W5 is an investigative journalism program broadcast on CTV stations across Canada, including CIVT-DT (CTV British Columbia), which is the station on which the complainant saw it. It presents in-depth reports about various issues of public interest. The March 11, 2023 episode, which aired at 7:00 pm, included a segment about pet custody entitled “Dog Fight”.
The segment examined what happens to pets when couples break up. It explained that legally pets are considered property, but due to people’s emotional attachments to their domestic animals, this approach results in contention. In addition to interviews with a lawyer, a dog behaviour specialist, a representative from a pet adoption agency and others, the segment spent considerable time covering one particular woman’s story to serve as an example of a pet custody dispute.
The woman and her boyfriend at the time had shared a dog named Roger. In her interview with the W5 journalist, the woman described how much she loved the dog and how he helped her cope emotionally. The journalist stated that the woman had not seen the dog for over a year and a half because “It all began the day she broke up with her boyfriend and he took the dog with him”. The journalist then explained that the woman had taken her ex-boyfriend to court to get custody of the dog. The woman described how hard it had been to live without the dog and, very emotionally, talked about why it was so important to her to pursue the matter in the courts. Throughout the segment, there were video clips of the woman being affectionate with the dog which had been filmed when the dog had been in her possession.
The woman showed the W5 journalist all the dog items she still had in anticipation of reuniting with the dog. The journalist stated that her “home looks like she has a dog, but she hasn’t seen Roger in over a year and a half. Not since she broke up with her boyfriend and he took him. Since then, she’s been in court fighting to get him back.” The woman stated that it was in the dog’s best interests to be with her because “he belongs with me because he will never, ever wonder how loved he is with me.” She said she was nervous and eager to hear the judge’s ruling on her pet custody dispute. The segment concluded with the information that the woman’s case had been delayed so she would have to wait longer to find out if she would be granted ownership of the dog. (A more complete transcript of the segment can be found in Appendix A).
The CBSC received a complaint about the W5 segment on April 8 via its webform. The complaint was from the woman’s ex-boyfriend who explained that there was more to the story, with key pieces of information being misrepresented or omitted by W5. The complainant stated that, prior to airing, he and others had contacted CTV with additional information about this situation, but CTV had never contacted him to get his side of the story. In the complainant’s view, the most egregious inaccuracy in the segment was the repeated statement that he had taken the dog when he and the woman had broken up. According to the complainant, when they broke up, he asked the woman to leave the home they had been sharing. At that time, she took the dog and refused to return him. After many months of negotiating with her to get the dog, he filed a claim in court to get the dog back. The complainant alleged that the woman had then signed an agreement granting custody of the dog to the complainant, so he withdrew his court claim. Eighteen months after signing the agreement, she filed suit in provincial court, challenging the agreement.
The complainant argued that he was “easily identifiable in the story” and his reputation had been harmed by the broadcast, even though he was not named. He wrote that he would like CTV to rectify its mistakes with respect to its failure to provide an accurate and full account of the background to this story.
CTV responded to the complainant on April 25. The broadcaster wrote that it had spent four months investigating this story. It noted that it had purposely avoided outlining the allegations in the woman’s and complainant’s pet custody dispute because “it can be perilous to get into details of cases while they are before the courts. [...] The purpose of the story was to show that pet custody battles are proliferating and can be both upsetting and expensive – not to argue or compare the merits of any one case.”
CTV suggested that, had it included one side or the other of the legal dispute, it could have rendered the segment unfair or unbalanced. It also stated that it believed the general facts presented during the segment were accurate, namely that the couple had adopted a dog while they were together, the dog was now living with the ex-boyfriend, and the ex-girlfriend had initiated legal proceedings to get the dog back. CTV wrote that, “We do not get into the complexities or history of the case and purposefully so.” CTV also maintained that it never stated that the ex-boyfriend took the dog, “and makes no suggestion that [he] stole or kidnapped or otherwise unfairly snatched the dog”; only that the dog was in the ex-boyfriend’s possession. The station “strenuously rejects any assertion that [its] journalism contained mistakes or failures, since [...] omitting the details of the legal arguments was intentional. And since W5 did not outline the specific details of either side of the story or make any allegations, there was no need to seek a counter point of view.”
The complainant filed his Ruling Request on May 9. He reiterated his concerns about the lack of fact-checking, background or research on the details of the situation. He also added that, despite the notarized agreement granting him custody of the dog, he had allowed discretionary visitation of the dog to his ex-girlfriend and it was on one of those visits that she allegedly had refused to return the dog, requiring police involvement to get the dog back. He suggested that “the heavily imbalanced and inaccurate story framed [the woman] as a sympathetic victim and the reasonable viewer was led to believe that [the complainant] took Roger away from her out of spite.” (The full text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B).
The English-Language Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada’s (RTDNA) Code of Journalistic Ethics.
CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 5 – News
1) It shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias. Broadcasters shall satisfy themselves that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result. They shall also ensure that news broadcasts are not editorial.
2) News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be formulated on the basis of the beliefs, opinions or desires of 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.
CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation
It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster. This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.
CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 7 – Controversial Public Issues
Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to treat fairly all subjects of a controversial nature. Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and the degree of public interest in the questions presented. Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, broadcasters will endeavour to encourage the presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.
RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, Article 1.0 – Accuracy
We are committed to journalism in the public interest that is accurate and reliable. Journalists will strive to verify facts and put them in context.
1.2 Accuracy also requires us to update and correct news and information throughout the life cycle of a news story as we become aware of relevant and reliable information.
1.3 Errors and inaccuracy that affect the understanding of a news story will be unambiguously and promptly corrected.
RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, Article 2.0 – Fairness
We are committed to impartial, unbiased journalism that serves the public interest through the free and open exchange of ideas, and respects the diversity of society.
2.1 Journalists should be fair and balanced, and avoid allowing their personal biases to influence their reporting. News events and public issues may be analyzed and put into context, but commentary, opinion or editorializing must be kept distinct from regular news coverage.
RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, Article 5.0 – Respect
Our conduct will be respectful, always taking into account editorial relevance and the public interest.
5.5 We will not infringe on a person’s privacy unless we believe there is overriding public interest.
The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed a recording of the challenged broadcast. The Panel concludes that the W5 segment breached Clauses 5, 6 and 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Articles 1.0, 1.3 and 2.0 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics, but it did not breach Article 5.5 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics.
The questions presented to the Panel with regards to the issues raised in the complaint were:
1) Did the story contain any inaccurate information contrary to Clause 5(1) of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1.0 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics?
2) If yes, did CTV breach Article 1.3 of the RTDNA Code for failing to correct the error(s)?
3) Was the story biased, unfair or imbalanced contrary to Clause 5, 6 or 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics or Article 2.0 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics?
4) Did the broadcast violate the complainant’s privacy contrary to Article 5.5 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics?
The subject of accuracy is one that has often been considered by the CBSC. Generally speaking, the CBSC has established that broadcasters are not expected to provide every fact and facet when covering a particular story. This is the case even for lengthier investigative journalism pieces such as the W5 report under review. This principle also stands in relation to stories that contain a lot of legal nuances and where the facts of a case might be in dispute. Nevertheless, a story cannot contain clearly inaccurate information or material omissions that misconstrue the nature of a story.
In the W5 story under review, the subject was pet custody in general and the case of the woman and her boyfriend was offered as an example of how pet custody battles can play out. The following cases demonstrate how the CBSC has treated complaints about inaccuracy in the past.
