News Editor's Blog·Editor's Note

What trusted journalism looks like in the age of disinformation, polarization

CBC News is one of the most trusted news brands in Canada, but we do not take the public's trust for granted or assume most people understand how our stories get made. The editor's blog is an attempt to share some of what goes on behind the scenes. In this edition, we unpack how CBC News deals with confidential sources and allegations of political bias.

A look at how CBC News uses confidential sources and how it deals with allegations of political bias

Confidential sources, political bias and maintaining impartiality — three issues that audiences have raised in recent weeks about CBC's journalism. This editor's blog aims to shed light on some of the checks and balances behind the scenes that ensure our work is credible and trustworthy. (CBC)

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CBC News is one of the most trusted news brands in Canada, but it's a fragile trust in the age of disinformation, polarization and undermining of legacy media. 

We do not take for granted the public's trust in our reporting. Nor do we assume most people understand how our stories get made or the checks and balances behind the scenes that ensure our work is credible and trustworthy. That's one of the reasons this editor's blog exists.

Here are three issues that have emerged in recent weeks about journalism and trust:

Confidential sources

In an ideal world, every story we put to air or online would be fully and transparently sourced. People with important information to share would have the courage and safety to be named in our stories and not face repercussions. Naming sources is always our preferred choice. 

But there can be a fine balance between transparency and accountability in a journalist's pursuit of the truth. Information from unnamed sources can be a powerful tool to learn important and potentially controversial facts about a story.  

At CBC News, when considering whether or not to shield a source's identity, we first take great care to ensure that the information provided is credible. But more importantly, we must be sure that the value of that information is worth sacrificing a level of transparency.

Our ability to protect sources allows people with important information to come forward and expose matters of public interest. If we do not properly protect our confidential sources, potential sources will not trust us. This compromises our ability to expose abuses of power.

It is common to hear that a source spoke to a particular news organization "on condition of anonymity." Most recently, the Atlantic published an article citing "anonymous sources" who revealed disparaging remarks allegedly made by U.S. President Donald Trump against military veterans. What was lost on some critics of the story is that the unnamed sources were not anonymous to the reporter or his editor. 

At CBC News, we have adopted the practice of referring to these kinds of sources as "confidential." We feel this is an important distinction that makes clear to the audience that we know who the source is, but we have chosen to protect their identity. When CBC News journalists use confidential sources, they are not anonymous to us. Instead, we have offered them confidentiality because the information is in the public interest and their concerns about being named are legitimate, such as in this example from the CBC parliamentary bureau.

Truly anonymous sources are very rare, and require the highest level of scrutiny and oversight. You can read more about our policy in our Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner speaks with the media outside the Sir John A. Macdonald building in Ottawa earlier this month. CBC News has been accused of showing bias toward the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and the Green Party, but its commitment is to accurate, fair, balanced and impartial journalism that does not pick sides, writes editor in chief and executive director of daily news Brodie Fenlon. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Political bias

Allegations of political bias in our journalism are voluminous, especially on Twitter and comment threads, where there appears to be ever-deepening polarization and partisanship.

Recently, CBC News has been accused on Twitter of giving the Conservative Party of Canada and its new leader, Erin O'Toole, a free ride in an effort to turn public opinion against the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. And we have been accused of a bias against the Conservative Party of Canada in order to prop up the Liberal minority government.

Just this week, we were accused on Twitter of giving NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh too much airtime. Some said it was because we are in the pockets of the New Democrats; others suggested we are keen to air criticism — any criticism — of the Liberals. 

I have heard more than a few times that CBC's board of directors consists of political appointees who direct our coverage (they don't) in favour of (choose one) the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, the Green Party. I have been alarmed to hear otherwise smart people suggest in conspiratorial terms that we aired a particular story in order to distract the public from a different story damaging to a given political party. 

Some of this stuff can be shrugged off as silly partisan antics. Some of it is serious and seriously believed. Some of it is quite vicious, often directed at our political journalists, many of whom endure repeated personal attacks for doing their jobs. 

What, exactly, is the job of our journalists? It is to hold politicians, political parties and governments of any stripe to account, without fear or favour. It is about news reporting that is accurate and fair, balanced and impartial. Everything we produce is subject to a rigorous complaints process and public scrutiny via the CBC Ombudsman

Yes, we make mistakes. When we do, we answer for them. 

But demanding accountability, pushing for answers, asking provocative questions, cutting through spin — these are the hallmarks of good political journalism and not the measure of bias.

Let me be clear: our job is not to help any party or candidate get elected, no matter how strongly Canadians might feel about any one of them. We do not pick sides. As we enter a new political dynamic next week with a federal throne speech and the return of Parliament, I hope you'll see our journalistic values on full display across all of our coverage. And I know you will hold us to account for them.

Inclusion and impartiality

As noted in a previous editor's blog, we are examining our journalistic standards and practices (JSP) through the lens of inclusion. This review, which involves wide consultation with staff, is one of a number of ongoing measures at CBC News aimed at eliminating race-related barriers inside our newsrooms and in our coverage so we can better reflect the country we serve. 

After the original blog was published, I heard from some members of the public who were concerned we might abandon our core values of impartiality in favour of activism. That is certainly not the intent. While we have a responsibility as journalists to elevate, reflect and create space for a wide range of opinion, including from activists, we will never become part of the movements we cover. However, there is latitude for our journalists to bring their lived and professional experience to bear on the stories we cover. In fact, we count on that expertise to enrich our storytelling.

What we've already learned so far in our review of the JSP is that there is a need for greater clarity for our staff around our policies on opinion, social media use and outside activities. More areas of friction will likely emerge and will be addressed, but rest assured, we will not move away from the fundamentals of good journalism that have made CBC News such a trusted brand in Canada and beyond our borders. 


Brodie Fenlon

Editor in chief

Brodie Fenlon is editor in chief and executive director of programs and standards for CBC News.