THE DECISION

The Québec Regional Panel did not, of course, conduct any research to ascertain the veracity of the facts and get all the underlying story; that is not its mandate.  Its role is limited to the broadcast of the story in accordance with the news provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics and the accuracy and authenticity provisions of the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.  Those provisions read as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 (News): 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 analysing 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.

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 3 (Authenticity):

Broadcast journalists will present the news and public affairs without distortion.  Interviews may be edited provided that the meaning is not changed or misrepresented.  Broadcast journalists will not present news that is rehearsed or re-enacted without informing the audience.  Newsrooms should take steps to ensure the authenticity of amateur video and audio tape before broadcasting it.  Editorials and commentary will be identified as such.

Québec Panel Adjudicators viewed a tape of the broadcast in question and reviewed all of the correspondence.  The Panel concludes that there is no breach of any Code provision with respect to the accuracy of the report.  It does, however, find that Gilles Proulx's editorial remarks during the course of the broadcast are an example of “on the edge” commentary but that these remarks are not so egregious as to amount to a breach of the Codes.

The Nature of the Program

The Grand Journal is not a news program in the traditional sense.  It is a hybrid show, perhaps describable as being of an ambiguous format, mixing news and feature stories, and driven by a host, Gilles Proulx, who is not shy about inserting his opinion, perspective or “take” on a story.  The reporters in the field, on the other hand, operate in a more traditional journalistic style.  They do not mix news and editorial content.

The essential concern of the complainant did not relate to the fact that the story was told at all but rather with the way it was told.  In any event, the Panel does find that there is every reason for the broadcaster to have made the decision to report the story.  As to the news item itself, the Panel finds that the challenged show was, at least with respect to the reporting by Jean Lajoie and the news components, accurate, balanced and fair.  Lajoie reported from Ste-Sophie that the municipality had obtained a Superior Court decision authorizing the SPCA to seize the nearly 150 dogs and cats the complainant had been sheltering and to evict her from the leased premises she had been occupying.  The reporter included a video extract showing the state of the animals in the complainant's home and barn.  Interviews with a representative of the SPCA, with its Director and with a veterinarian who had examined the animals at the SPCA were included.  The complainant herself had the opportunity during an interview with Jean Lajoie to explain her own point of view on the state of her “shelter” and the story of the seizure and eviction.  The Panel finds the news of the seizure of the animals reasonably handled and not in breach of any of the foregoing Code provisions.

The Grand Journal is not, however, all news.  It is hosted by Gilles Proulx, who is well-known in Québec for his sometimes aggressive, sarcastic and acerbic manner in dealing with callers to his radio show.  The television program reflects this approach.  In introducing the story, he referred to the animals as “des chiens-chiens”, “des pip-pits” and “des kikis” (“doggies”, “mutts”, and “bow-wows”) and during a video clip showing the wounded animals, he pretended to talk like a dog, saying “Kiki, calme-toi, woof, calme-toi, kiki” (“Doggie, down boy, woof, down boy.”).  On a couple of occasions during the episode, he asked his on-air colleague Patricia who the Minister of Dogs was and, if she would bark or meow.  Before reporter Lajoie's interview with the complainant, Proulx referred to her as “that rare animal” and he later suggested to Lajoie that the woman “be given a contract for the Mecs comiques [a Québec comedy troupe]” (the comment having been motivated in part by the complainant's own sarcastic comment to and about the reporter). 

In general, it could safely be said that the host's antics made both the subject and the complainant look trite and foolish.  The Panel finds, however, that the host does not have the same responsibility as the reporters.  As a “non-news” figure, some may say that he has an entitlement, within limits (which are not breached here), to hold and express opinions.  The Panel finds that Proulx uses the “power of the microphone” to make his comments” but these are at the edge of acceptable and do not cross the line.  The broadcaster, thus, has not breached any of the foregoing provisions of either the CAB Code of Ethics or the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

The CBSC Panels always evaluate the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the complaint and issues raised therein.  It is always a reasonable barometer of the attention paid by the broadcaster to concerns raised by the public and, for that reason, has been an obligation of broadcaster membership in the CBSC.  In the present matter, the Panel finds that TQS's Vice-President of Communications has responded thoughtfully and in some detail to the complainant.  Nothing further is required of the broadcaster in this instance.

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.