The CBC has finally responded to my complaint about their false reporting of the March for Life. As Socon or Bust readers are aware, the CBC had reported that 5,000 people attended the March for Life. Below is the official response. My commentary follows, as indicated.
Dear Mr. Pacheco:
Thank you for your e-mails of May 13 and 16 (including links to posts on Socon or Bust) addressed to Kirk LaPointe, CBC Ombudsman, concerning what you take to be inaccurate information about the number of people at the annual March for Life demonstration in Ottawa on May 12.
No, Ms. Enkin. I am afraid that I must strenuously disagree with your relativistic portrayal of the facts in question. It is not, as you say, “what [I] take to be inaccurate information“. On the contrary, it is objectively inaccurate information, as I have already demonstrated on my blog. It is not merely a matter of opinion, as you suggest, but an undeniable fact. And that’s what the CBC really needs to address.
The demonstration was widely covered on CBC Radio, CBC Television and CBC News.ca. Your post linked to a web story, I can also tell you that the story on THE NATIONAL reported that “police estimated” the crowd size at about 5,000 people. Let me emphasize that while the information was conveyed in CBC News reports, it was not – as you indicated it was – a CBC News estimate. Estimating the number of people in a crowd or along a parade route is difficult to do without specialist knowledge. In this case, Ottawa police made the estimate, based on their knowledge and experience with crowds on Parliament Hill.
First of all, whether the estimate was derived from the police or whether it was offered by CBC staff is not the primary issue here, Ms. Enkin. The issue here is that the CBC reported a very important statistic that was erroneous. As you can appreciate, this error is magnified even more so than it would otherwise be. First of all, the error was so large, being only one-third of the actual number, that it calls into question the professionalism and objectivity of the CBC to simply take one cop’s word for it. I very much doubt that the reporter in question sought the opinion of the RCMP who are more qualified at judging the sizes of these events than the Ottawa police. As I explained in my original report of this event, the CBC reported 15,000 at the March for Marriage in 2005 based on RCMP estimates, and that was for a comparably smaller crowd. And really, we need to ask some basic questions; like how many Marches (besides the March for Life) do the Ottawa police manage which exceed 5,000? Not many, I would think. Which brings me to the second point. The March for Life in Ottawa, Ms. Enkin, is the largest annual socio-political rally in Canada, concerning an issue which is the most contentious social issue in Canada. One would hope that our national broadcaster would devote some decent coverage to it and therefore put some financial resources into getting some real stories and perspectives on it. Perhaps live coverage of the March for Life is asking too much of the CBC, but seeking a second opinion on grossly distorted numbers is not, I respectfully submit, going overboard in its professional obligations as a tax-funded news organization. We’re tax-paying Canadians, too, you know. We deserve some respect.
Reporters are our eyes and ears bringing us information about events that we did not witness ourselves. But when reporters do not witness the events they tell us about, but hear about them from others, or cannot know about something with certainty – as was the case here – we expect that they will attribute that information.
I see. So what you’re saying is that the CBC accepts, without any sort of serious discernment, any number that the police or government institution report, without coroborating it in any way? Does the CBC report every claim, however outlandish, without seeking to provide some perspective for their viewers or follow up with another source? Is this the standard that the CBC uses in assessing the validity of a claim, even if it’s given without any ulterior motive? I don’t think so…at least not when it concerns an issue that the CBC deems worthy of the truth. The people who signed the petition to have the record corrected would like to know how low the CBC would go before it would start to challenge the accuracy of an estimate on the size of something like the March for Life? Would 2,000 start to strain credibility for the CBC? How about 1,000? Would the CBC’s journalistic practices accept a report that “police estimated 250 people at the March for Life” when 15,000 actually showed up?
That way listeners, viewers or readers know the source of the information and can make their own judgment about its reliability.
Did the CBC’s report on its website or in its TV coverage give any sort of idea of how truly large that rally was? No. Why not? If the CBC were truly interested in reporting, it would have shown some video or picture the crowd and let its viewers and readers see for themselves and make their own judgement. I suspect that the reporting of “5,000” would not have accompanied a picture or video which showed something significantly different.
Thank you again for your e-mail.
It is also my responsibility to tell you that if you are not satisfied with this response, you may wish to submit the matter for review by the CBC Ombudsman. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body reporting directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance with the CBC’s journalistic policies. The Ombudsman may be reached by mail at the address shown below, or by fax at (416) 205-2825, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Box 500, Station “A”,
cc. Kirk LaPointe, CBC Ombudsman
The question of professionalism and judgement on the part of the CBC is a matter of debate, Ms. Enkin. The CBC believes that it has no further responsibility to corroborate estimates which are wildly different from reality. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an error was made in the CBC’s reporting of the event. The CBC has an obligation – especially as a publicly funded national broadcaster – to ensure the record is publicly corrected. The basis of journalism should be to report the truth and correct any errors made, even if those errors were made in good faith by relying on a neutral source. If the CBC does not correct the error, it will be interpreted as an ideological decision.
The CBC attributed the crowd’s numbers to the Ottawa Police’s estimate, but a refusal to correct the numbers is the CBC’s decision entirely.