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Storytelling: Making Choices

Categories: Business, Canada, Journalism, Politics

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Everybody knows we've had big news stories lately. In the past couple of weeks, the headlines have been dominated by the typhoon in the Philippines and the storm of controversy around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Those stories have spurred lots of reaction from the audience. In recent days, our online commenting numbers have set all-time records.

Sometimes, though, some of the most interesting debates about journalism arise from stories with a lower profile. We want to share a couple of recent rulings from the CBC Ombudsman that focus on choices we made when we told two such stories.

The first case concerns one of our "Go Public" features. These are excellent investigative reports that follow up on ideas submitted by the audience. They're often stories about people's difficult experiences with institutions, corporations, or government.

In this instance, the story was about a British Columbia couple bumped off an Air Canada flight. It explained that they were parents who were upset because they didn't make it home in time to meet their children, who were being dropped off by the grandparents. The grandparents didn't have keys to the house, and were not reachable. There were other issues as well, such as when the couple boarded a later flight, their luggage - which included their car keys - didn't make it. All in all, it was a frustrating experience for them.

One of our viewers complained to the Ombudsman about the details of the couple's story we chose to include. He said our coverage was slanted, that by dwelling on these details, we "turned a straight news story into a sob story". He thought the couple contributed to their own misfortune. And that we erred by publishing a photo of the couple's children, which "had nothing to do with Air Canada's practices." The Ombudsman was sympathetic to our choices, saying that our story gave a full reflection of Air Canada's perspective on the practice of overbooking as well as the couple's. So it met our requirements for fairness and balance. "The fact that you thought the (couple) were partly authors of their own misfortune means the story did what it was supposed to do," said the Ombudsman. ""Based on the facts presented, you came to your own set of conclusions."

In another instance, though, the Ombudsman was not so supportive of the choices we made.

This case came from Halifax earlier this fall, when there was an ongoing controversy at Saint Mary's University about a frosh chant that referred to raping under-age girls. That was a story that generated a lot of news coverage. And one day, we aired a brief story about a student who was so angry about that chant she decided to run for student president.

We received a complaint that we had not mentioned other candidates in the same election, and that our choice had, in effect, amounted to an endorsement. We responded that we had no intention of weighing in on the campus election - our story was about fallout from the frosh chant.

But the Ombudsman sided with the complainant this time. She said that CBC's policies on election coverage demand strict codes of fairness. And that while these policies were written with federal, provincial and civic elections in mind, the principle does not change. The Ombudsman felt we had an obligation to, at the very least, mention the names of the other candidates.

That's a consideration we'll have to keep in mind in the future. It's a reminder that some of the choices we make telling stories have unintended consequences, and reinforces how seriously we have to take our responsibilities as the Public Broadcaster.


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