In CIII-TV (Global Ontario) re Global News reports (“Bluffs Danger”) (CBSC Decision 05/06-0500, May 18, 2006), the CBSC dealt with two news reports about safety issues in a housing development located on the Scarborough Bluffs. The reports pointed out that a crumbling parking lot in the development had not been repaired and that other dangerous areas near the development were easily accessible to young people and pets. A woman who lived in the housing development and was a member of the condominium board filed a complaint about numerous aspects of the reports, including the fact that the property owners had been inaccurately identified and that certain areas shown in the report were not located near the housing development although the reports gave the impression that they were. The Panel agreed that those two elements constituted inaccurate material and violated Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTDNA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics:
[T]he Panel is not in a position to assess the accuracy of statements made regarding the actual safety conditions of the Bluffs, whether or not the Conservation Authority ever offered to help the housing development, and the like. On the other hand, some of the matters that relate to which areas of the Bluffs are public property and which are private and whether or not residents had lodged complaints may be said to fall so closely and obviously within the knowledge of the complainant that the Panel is prepared to accept her explanation of such matters.
Where, for example, the broadcaster asserted that the “property [is] owned by Newton Trelawney Management”, it appears that the report was in error. As the complainant explained, the property “is collectively owned by the unit owners of a condominium corporation, governed by a volunteer board of directors who serve the community in their spare time, without remuneration of any kind.” The Panel assumes that this factual assertion could easily have been verified before broadcast. If it could not have been, making the statement was at risk of being inaccurate [...].
The Panel finds the undisclosed mixing of venues an even more material matter. First, the Bluffs are kilometres long and it appears that the broadcaster chose video clips from different locations without indicating that they were not related to the location that was principally associated with the venue of their report. Indeed, in the report itself, the reporter said, “Nor do they want you to see where these kids took us, just metres away from the sinking parking lot. [Emphasis added.]” The complainant explained that the footage in question was on public property, rather than on that owned by the condominium association, and, as she later clarified, it is at “a distance of at least 100 metres on the ground.” Even though the News Director explained that “a Global News crew of three (reporter, producer and cameraman) happened on a crumbling parking lot several hundred yards from where the original incident took place,” that was not disclosed in the follow-up on-air report. It appears that the opening shot of the October 5 segment was taken at some distance from the housing development.
The CBSC examined a complaint about a news report about a fire at a Vancouver Indian restaurant in CIVT-TV (CTV British Columbia) re a report on CTV News at 11:30 (“Tandoori Fire”) (CBSC Decision 11/12-1317, July 24, 2012). The story was breaking news and the anchor informed viewers that the restaurant had been severely damaged, firefighters were still trying to determine the cause of the blaze and no one had been injured. She also added that the restaurant had been in the news before because “for more than a decade, the owner has been in a bitter feud with his brother-in-law who runs a restaurant [with a similar name] just down the block.” That comment was followed by video clips of separate interviews with the two restaurant owners about the dispute. The owner of the destroyed restaurant complained to the CBSC that the story should not have included information about his dispute with his brother-in-law because that copyright issue had been resolved years ago and had no relevance to the fire. He suggested that the information was included to sensationalize the story and make it appear that the fire “was connected to some sort of malicious, more sinister dispute.” The Panel agreed that the report had included inaccurate and unfair information contrary to Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTDNA Code of Ethics:
In this case, the BC Panel considers that the information that CTV chose to include about the dispute between the restaurant owners was not comprehensive or fair. According to the complainant, the dispute had been resolved years ago, yet the news anchor used the present tense when she referred to it. In addition, on the video clips of the interviews with the two restaurant owners, there was no indication of the dates on which those clips had been originally broadcast or that they were “file footage”. That absence of context further gave viewers the impression that the dispute was ongoing. The creation of that misleading and effectively inaccurate impression that the dispute was still ongoing renders the report inaccurate, unfair and incomprehensive under Article 1 of the RTDNA Code of Ethics and Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics.
As explained earlier, a story may be accurate even if it does not include every fact or facet of a story. This was the case in TVA re J.E. (“Crusade for a Presbytery”) (CBSC Decision 97/98-0555, September 24, 1998), where a central player in a report on a real estate deal gone sour complained that the report on the botched sale of a presbytery was biased and unfair. The complainants, who were members of the Parish in question, alleged, among other things, that the report was misleading because it did not include all the facts of the complex situation. By presenting this abridged version, the complainants contended that J.E. failed to accurately report the story. The Panel disagreed.
In the Council’s view, the voluminous correspondence from the complainant principally reveals concerns with J.E.’s choice of story to tell, i.e. J.E.’s focus on the issue of the belief of the potential purchasers that they had bought the presbytery contrasted with their discovery that they did not have an executable contract. The choice of J.E.'s focus on what, in some senses, was a complex ancient legal issue involving the rationale of a strict (and, some might say, anachronistic) principle versus a more comprehensible and modern equitable approach to the problem necessitated their “simplification” of the story in order to explain why the couple in question thought that they had indeed succeeded in their goal, namely, the purchase of the presbytery from the fabrique. That the broadcaster did not include all of the facts and facets of the case does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the report was inaccurate. In the Council’s view, such comprehensiveness in news and public affairs reports is not required, nor even reasonable in all cases, particularly when one takes into account the limited time available in which to bring any matter to the small screen. While such a limitation never entitles a broadcaster to be misleading, it does entitle it to simplify or telescope a report in a fair and reasonable way to fit the constraints of the medium.
Fairness and Balance
As outlined in the CBSC precedent above, the issue of accuracy often ties to the issue of fairness and balance required under the relevant code provisions. Moreover, as with the issue of accuracy, the CBSC has often considered the issue of fairness and balance. The lack of fairness and balance can lead to material omissions making the story not only biased and unfair but inaccurate.
Fairness and balance do not require a broadcaster to provide equal time to all sides of a controversial issue; however, a story cannot contain inaccuracies or omissions that create an unfair or biased report.
In another W5 segment entitled “Lawn Wars”, the Panel found that CTV had failed to provide “full, fair and proper presentation” of an item dealing with a dispute between neighbours in CTV re W5 (“Lawn Wars”) (CBSC Decision 95/96-0187, October 21, 1996). In the Panel’s view, W5 had dealt with the matter flippantly and failed to consider, even briefly, the significant social and financial implications of the story. The Panel emphasized that it was not in the choice of story to tell that the broadcaster had erred; rather “it is because of the way this story was handled.” The Panel stated:
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 it 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.
The failure to provide comprehensive and fair presentation of an issue was also considered in CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) re a CTV News at Six report (Driveway) (CBSC Decision 06/07-1301, April 14, 2008). The complaint was about a news report that told the story of a driveway renovation. 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 and her permit was rescinded. The report implied that the City had changed its decision because some of the neighbours opposed the renovation. It named one of the neighbours, 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 the newscast had not provided the full story since the permit revocation resulted from the woman’s provision of false information to obtain it. The Panel found a breach for failure to provide fairness and balance which led to inaccurate information being broadcast:
[...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.
The complainant himself has provided information about the reason for the City’s retraction of the parking space entitlement. And the complainant has advised that the information was on the public record and was equally accessible via the neighbours themselves [...].
All in all, the Panel considers that the broadcaster failed the audience. It did not provide them, in an accurate, comprehensive and fair manner, with information that would have enabled them to meet the test provided in Clause 5(2) of the CAB Code of Ethics: “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.” In fact, it appears to the Panel that the reporter picked and chose the information he wished to disseminate, in order to make his point, in order to present the story the way he believed it should conclude, regardless of the information actually available to him. Accuracy, thoroughness and fairness were casualties of his approach. For these reasons, the Panel concludes that the broadcast of the April 27, 2007 story breaches Clauses 5 and 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTNDA1 Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.
