CBC News letter: Balance and news report

CBC News has completed its comprehensive News Balance Study, writes editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire, and it shows that Canadians' perceptions about journalism are changing.

CBC News has now completed its comprehensive News Balance Study.

In June, we released the interim results and I explained then in some detail why we think it's important to evaluate the journalism we do and the way we do it. 

So what have we learned? First and foremost, that Canadians are sophisticated and critical consumers of news who are not satisfied getting information from any one source.

Canadians' perceptions about journalism are changing. They believe journalism plays a vital role in society and is critical to the health of democracy.

However, they think there is much less fact and more opinion in contemporary journalism, that over time the quality of journalism has been declining and that most journalism reflects the corporate point of view of owners and shareholders.

Our study covers television, radio and internet-based news content, focusing on CBC News but also looking at major competitors.

The content analysis, done by ERIN Research, covers a 25-week period from Oct. 26, 2009 to May 2, 2010 and includes 6,000 radio stories, 7,500 television stories and 2,400 internet stories.

The public opinion component, done by Ipsos-Reid, took place between Apr. 6 and May 17, 2010 and included 2,555 anglophone Canadians aged 18+, as well as an "over sample" of 206 aboriginal people and 646 visible minorities.

The objectives of our research were to provide CBC with a comprehensive understanding of:

  • what Canadian news consumers understand by "fair" and "balanced" news coverage;
  • the degree to which Canadian news consumers feel these principles are being demonstrated through the various CBC News delivery platforms and competitor news organizations.

Among the content analysis findings:

  • most news organizations are fairly similar in how they cover events and issues.

However, it also found that CBC News:

  • tends to have more women and visible minorities as anchors and hosts;
  • allocates more time to stories about politics and government;
  • spends more time on major world issues;
  • devotes more time to analysts and experts in its stories.

From the public opinion survey:

  • "single source" news no longer exists; Canadians use multiple sources and media;
  • Canadians aren't convinced any single news provider can be completely fair and balanced;
  • Canadians don't see "fair" and "balanced" as the same thing; "fair" means accurate, unbiased, truthful, factual, honest and impartial; "balanced" means covering multiple points of view, a range of subjects and opinions and regional representation.

As part of the content analysis, case studies were conducted on the news coverage of three major issues during the measurement period: H1N1, the international climate change conference in Copenhagen and the Haiti earthquake.

The case studies provide an in-depth look at the coverage of these issues from CBC and other news sources. They will be used as learning tools in discussions with News programmers and producers about scope and tone of events and issues generally.

For Canadian news consumers, the most important factors contributing to integrity are:

  • that news is well-researched to ensure it conforms with facts and reality;
  • that organizations make a clear distinction between news and opinion;
  • that news is not distorted to justify or support a conclusion;
  • that news stories present different sides or perspectives;
  • and that stories avoid personal or corporate bias on the part of the journalist.

These results were consistent among anglophone Canadians, visible minorities and aboriginal peoples.

This unique study will be invaluable for us as we build on a long tradition of journalistic excellence. As the national public broadcaster, we are committed to the highest level of journalistic standards and, as such, the knowledge we've gained will help to inform our news coverage on a day-to-day basis.

Initiated in 2009 as the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of news undertaken by any news organization in Canadian history, this study has yielded valuable insights into the Canadian news landscape and will be used as an ongoing development resource for Canada's national public broadcaster. CBC has conducted content analyses of its news (including specifically for election coverage) since 1977.

About our panel of advisors

Five media experts from Canada and abroad were selected as a panel of advisors to this project. Their role is to provide methodological and interpretive advice.  The five represent a spectrum of broad expertise and experience in mass media:

  • Sarah Carter: Bureau chief, CBS News, Johannesburg and visiting professor at the University of British Columbia;
  • Fred Fletcher: Professor emeritus, Communication Studies and Political Science, York University and founding president of the Canadian Media Research Consortium;
  • Hanson Hosein: Director of the Master of Communication in Digital Media program at the University of Washington in Seattle;
  • Mark Jurowitz: Associate director of the Pew Research Centre Project for Excellence in Journalism;
  • Holli Semetko: Vice-provost for International Affairs and director of the Office of International Affairs at Emory University and 1995-2003 professor and chair of Audience and Public Opinion Research, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Amsterdam.

As an industry-leading organization, CBC News will continue to conduct periodic assessments of our news programming as part of our continuing efforts toward transparency and accountability to Canadians and will make those results public as a public contribution towards establishing best-industry practices in Canadian news.

Also, we will in coming months be releasing our updated Journalistic Standards and Practices, which is available online.