Journalist’s Actions Constitute Conflict of Interest, but Coverage of Issue Not in Breach of Broadcast Codes, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, February 13, 1997 -- The B.C. Regional Council of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning the activities of a journalist at CKNW.

In March 1995, CKNW's Victoria Bureau Chief filed an allegation with the province's Conflict of Interest Commissioner, regarding a possible conflict of interest concerning then-Premier Harcourt's involvement in the NOW Communications matter. The CBSC received a complaint about the actions of the CKNW journalist. In its lengthy letter, the complainant argued that the station had contravened provisions the broadcasting industry's Code of Ethics concerning news and controversial public issues. The complainant argued that, by filing the allegation, the station had "crossed the line from reporting on news to creating news by directly participating in political action." After highlighting several instances where CKNW's journalist had made public statements on the matter and had allegedly approached opposition parties regarding the filing of the request, the complainant concluded that "CKNW and its employees have made a series of decisions which have resulted in a perception of bias against the Premier of the province and his government that have caused the public to question the station's journalistic integrity."

The CBSC forwarded the letter to CKNW, whose Program Director replied that the complainant had not cited any instance of bias in CKNW's reporting of the matter; indeed, in the Program Director's view, the station's reporting had been substantially the same as that provided by the other media. He added that, by initiating a request with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, CKNW's reporter was "merely taking information which had been put into the public domain by others and asking for information to be answered" by the Commissioner. The complainant, unsatisfied with the response, asked the CBSC's B.C. Regional Council to review the matter.

In its decision (attached), the Regional Council determined that, indeed, nothing in the complaint letter suggested that CKNW had covered a subject which it should not have covered, and nothing in that letter pointed to a specific newscast or program where CKNW had not reported fairly or accurately on the matter. In this way, CKNW had not breached the broadcasters' Code of Ethics, which stipulates that news should be reported in a full, fair and proper manner, without editorialization. Moreover, "CKNW did not select the news; one of its reporters, by filing an allegation, became a news story which every journalistic entity was entitled to cover."

CKNW did, however, in the Council's view, contravene the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, which stipulates that broadcast journalists must govern themselves, on and off the job, in a way to avoid real or apparent conflict of interest. The Regional Council considered that its was the responsibility of the journalist to investigate matters of public interest, but it was a breach of the journalistic Code to ask the Conflict of Interest Commissioner to have him carry out that role, for it then put CKNW in an apparent conflict of interest regarding the story. The Council added, "the broadcast journalist's role is to investigate a matter and report it to the public, not to take a public stand on such an issue by bringing the matter to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner." Thus, Council decided that CKNW had breached the journalistic Code. CKNW is, consequently, required to announce the decision during peak listening hours.

Nearly 400 private sector radio and television stations from across Canada are members of the Council. In addition to administering industry codes on broadcast ethics and journalistic ethics, the CBSC administers the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence on Television, and the Sex-Role Portrayal Code.

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