The way a report is prepared, even if accurate, can lead to a segment being unfair and imbalanced. Such was the case in CICI-TV (CTV Northern Ontario) re CTV News reports (Furnace Fiasco) (CBSC Decision 12/13-0558, August 22, 2013). The Panel examined a report about an elderly woman who had experienced trouble with her oil furnace. The report, which CTV aired twice, explained that, a month after having the furnace serviced by a particular local heating company, it began emitting dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, which required the homeowner to call the fire department and to have the furnace repaired by a second company. In an interview with the homeowner, she stated that she had trouble tracking down the owner of the first company to seek a refund. The reporter then stated that he had found the owner at the company’s office when the reporter showed up unannounced. The report included footage taken through a window of the reporter interviewing the owner, as well as a paraphrased comment from the company owner. The complaint came from the company who alleged that the report had included inaccurate and unfair information and had sensationalized a straight-forward furnace malfunction. He felt that the report had made it look like he mistreated his customers and had something to hide. The Panel concluded that the report did not contain any inaccurate information, but agreed that the report was constructed in such a manner as to constitute an unfair and imbalanced presentation of the situation contrary to Clauses 5 and 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTDNA Code of Ethics:
The Panel notes […] that the broadcaster acknowledged having discussed the situation with the complainant for over 30 minutes, off-air. The report itself claimed that the furnace company owner “declined to do an interview”, (despite mentioning in the very next statement that “off-camera, he told us oil furnaces can be temperamental”). The report also failed to adequately explain the relationship between the first and second furnace companies, as well as provide a fuller picture of what went wrong with the furnace. These elements, in combination with images of the owner filmed through a window without his knowledge, were pieced together in such a way as to construct a report that was unfair and imbalanced contrary to the provisions of Clauses 5(1) and 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1 of the RTDNA Code of Ethics.
Correction of Errors
In circumstances where inaccurate information is broadcast or, where there is a failure to provide full and proper presentation of an issue, a broadcaster may also be found in breach of Article 1.3 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics for failing to correct the error.
This was the case in CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) re a CTV News at Six report (Driveway) (CBSC Decision 06/07-1301, April 14, 2008) referenced above. On the matter of the station’s failure to correct its errors, the Panel stated:
The Panel shares the complainant’s view of the broadcaster’s non-exercise of remedial actions. It appears that, according to the broadcaster’s letter, “shortly after the news item aired,” the complainant contacted the News Director about his concerns. The News Director acknowledged “that a follow-up story would be appropriate.” He also offered, generously, the opportunity to the complainant and to other neighbours, to “address [their] concerns” and to “rebut the comments [Ms. Alexander] made in the original story.” The question, though, is what obligation a broadcaster has to its audience above and beyond its duty to a specific complainant. The generosity of an offer of airtime to one individual does not obviate the obligation of a broadcaster to the entire audience to get a news story right. The complaint may be the trigger but the broadcaster’s public commitment does not end there. [...]
It is clear from the broadcaster’s September letter that the CTV Toronto News Director spoke to the complainant “numerous times” soon after the story appeared and actually met with the complainant 19 days after the story ran. That letter acknowledges the existence of documentary information that would have disclosed the allegedly fraudulent nature of the original permit application and that was “inconsistent with the information CTV News obtained from City Hall.” It is at this point that the Panel parts company with CTV Toronto, for the letter concluded that “it was necessary for you [the complainant] to speak to this matter on camera. Unfortunately, you declined to appear on camera to back up your claims.” While the Panel understands the desire of CTV Toronto 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, contrary to the requirements of [the Corrections provision] of the RTNDA Code.
The matter of issuing a correction following the misrepresentation of an issue was also considered in CJOH-DT (CTV Ottawa) re a report on CTV National News (Woodward’s Trump tapes) (CBSC Decision 20.2021-0062, January 27, 2021). The Panel dealt with a news report about United States President Donald Trump. The report informed viewers that recordings had been released of an interview conducted by journalist Bob Woodward with Trump in which Trump admitted that he downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 virus because he did not want the American population to panic. The report included the following statement by the CTV reporter: “Calling the virus a hoax, Trump continued to hold packed rallies, minimizing the danger to young people when he knew better.” A viewer complained that Trump had never called the virus itself a hoax; rather what he had characterized as a hoax was the Democrats’ efforts to politicize Trump’s approach to the pandemic in 2020. In its decision, which found a breach for the mischaracterization of what Trump had actually called a “hoax”, the Panel also concluded that this error should have been corrected:
It considers that broadcasters should make every effort to correct inaccurate information contained in news reports as soon as possible regardless of whether this information is materially wrong or constitutes what they believe to be an inadvertent error. All viewers need to be apprised of the error, not just the complainant. In the context of this news story, an incorrect superfluous comment was included and this should have led to a correction.
President Trump routinely accused the media of being unfair, biased and the disseminators of “fake news”. The impetus for broadcasters should be to strive to be as accurate as possible and where a mistake is made to acknowledge the error and make the necessary correction, otherwise it undermines the credibility of the news report.
Panel findings on accuracy, fairness and balance and correction of error
The Panel considers that the W5 segment entitled “Dog Fight” raises, first and foremost, the issue of whether CTV provided a full, fair and proper presentation of the story. As explained earlier, where there is a failure to meet the code requirements on fairness and balance, this can lead to the broadcast of an inaccurate report. Where there is such a failure, a correction is required under the applicable code provision.
As detailed earlier, the subject of this W5 report was pet custody disputes in general and the case of the woman and her ex-boyfriend was offered as an example of how such pet custody battles can play out. The Panel considers that when broadcasters consider including a specific example to further explain a more general topic, it is important that they consider whether the chosen example fits the criteria for being in that story and, to answer that question, broadcasters should look at the whole story, not just one component.
In its response to the complainant, CTV noted that it had purposely avoided outlining the allegations in the woman’s and complainant’s pet custody dispute because “it can be perilous to get into details of cases while they are before the courts. [...] The purpose of the story was to show that pet custody battles are proliferating and can be both upsetting and expensive – not to argue or compare the merits of any one case.”
In this W5 report, the context in which the custody of the dog came into dispute was, in the Panel’s view, essential to the story to provide full, fair and proper presentation of the story. CTV presented the woman as someone who not only no longer had her dog and suffered as a result, but also that this loss was because of having her dog taken by her ex-boyfriend. However, the background of this case as explained by the complainant was far more nuanced. This was not just a straightforward dog custody case. The complainant has alleged – and CTV has not disputed – that it is the woman who first took the dog following the break-up and the complainant had to resort to initiating a legal action which was then withdrawn after the woman relinquished in writing custody to the ex-boyfriend. Other allegations of the woman’s misfeasance by the complainant were also made. Although CBSC cannot verify all these allegations, the complainant had informed CTV of these prior to airing this segment and CTV deliberately chose to omit any mention of the context in which the dog custody dispute arose as it did “not want not to argue or compare the merits of any one case.”
The Panel considers that the previously mentioned CBSC decision regarding the W5 report “Lawn Wars” is particularly relevant in the circumstances. The failure to address an issue within the context of a story is always “a subjective choice”. However, where such a choice is made, it is essential that this choice is not at the expense of providing a full and proper presentation of a story. CTV was certainly entitled to focus its story on disputes involving the custody of pets. However, where a specific example is used, such as with the woman and her ex-boyfriend, the general characterization of the context of the dispute needs to be full, fair and proper. The Panel understands that CTV wanted to provide enough teeth in the story to make it compelling. However, there were several complexities with this dog custody dispute of which CTV had notice. To willfully ignore these elements of the story and the fact that the dog custody was contentious, is not only unfair and biased against the complainant, but it also renders the essence of the dog custody dispute in question inaccurate.
Accordingly, the Panel finds that the W5 report entitled “Dog Fight” contained inaccurate information contrary to Clause 5(1) of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 1.0 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics and the story was biased, unfair and imbalanced contrary to Clauses 5, 6 and 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 2.0 of the RTNDA Code of Journalistic Ethics. Having made these findings, the Panel considers that CTV also breached Article 1.3 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics Code for failing to correct these errors.
The complainant also believed that his privacy was breached even though he was not named in the W5 report because CTV identified the name of the woman involved in the dog dispute and, through association, people were able to identify him. According to him, as a result, his reputation was affected along with the reputation and business of his parents.
