Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Cautious Coverage, Curious Criticism

Categories: Canada, Journalism, Politics

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At CBC News, it's a given: we're the public broadcaster, and constructive criticism is part of life. That's part of our contract with Canadians--always to be open and responsive to the feedback we get, positive and negative alike.

But sometimes, it's hard to know what to make of a reaction. Right now, for instance, CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador is taking flak from the province and the police, and the reasoning behind it has us puzzled.

It started earlier this week, after we did stories about a provincial report on sexual exploitation in the province.

The 120-page report, titled "It's Nobody's Mandate and Everyone's Responsibility: Sexual Exploitation and the Sex Trade in Newfoundland and Labrador," was completed nearly 2-1/2 years ago. It wasn't made public, nor was its existence revealed, until this week when CBC reported on it after receiving a leaked copy.

The official response to CBC's coverage came from Deputy Chief Bill Janes and from the Minister responsible for the Women's Policy Office, Charlene Johnson. They suggested that since some of its contents were based on interviews with sex workers, news stories about the report could put such women in danger.

It's important to clarify what CBC did, and the decisions we made.

First, this was a government study, conducted at public expense but then shelved, its existence never acknowledged. CBC decided that publishing information about the study, and some carefully chosen parts of what it contained, would be in the public interest.

Second, our newsroom leaders made an editorial decision to publish only 10 carefully-chosen pages of excerpts from the report, dealing with generic information about recommendations to address the issue of sexual exploitation.

Among them that:

•    Mentoring programs must be established for potentially vulnerable children and youth.
•    All governments must take responsibility in establishing 24-hour help lines working in conjunction with crisis intervention services and outreach teams.
•    "The healing process involves finding the source of the problem."
•    Children or youth at high risk for sexual exploitation must be identified by those with authority and ability to intervene.

The report calls for a number of programs or supports, including:

•    Help for those in the sex trade, such as a 24-hour drop-in centre for youth and a street nurse program.
•    Emergency housing for people trying to leave the sex trade.
•    Laws to permit anonymous testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
•    A single agency in charge of dealing with exploitation.

The report also makes a series of suggestions for possible changes to the justice system, and repeatedly cites the issue of 16-year-olds left to live alone as a problem.

Third, CBC News made an editorial decision to not report any information we believed could identify participants in the research.

Deputy Chief Janes told reporters that referencing the fact that researchers interviewed people in the sex trade three years ago for a study on exploitation is harmful to the public. "We looked at this very carefully," Janes said. "We're a very open organization, the RNC, in terms of providing information out to the public, but we have to weigh that against public safety." He said while all the interviews are anonymous and no names are attached he's concerned those controlling the sex trade could lash out.
And that's what's puzzling, because CBC took precautions to downplay any information about those who participated in the study, for that very reason and precisely those concerns.

The Minister told reporters that even acknowledging the existence of a report causes potential harm to public safety. "The risk is already elevated because CBC has put this out there," Johnson said. "We don't want to elevate it any further," she added, explaining why there'd be no further reaction.

Asked why the government couldn't redact sensitive information, but release other parts of the report, Johnson said: "You're missing the whole point. The whole point is that, by even saying that we're doing a piece of work around this, will cause potential harm to these people involved. That's the whole point." The question of why the report had been shelved wasn't raised by reporters, but the minister did say the government has acted on many of the recommendations made by authors of the 2011 study.

CBC stands by its decision to publish the carefully chosen information it reported on this matter of undoubted public interest, and respectfully rejects the implication that this in any way put individuals in jeopardy.

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