In previous decisions, the CBSC has established that the invasion of privacy test hinges on whether an average viewer could identify the person in question, not whether the person’s close family and friends could identify the person if they were watching. In addition, the CBSC has also observed that court documents are public and, therefore, people named in those documents can be revealed on air.
The issue of the identification of the individual was crucial in CTV re Canada AM (Airborne Hazing) (CBSC Decision 94/95-0159, March 12, 1996) and was one of the first occasions on which the CBSC established some principles surrounding invasion of privacy. A viewer complained about the news coverage of the Canadian military Airborne Regiment’s hazing practices. The complainant raised a concern regarding the invasion of privacy of the persons shown on the home video taken by a member (or members) of the Airborne Regiment and broadcast by CTV. The Panel stated:
The point is that the issue is not so much the recording and broadcasting of the image of the individual as it is the identification of the person. Where the broadcaster provides no information which permits the public at large to identify the individual, such as in this case, the broadcaster has not interfered with that person’s right to privacy. The fact that the individual filmed and those close to him may know who he is does not interfere with his right to be free from identification by the public at large.
Where court proceedings are involved, the CBSC dealt with this issue in CKCO-TV re a News Item (Disappearance) (CBSC Decision 00/01-0739, June 28, 2001). This complaint involved a news report about the disappearance of a man who had been charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. The man had gone missing following the initial report about his arrest. The subsequent report about his disappearance identified him as the owner of a particular tavern and showed footage of this place of business. The complainant felt that this presentation was unfair to the family of the accused and the tavern’s employees since the accused’s business was unrelated to the charges laid against him. The Panel found that the report did not unduly infringe on the privacy of the missing man or of his family and employees and made the following comments with respect to reports about people involved in legal proceedings:
It is likely true that persons who become involved in legal proceedings, whether in the civil or criminal courts, do not intend to thereby become the subjects of media attention. Nonetheless, in the Canadian democratic system, in the absence of a Court order to the contrary (and assuming that the special rules of the Young Offenders Act are not in play), the identity of the parties and the substance and details of the proceedings are accessible by the public and the media which report these in the public interest. Nor should it be assumed that the public interest is limited to the safety and security of members of the public. It is a concept far broader than that and one which is particularly untrammelled when it comes to matters of Government, public figures and the courts. With respect to judicial proceedings, as is the case in the matter at hand, it can be safely assumed that, most of the time, the parties to civil proceedings and, probably almost all the time, those charged in penal and criminal matters, do not feel comfortable having their business conducted in the public eye. This is probably also true of their close friends and relatives, who may sense discomfort in the reflected glare. It is, however, a personal cost necessarily incurred for the benefit of the public. It follows that CKCO’s identification of the accused by name, address and business association was entirely justified as being in the public interest, despite any pain which may have resulted to the brother-in-law and the members of his family.
In CKEA-FM re The Lockeroom (CBSC Decision 20.2122-1304, May 25, 2022), the Panel dealt with a conversation on a rock radio station morning show. The hosts discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and return to normalcy as the pandemic subsided. One host explained that he had a friend who was unvaccinated against COVID-19 and he was reluctant to attend a Super Bowl party because that friend would be there. The host first referred to the friend by his last name and then a few seconds later said his first name. The complaint came from the friend who objected to the broadcast of his vaccination status. The Panel agreed that providing the man’s full name and vaccination status was improper under Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and violated his privacy under Article 5.5 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics:
In the case at hand, the Panel unanimously considers that there are several factors that lead it to the conclusion that Lochlin Cross’s identification of the complainant along with the revelation of his vaccination status was a clear and egregious breach of privacy and contrary to Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 5.5 of the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics. These factors include:
Panel finding on privacy
Given the precedents cited above, the Panel considers that notwithstanding the fact that CTV identified the woman involved in this W5 report, the broader public was not able to identify the name of the complainant. In any event, there have been court proceedings launched because of this dog dispute and, therefore, the identity of the parties and the substance and details of the proceedings are accessible by the public and the media which report on these public issue stories. Accordingly, the Panel finds that there was no violation of the complainant’s privacy contrary to Article 5.5 of the RTNDA Code of Journalistic Ethics.
In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant. The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner. In this case, CTV provided an acceptable reply to the complainant and has, therefore, fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and, subject to the announcement of this decision, nothing further is required on this occasion.
CIVT-DT (CTV British Columbia) is required to: 1) announce the decision, in the following terms in audio and video format, once during prime time 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 W5 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 CTV.
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CTV breached the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and Radio Television Digital News Association’s Code of Journalistic Ethics in its broadcast of a W5 segment entitled “Dog Fight” on March 11, 2023. CTV did not provide a full, balanced and accurate account of a pet custody dispute and it failed to correct its errors in accordance with those codes.
This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.
1 The organization was called the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) until 2011 when it changed its name to Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).
W5 is CTV’s investigative journalism program. It presents in-depth reports about various issues of public interest. One topic on the March 11, 2023 episode, which aired at 7:00 pm on CIVT-DT (CTV British Columbia), was pet custody in a segment entitled “Dog Fight”. A complete transcript of that segment is as follows:
host Avery Haines: Welcome back. Divorcing couples fighting over kids is nothing new. But now it’s happening with family pets. And it can be vicious with both sides lawyering up. W5’s Kevin O’Keefe explores the spike in the number of pet custody battles and why some say it’s time the courts start treating animals as more than just property.
[cellphone video footage of N.A. kissing a dog and saying “I love you”, then of the dog licking out of a Starbucks cup]
O’Keefe: [N. A.] says her dog is no ordinary pet. [cellphone video footage of the dog lying on a bed with N. A.’s voice off-screen saying “I love you. Yeah, you. You’re my best friend.”] Best friends that go everywhere together. [cellphone video footage of N. A. walking the dog on a leash]
interview with N. A.: He never left my side. He was just always there. He came to work with me. I put him in my tote bag. [cellphone footage of: the dog lying on a couch with N. A. sitting close to him; the dog outside running up to presumably N. A. holding a phone while filming as she greets him saying, “Hi boo-boo! You’re in Times Square. Look where you are!”] Yeah, everywhere in New York. We took him to Brooklyn. We took him to the Poconos. He’s been all over Vancouver. He comes everywhere with me. There’s no, he’s an extension, he’s a third arm at this point. [cellphone footage of the dog looking out a window]
O’Keefe: Even on planes. [photographs of N. A. and the dog on an airplane] That’s because Roger is an emotional support animal. He was crucial to her recovery after an assault in 2019.
interview with N. A.: I just knew that it was probably time for me to get a dog. And I knew that that was going to be my coping mechanism. And so I did. [cellphone footage of the dog lying in grass panting and N. A.l laughing at him; N.A. dumps a basket of dog toys onto the carpet] Oh my gosh, I haven’t gone through these in so long. [she picks up a red & green toy] This was his mistletoe.
O’Keefe: But that was over a year and a half ago. [N] hasn’t seen Roger since. It all began the day she broke up with her boyfriend and he took the dog with him. [cellphone footage of the dog playing with toys on a carpet]
N. A.: [crying] It has just completely made my entire life pivot in a way that I was unprepared for, obviously. Um ...
O’Keefe: I’m sorry. It’s tough.
N. A.: Can we pause?
[cellphone footage of N. A. rubbing noses with the dog]
N. A.: I can’t even put it into words. Like, I’ve just tried to think of how it’s been. And, like, awful, sickening, stressful, depressing, heartbreaking, sad. They just, like, don’t even cut it.
O’Keefe: So [N] took her boyfriend to court to get Roger back. [cellphone footage of the dog asleep on N. A. on a couch] A pet custody battle. And, believe it or not, it’s becoming more and more common in Canada. [O’Keefe with a dog on a leash outside. He tells it to sit and gives it a treat] Do couples ever talk about what will happen with their pet when they break up? I know I haven’t. So we’re heading to the dog park to see if I’m the only one. [to man #1 at dog park] Have we ever talked about what would happen if you broke up? Who would get the dog?
man #1: No. That is not on the table.
man #2: Uh, never because we don’t ever plan on breaking up.
man #3: Um, I think it would be me that would end up with the dog. But, um, you know, honestly, it’s still up to debate because I think that he – my dog – likes my, my partner better.
O’Keefe: [to woman at dog park] Have you ever discussed it with your partner?
woman: Um, uh, no, but I think we’re, I don’t think we’re going to break up, so.
O’Keefe: “I didn’t think we were going to break up” is what animal rights lawyer Rebeka Breder hears a lot. She says her pet custody case load has almost doubled in the last couple years. [to Breder] Why, why the increase?
interview with Breder: Because people were staying at home and they were more lonely and they wanted to adopt or buy companion animals. And then during the pandemic, as we all know, people started splitting up and then the fight begins with who gets the dog, who gets the cat. And it’s a really intense, emotional fight. Just like fighting over kids and I would say maybe even more sometimes.
O’Keefe: And now with over half of Canadian households having pets, more pets means more potential custody fights [words on screen: “58% of Canadian Households Have Pets”].
Breder: [talking in front of a class] There is not much out there in terms of how we consider animals and, and when dealing with pet custody type of issues, how to handle them.
O’Keefe: Pet custody is even a topic in Rebeka’s university law class. In her experience, few people know anything about it until they end up in front of a judge.
interview with Breder: The overall law in Canada when it comes to how the law treats companion animals in pet custody disputes is the starting point is animals are property. Like, they’re considered, on paper, considered like a chair, like furniture. It’s not like I file documents that say [she makes air quotes] “pet custody”. We have to frame it a certain way.
O’Keefe: Is that even a legal term?
Breder: It’s not.
Breder: “Pet custody” is not a legal term. But I use it and others use it because that’s what it is.
[Breder and N. A. sitting at a table discussing N. A.’s case]
O’Keefe: Another challenge for Rebeka are cases like [N]’s where both claim the pet is their property.
Breder: So very often that is what happens, right? Both sides have a compelling story to tell in court. Both sides have the facts and kind of proof. Someone has a receipt for the veterinary bills, while the other, while the other partner has receipts for the dog food and, and other kind of bank records to show that they paid for the animal. And it’s complicated.
O’Keefe: But it’s not that complicated for some judges. In 2016, Saskatchewan’s Superior Court decided that pet custody is a “wasteful” use of court time and “should be discouraged” [excerpts from court documents appear on screen], the judge listing several reasons pets shouldn’t be treated as children including, “we tend not to purchase our children from breeders” and when they’re sick we “don’t have their lives ended to prevent suffering.” [to Breder] What do you think of that decision?
Breder: With all due respect to that judge, that judge is wrong. They’re not a waste of time. Ask most people who have a dog or a cat and whether they even have an inkling to feel that, “Oh no, I would never fight over my dog”. Of course they would. And especially nowadays when fewer people are having kids and their animals are everything.
O’Keefe: Every day, [N] used to take her dog to the park. She’s desperate to take him there again. [N. A. walking outside, eventually to a chainlink fence] But as her case drags on, with costs in the thousands, she’s afraid she’ll never see Roger again. [N. A.’s hand holding her cellphone and watching a video of her dog playing at the park she is overlooking]
N. A.: Truthfully, yeah. Um, more than once I’ve definitely felt like I don’t know if I have the strength, let alone the means, to get through this. People ask me why all the time. People ask me, “What are you doing about this?”, “Why are you doing this?”, “Why do you feel passionate about this?”, “Why are you spending so much money?”. “You can get another dog”. “You can move on”. The only thing that keeps me going is, I have to do this for my dog. Like, I gotta get my dog back. [cellphone footage of N. A. lying with her dog asleep while she strokes his head]
teaser for upcoming segment:
voice-over: Coming up.
Karen Lyles: Dogs will often have more subtle stress signals.
voice-over: How the stress of separation affects our pets [footage of dogs inside homes whimpering or howling at closed doors]
Lyles: It’s just the saddest sound.
voice-over: When W5 continues.
teaser part-way through commercial break
voice-over: In a moment ... holding out hope to be together again [cellphone footage of N. A. being licked by a dog]
O’Keefe: [to N. A.] Why is it in Roger’s best interest to be reunited with you?
N. A.: He’s a part of me. And he belongs with me. [cellphone footage of the dog rolling on the floor with a ball in his mouth]
voice-over: We’ll be right back.
N. A.: [showing O’Keefe all the items she has for the dog] This is, like, your one-stop shop for dog owner success. Poop bags, which we need. Uh, all grooming stuff is here. Care stuff, medical stuff if he needs it.
O’Keefe: [N. A.]’s home looks like she has a dog, but she hasn’t seen Roger in over a year and a half. [cellphone footage of N. A. being licked by the dog] Not since she broke up with her boyfriend and he took him. Since then, she’s been in court fighting to get him back.
N. A.: I don’t sleep most nights. I, um, have had a number of health issues come up just deriving directly from stress. Just the general anxiety of not having my emotional support animal with me, uh, to just go places.
O’Keefe: Maria Gonzales dreads the thought of even going to court to get custody of her emotional support animal. [Gonzales walking outside with a dog on a leash] So her [sic] and her husband, James, have come up with a way to hopefully never fight over their dog. They created a legal document like a pre-nup, except this is a pet nup.
Gonzales: [sitting with James and O’Keefe looking at a laptop] We have that Leah is an Australian shepherd dog, that is female, neutered, born in May 2020.
O’Keefe: The document describes Leah as her dog in case they ever get divorced. [photo of Maria, James and dog] Maria thought about doing a pet nup when James paid for their new dog. [to Maria] And he had offered to pay for the dog, which some people might think, “Oh, how lovely”. But that made you a little nervous. Why?
Gonzales: It’s, like, “Okay, who’s going to be the owner? Whose name is going to be here?” And that’s when we look at each other and he say [sic], like, “Oh, it’s going to be yours.” That actually triggered on me the need of, like, being super specific about it afterwards. And, you know, it’s like you paid for it, my name is there, but let’s make sure that this is how it’s going to be.
O’Keefe: [Gonzales’s dog running around outside] Even though James promised Maria Leah was hers, she worried that because he paid, he could argue the dog belonged to him.
Gonzales: Well, it’s just, you know, my mother always say [sic] that you have to be careful who you marry or who you are with because that person can be your partner, but also your worst enemy, right? When times are, are difficult, when you get to know the other side of people. If he does something to me, um, it’s just, I don’t want our, uh, the terms of our relationship to detect, dictate the future of the dog.
O’Keefe: And you know that dogs can be weapons when couples divorce?
O’Keefe: And that’s what you’re worried about, is –
O’Keefe: – if you had done something to make him angry, he could use the dog against you?
[James & Maria watching the dog play]
O’Keefe: [to James] Would that be tough for you? You know, to say that you’re not going to see Leah anymore?
James: It’s the same as any other breakup. Then there’s no way that I’m not going to be heartbroken anyways. But knowing that she would be taken care of by her owner and knowing that I, you know, we went through this entire process and we already made the agreements and arrangements and I know that she’s going to be, uh, have a very, very good life would make me feel, you know, better about that.
[Maria petting the dog while James looks on]
O’Keefe: Maria and James aren’t the only ones who want pets to have a good life after a divorce. It’s become such a big problem for Montreal’s SPCA that they’ve come up with this ad campaign, warning couples that a commitment to a pet could outlast a marriage [clips from a SPCA ad campaign showing couples in wedding attire with pets].
[Sophie Gaillard in front of a series of pet cages]
Gaillard: [to an animal in a cage] Do you want to come out and play? [she opens the cage door]
O’Keefe: SPCA lawyer, Sophie Gaillard, has seen first-hand how ugly it can get when pets are caught in the crossfire of a bad breakup.
Gaillard: So we’ve had incidents of, uh, the spouse whose name is on the contract returning the animal to the SPCA even though the other spouse would’ve liked to keep the animal. Uh, I’ve even heard of stories where the spouse who, uh, whose name was on the adoption contract getting the animal euthanized, sometimes even out of spite for the, with respect to the other spouse who’s attached to the animal. So we’ve heard really, some horror stories when it comes to this issue. [Gaillard talking to a client] So this is the animal custody agreement we created for adopters who are part of a couple.
O’Keefe: To protect pets, Sophie asks staff to get couples to sign an animal custody agreement or pet nup. Now if they break up, they promise to [words from the document appear on screen] “put aside their personal interests” and do what’s in “the best interests of the animal”. It’s not mandatory to sign, but Sophie hopes the document might force couples to at least think about a pet’s future.
O’Keefe: What’s the response been from couples when all of a sudden they’re given this document?
Gaillard: I mean, sometimes it is a little bit awkward to broach the issue of what happens if you split up when couples come in to adopt. But generally people have been very open, uh, to using this contract. Um, but it also just gets people thinking, um, you know, in terms of, of providing for, planning for and providing for their animal, uh, in the case of a future breakup.
O’Keefe: [Sophie holding greens out for a rabbit] Sophie says their pet nup is part of a much bigger campaign to get the law changed in Quebec. Even though it’s the only Canadian province to legally recognize animals as sentient beings, meaning their welfare is protected by law, when it comes to divorce, they’re still considered property.
Gaillard: So we have taken that step, recognize that animals are not things, they’re sentient beings. Um, but nonetheless, when it comes to family law, we continue to subject animals to the rules that apply to property when determining their custody. So we really need to, uh, be more coherent in our law and ensure that animals get treated as family members, which they are.
O’Keefe: And Quebec’s not alone. More than thirty countries have legislation that considers animals sentient beings [world map graphic on which countries with relevant laws are highlighted]. But when it comes to divorce, they’re back to being property in most of them. Only two countries and a handful of US states take into account the pets’ needs when couples break up. [a dog inside a home howling at a closed door] This is what a dog sounds like who’s desperate to be with their owner. Animal behaviour expert Karen Lyles has seen it first-hand with couples going through a breakup. [O’Keefe and Lyles watching a video of the howling dog on a laptop] It’s really sad.
Lyles: It’s just the saddest sound.
O’Keefe: He’s really crying.
Lyles: Yeah. And, you know, when we’re going through a separation, uh, we don’t often think about these tiny details.
Lyles: How’s my dog going to react? You know, we just think, “Well, we’re moving”.
Lyles: [footage of another dog whimpering and scratching at a closed door] We still have this panic. Now here, he has actually eliminated. He has peed.
O’Keefe: Oh, you’re kidding.
Lyles: And he’s dancing around in a puddle. So she comes back in. And we’ve got cleanup in aisle one. [in the video, a woman enters the room with the dog] So some dogs will lie down and lick their paws. And that can go on for hours until they have acral lick dermatitis, which is where the skin becomes so raw.
O’Keefe: [footage of a white dog in a cage, yapping and jumping] These are the kinds of signs Karen wishes couples would look out for when deciding who gets the dog after a breakup. [to Lyles] They know what’s coming and they panic.
Lyles: Yeah. They panic sooner and sooner and sooner. [the dog in the video manages to climb out of the cage]
O’Keefe: There, look.
O’Keefe: I’ve heard of couples, and in my case too. We’re both really attached to the dog. And we’re going to break up and we want to share the dog.
O’Keefe: In your experience, how often is that successful?
Lyles: Not as often as I wish.
Lyles: Yeah. So, I mean, if I had to guess, I would probably say maybe thirty percent.
O’Keefe: It works in thirty percent of the cases?
Lyles: Mm hm.
Lyles: And the reason I say that is because dogs really like routine and structure and predictability.
O’Keefe: And a breakup is chaos.
Lyles: The opposite of that. Yeah, exactly.
O’Keefe: Nothing predictable anymore.
Lyles: So if every three days they’re going to partner B’s house for two or three days –
O’Keefe: They don’t know how long.
Lyles: Yeah. So there’s not a lot of predictability and it’s, it can be really, really stressful for them. [O’Keefe watches as Lyles works with a dog] So there’s always going to be a little bit of apprehension if the dog is a little bit nervous in new places.
O’Keefe: Sky is one of the dog’s Karen works with. This is her first time in a new home. [close-up of the dog lying on the floor] Even though it looks like she’s doing okay, Karen says looks can be deceiving.
Lyles: So dogs will often have more subtle stress signals. And panting or pulling their ears back like she is, those are really clear signals that she’s feeling stressed.
Lyles: And, you know, if you look really closely, you can see that her pupils are actually dilated.
O’Keefe: Karen says dogs do better staying with the person they’re most bonded to.
Lyles: What ends up happening with dogs oftentimes is that they have a primary attachment figure. And that’s generally one, one person in that household. And it’s not, um, it’s not black or white. It’s not always the male. It’s not always the person who feeds the dog. It’s not always the female who walks the dog more or whatever the case is. Um, it can really be hit or miss as to who that dog chooses.
O’Keefe: How do you know what the dog feels?
Lyles: You interview the dog. Obviously. [Lyles & O’Keefe laugh] But, you know, I, I do really like to see the dog interact with the people just so that I can read the body language a little bit better and see what’s the relationship like. Does the dog really feel comfortable and safe and trusting with each of those people?
O’Keefe: Animal rights lawyer Rebeka Breder also wants courts to consider what the animal wants in pet custody cases. [Breder working at her computer with a dog sitting in her lap] And she’s hopeful because some judges have taken into account a pet’s needs. As far back as 1980, in Rogers versus Rogers, the judge said that a dog [words from the document appear on screen] “has feelings”. It “needs to be shown affection” and should be “treated humanely”. But those kind of judgments aren’t that common and Rebeka wants to give pet custody laws some teeth. So she, along with other BC lawyers, have made recommendations to the province’s Attorney General.
Breder: How do you know if a judge is going to recognize your animal as something more than just the chairs, just the property? The short answer is you don’t. And what I would love to see, personally, and for years I’ve been wanting this, is, I’d like to, first of all, have specific provisions dealing with companion animals in the context of, of separation. And I’d like to, more specific than that, I’d like to see provisions dealing with a consideration of what is in the best interest of the animal.
[cellphone footage of the dog named Roger lying on his back on a carpet; N. A. says to him: “Are you just going to lay there forever like that? Are you stuck?” A yellow ball rolls toward him and he catches it in his teeth]
O’Keefe: For over a year and a half, [N. A.] has been in court, fighting to get her dog back. She hopes if her judge cares about Roger’s best interest, he’ll award her custody. [to N. A.] Why do you think Roger would be best with you? Why is it in Roger’s best interest to be reunited with you?
N. A.: He’s a part of me. And he belongs with me because he will never, ever wonder how loved he is with me. He’s never had to. He’s never had to wonder if he doesn’t come first or not. He never has to wonder if I’m going to notice a weird spot on his snout that shouldn’t be there or behaviours. Um, I know that dog like the inside of my own hand and he knows me better than probably anybody. It’s, it is what it is and animals I think deserve that just as much as, as children do.
O’Keefe: And [N]’s about to find out if she’ll get Roger back. Next week, Rebeka is in court and she thinks the judge is ready to make a decision [Breder and N. A. review documents on a table and then hug]. [to N. A.] How are you feeling?
N. A.: Eager. I am eager. I just want it to be over. This has been delayed so many times. Even acknowledged by judges that it’s been delayed more than it should be. I’m feeling nervous. I’m feeling excited. Because I know in my heart that’s my dog.
O’Keefe: [N] may know Roger is her dog, but a judge isn’t so sure. [N. A. overlooking an empty park] Her case was delayed again. Now she’ll have to wait weeks, even months to find out who gets custody of him. In the meantime, she’s staying focused on the day she’s reunited with Roger. [video footage of N. A. snuggling the dog; the dog rolling in grass; the dog putting his face on a chair]
N. A.: The thought of seeing Roger went from being so sad for the longest time where I had a hard time looking through pictures and videos and now when I think about what it would be like to reunite with him, actually just makes me smile, like, so big because it’s going to feel so good. [cellphone footage of a hand (presumably N. A.’s) stroking the dog’s head while she sings “You Are My Sunshine” to him]
Haines: Spain is one of the latest countries to consider a pet’s best interests when awarding custody. In a country that still allows bull fighting, activists say this new law is a huge victory for animal rights. We’ll be right back.
The CBSC received the following complaint via its webform on April 8, 2023:
Name of Television or Radio Station: CTV - W5
Program Name: W5 - "Dog Fight"
Date of Program: 11/03/2023
Time of Program: 7:00PM
- W5/Kevin O'Keefe profiled my ex-partner, [N. A.] "[N]" for their "dog fight" episode
- I am currently involved in ongoing litigation with [N] concerning custody of my dog "Roger"
- At no point did Kevin O'Keefe or anyone else from CTV/W5 attempt to reach out to me or my representatives for comment or any background
- It is apparent that Kevin and W5 also failed to do any sort of fact checking or research regarding the false claims made to them by [N]
- As a result, W5 aired the story with several misrepresentations and false facts. Kevin himself stated the false facts AS FACT several times without any attribution.
- Prior to the show airing, notice and several emails were sent by my attorneys ([D. S.] & [P. S.]) to O'Keefe and an array of CTV/W5 producers and management specifying the errors and severe failures and infringements of the journalistic code of ethics. These emails included sworn affidavits from [N]'s ex-employer and biological sister that highlighted [N]'s perverse behaviour, dishonesty and some of the true facts surrounding the dog dispute including the existence of an agreement, in which [N] signed full custody of Roger over to me. All of these went unanswered.
- My ex-partner's sister also sent an email to the same array specifying her sister's struggles with mental health, extreme perfidy and how wrong W5 was on this story. This also went unanswered and unaddressed.
- I also personally sent a thorough email underscoring how wrong O'Keefe and W5 were on the matter and the complete lapses in journalistic ethics and integrity. This went unanswered.
- To this day, no one from CTV/W5 have made any attempt to reach out to myself or my representatives for comment or to pursue my side of the story/the facts
- We have made several attempts in good faith to have CTV/W5 come to the table and address/rectify their mistakes and failures in journalism. All of these attempts and efforts have gone unanswered.
- CTV/W5 promoted the story across their social media channels with the title "When [N. A.] broke up with her boyfriend, he took her dog..."
- Kevin O'Keefe also explicitly stated this as fact (without any attribution) multiple times in the broadcast.
- This is one of the egregious errors that would have easily been established to be false if O'Keefe had done any bit of background
- The true fact pattern is that I asked my ex-partner to leave my parents’ home and ended the relationship on August 17, 2020 after discovering severe transgressions against myself and my family committed by [N]. At this time, she took Roger and refused to return him.
- I then retained legal counsel that sent multiple notices asking for an amicable resolution/the return of Roger. These went unanswered.
- [N]'s immediate family also pleaded with her to return Roger to my home. She refused their requests and has since been estranged from most of her immediate and extended family.
- After 5 months of good faith attempts requesting the return of Roger, I was forced to file a claim with the Civil Resolution Tribunal regarding the return of Roger.
- Around the same time, it was discovered that [N] was also committing major theft and fraud out of my parents' business banking account as well as my personal credit account.
- [N] soon after signed full custody of Roger over to me and I withdrew the CRT claim.
- 18 months after signing the agreement, [N] filed suit in provincial court challenging the agreement.
- Her claims have been refuted by sworn affidavits written by her own siblings, previous employer and other close contacts of hers, all of whom have written in support of me.
- After the story aired, there were a host of harmful comments posted under links of the story on CTV/W5's socials.
- These included comments promoting my murder and "deport these fuking immigrants."
- CTV/W5 has made no effort to remove the factually incorrect content/story
- Kevin O'Keefe has since personally engaged with some comments and has again stated factually incorrect information regarding the ongoing litigation. He has not engaged any of the comments that call for my harm or any of the comments that ask why the other side of the story is absent.
- I am easily identifiable in the story, even though I am not named. [N]'s legal name as well as the fact that we are involved in litigation is explicitly stated.
- My parents have been inundated at their place of business regarding the story
- I am a current Master of Laws student, I sit on the board of a local non-profit and am personally sponsoring and fundraising for a persecuted Afghan family's resettlement here in BC. My reputation is critically important to me and I have engaged in nothing short of good faith and with compassion towards [N] post dissolution and in regards to the custody dispute.
- She in turn has engaged in extreme perfidy and egregious behaviour and CTV/W5/Kevin O'Keefe failed in their duties as journalists to explore the actual truth and have made zero efforts since to rectify their mistakes.
- I did not intend or want to make any press council complaints. I made clear that I would rather have CTV/W5 rectify their mistakes. They made no effort.
- I am hoping this escalation will help address the errors and CTV/W5/Kevin O'Keefe will be held accountable for their egregious lapses in journalism. I am prepared to provide further context and documentation. Thank you.
The CBSC responded to the complainant on April 13 with the following:
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) has received your message about W5 - "Dog Fight" broadcast on CTV British Columbia (CIVT-DT).
The CBSC notes that you indicated that your lawyers contacted CTV/W5. Please understand that the CBSC cannot pursue complaints where there is any threat of legal action. The CBSC’s complaints-resolution process is intended to be a constructive dialogue between audience members and stations. Complainants can thus choose to pursue their complaints with either the courts (or other similar tribunals) OR the CBSC, but not both.
In addition, be aware that the CBSC makes its determinations based on the facts as they were presented on air. The CBSC is not an evidence-gathering body; it has neither the means nor the mandate to investigate activities that occurred off-air or behind the scenes. Much of your complaint involves issues that occurred off air.
Given this information, if you do decide to use the CBSC process instead of legal action, please let us know.
I have put your complaint on hold while we wait for further information from you.
The complainant wrote back on April 13 confirming that he would not pursue legal action against CTV:
[T]hank you for the reply. My attorneys had contacted CTV/W5/Kevin O'Keefe prior to the broadcast in an attempt to dissuade the network from airing the story, or at the very least do some basic journalism and fact check/reach out for comment. They neglected to do either.
My only interest has been to come to a reasonable resolution and have CTV/W5 rectify their mistakes. I only provided the concise background of facts as context and to illustrate the true nature of fact and what would have been easily attainable had W5 done any background. Even if the network neglected to reach out to me, they were aware litigation is ongoing and could have easily attained the affidavits and sworn testimony that irrefutably establishes that I did not take [N. A.]’s dog after she broke up with me, as O'Keefe explicitly stated multiple times without attribution and as W5 stated in their promos for the program.
There has been a complete and abject failure of journalism here and infringement of the core principles of journalism. A national program like W5 has the trust of the public, a wide reach and the power to do considerable harm if negligent. I am not interested in pursuing legal action. I am interested in getting this right and accountability on W5's end. I emailed several public facing personalities and producers/management with my intentions and offers for W5 to cure their mistakes and they've gone unheeded; the story is still up across their socials and O'Keefe continues to engage public comments with incorrect information regarding ongoing litigation and ignores the comments citing harm to myself and the ones that question the absence of journalism.
So in short, yes I am interested in pursuing this via the CBSC. I am aware of the mandates concerning constructive dialogue and resolution and I tried at length to come to a reasonable directly with [sic] CTV/W5 but have been entirely ignored. Thank you.
The broadcaster responded to the complainant on April 25:
I am responding to your complaint to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) about the W5 documentary, Dog Fight, broadcast on CTV on March 11, 2023. This was a story that examined the proliferation of pet custody cases in Canada and the resulting emotional and financial toll they can take. W5 spent four months investigating this story and spoke to dozens of people about the challenges of pet custody disputes. The story featured several people including an animal rights lawyer, an animal behaviour expert, a couple who signed a pet custody agreement while their relationship was amicable, a representative from the Montreal SPCA and your ex-girlfriend, [N. A.].
As part of your complaint, you have made specific allegations and comments about the story and allegations that don’t apply to the on-air story (such as social media content). You will find below our response to the claims that were part of our broadcast.
You write: I am currently involved in ongoing litigation with [N] concerning custody of my dog "Roger." At no point did Kevin O'Keefe or anyone else from CTV/W5 attempt to reach out to me or my representatives for comment or any background.
W5 responds: This is true. And purposefully so. W5 intentionally avoided outlining or listing any allegations in the case between you and [N. A.]. It can be perilous to get into details of cases while they are before the courts. That’s one reason why W5 chose to report only that Ms. [A] was in a legal battle over a dog with her unnamed ex-partner (you). The purpose of the story was to show that pet custody battles are proliferating and can be both upsetting and expensive – not to argue or compare the merits of any one case. Since neither Ms. [A] nor W5 made any allegations in the story, there was no need to ask anyone to respond to those non-existent allegations. In fact, if W5 were to have included your side of the story or allegations, those would’ve been the only allegations in the documentary – which would be unfair and unbalanced.
You write: It is apparent that Kevin and W5 also failed to do any sort of fact checking or research regarding the false claims made to them by [N]. As a result, W5 aired the story with several misrepresentations and false facts. Kevin himself stated the false facts AS FACT several times without any attribution.
You also describe in detail your chronological version of what happened at several stages after your break up, including allegations against [N. A.].
W5 responds: We believe that the facts reported in the story are accurate: that Ms. [A] and you adopted a dog named Roger when you were in a romantic relationship; that you broke up; that the dog is now living with you; that she has now brought civil proceedings to get custody of Roger, which is for the courts to decide. We believe that those are the facts that any reasonable viewer would take away from the story.
We do not get into the complexities or history of the case and purposefully so. It’s noteworthy that the script does allude to the disagreement over ownership and the complexity:
“Another challenge for Rebeka [[N]’s lawyer] are cases like [N]’s where both claim the pet is their property.”
And Rebeka Breder immediately says, “So very often that that is what happens, right? Both sides have a compelling story to tell in court… It's complicated.”
You write: CTV/W5 promoted the story across their social media channels with the title "When [N. A.] broke up with her boyfriend, he took her dog..." Kevin O'Keefe also explicitly stated this as fact (without any attribution) multiple times in the broadcast. This is one of the egregious errors that would have easily been established to be false if O'Keefe had done any bit of background.
W5 responds: The phrase, "When [N. A.] broke up with her boyfriend, he took her dog..." was never used in the on-air story or on any social media for that matter. You seem to be suggesting that W5 was making a judgement call on the dog’s ownership. The line in the social media post (Twitter) reads, “When [N. A.] broke up with her boyfriend, he took their dog.” Regardless, there are similar phrases that appear in the broadcast, such as:
“…she hasn’t seen Roger in over a year and a half. Not since she broke up with her boyfriend and he took him. Since then she’s been in court fighting to get him back.”
Once again, W5 does not get into the details of how the dog came to be in your possession and makes no suggestion that you stole or kidnapped or otherwise unfairly snatched the dog. It’s simply to state the fact that you have the dog and [N. A.] is challenging you in court for his custody. The details or merits of [N]’s claims are never discussed in the story. In fact, the broadcast specifically states that, “[N] may know Roger is her dog, but a judge isn’t so sure.”
You write: To this day, no one from CTV/W5 have made any attempt to reach out to myself or my representatives for comment or to pursue my side of the story/the facts. We have made several attempts in good faith to have CTV/W5 come to the table and address/rectify their mistakes and failures in journalism. All of these attempts and efforts have gone unanswered.
W5 responds: This is a similar comment as the one you made at the top of this letter, but we assume this is in reference to attempts to engage with us in the week before and after the story aired. W5 strenuously rejects any assertion that our journalism contained mistakes or failures, since as we stated, omitting the details of the legal arguments was intentional. And since W5 did not outline the specific details of either side of the story or make any allegations, there was no need to seek a counter point of view.
Finally, as for your attempts to have W5 “come to the table,” since your first and second messages to W5 were from two different lawyers, W5 referred all comment to our legal counsel from that point onwards. And despite your assertion that all of those messages have gone unanswered, on March 22, 2023, W5's legal counsel, WeirFoulds LLP, responded to your legal counsel, [D. S.] and addressed your complaints. Since you are a Masters of Law student, I’m sure that you can understand that it is common practice to not engage directly with someone after they have engaged their lawyers to challenge content in our stories.
In conclusion, we believe our reporting was fair and accurate and in compliance with applicable codes administered by the CBSC. CTV News/W5 is a member in good standing of the CBSC and adheres to its codes and guidelines.
The complainant filed his Ruling Request on May 9:
This response is entirely unsatisfactory, and [W5’s Executive Producer] is once again attempting to subvert any accountability for the overt lapses in journalistic integrity exhibited within the broadcast story.
[W5’s Executive Producer] in his response failed to address Kevin O’Keefe’s statement in the broadcast, “It all began the day she broke up with her boyfriend, and he took the dog with him.” As previously stated, this is entirely untrue. Upon my ending of the relationship on August 17, 2020, [A] took Roger from my residence and refused to return him. Over the course of the next few months, my attorney sent several letters to [A] requesting the return of Roger and an amicable arrangement regarding his custody. [A] refused to respond and I then initiated a claim with the Civil Resolution Tribunal requesting his return. March 2021, 7 months after she took him, [A] signed over all legal rights and title to Roger in a notarized agreement. I in good faith and out of compassion still allowed discretionary visitation and she then refused to return him 5 months after signing the agreement. Delta police intervened and removed Roger from her custody on July 22, 2021 and returned him to me. She has not seen him since. All of the aforementioned facts are undisputed, and would have been easily discoverable had there been any fact-checking, background or research.
Of note, the second part of the W5 segment covered pet custody agreements within marriage like relationships. At no point during the segment regarding Roger was there any mention of the custody agreement in place and that [A] had signed over legal title of Roger to me in that agreement. Instead, the heavily imbalanced and inaccurate story framed [A] as a sympathetic victim and the reasonable viewer was led to believe that I took Roger away from her out of spite. This has been the overwhelming online response to the story and O’Keefe has himself engaged the comments, but has neglected to engage any skeptical comments that question the imbalance and why the other side is not presented.
I would appreciate for any individual with a reasonable understanding of journalism attempt to justify how O’Keefe’s statements as well as the overall story and the way it was presented align with the standards set forth by the CBSC regarding responsible journalism. There was no attempt to present a balanced and fair story ahead of time, nor were there any attempts at correction or fact-checking after a litany of legal letters, affidavits and emails – including from [A]’s own sister were sent to W5 underscoring how wrong they were on the story.
RTDNA (1) Accuracy – Explicitly states that journalists are to: attribute, commit to accuracy and promptly correct errors through the lifecycle of a story. W5/O’Keefe have breached these provisions and have refused to rectify any of their mistakes.
RTDNA (2) Fairness - Explicitly states that journalists are to be fair and balanced. At no point was there ever any attempt to present a fair and balanced story or even reach out to me for comment. Truth, accuracy and objectivity are cornerstones of responsible journalism. W5 egregiously breached all three of these provisions and misrepresented the facts and elements of a story on a national stage, and [W5’s Executive Producer] in his response is once again attempting to subvert responsibility for breaching the codes of ethical journalism that he purports CTV/W5 “adheres to.”