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Interviews: Some info you should know

Categories: Business, Canada, Journalism

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Jack Mintz, Director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

CBC News has a really sophisticated audience that asks us a lot of challenging questions. 

A couple of smart ones recently have focused on how we identify people that appear in our stories or programs.  More precisely, they mean how much background information we give you about those people.

It's easy to see why that matters. If someone pops up in an interview saying "I condemn Politician X", it makes a huge difference to know whether that person is a random voter, or a former campaign manager for "Politician Y".

Other times, it's not as obvious what background information matters. Take, for instance, economist Jack Mintz.

Professor Mintz is more than just a high-profile economist. He is the Director of the School of  Public Policy at the University of Calgary.  He is a former president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute. He is the Vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Governing Council. He serves (or has served) on the Board of Directors for various organizations including Imperial Oil.  And he is an advocate of lower corporate taxes who co-authors an annual report on global tax competitiveness.

Jack Mintz is also someone comfortable appearing in the media and advocating for causes he supports. And it's not uncommon for him to appear in a CBC News story. So the question arises - how much of his background should we tell the audience? Do we need to reiterate all of it, every time?

At least one audience member says we're not doing enough. She complained to the CBC Ombudsman twice in recent months that CBC presented Mintz as an academic when it should have been noting his ties to Imperial Oil. In one story, he was commenting on how the appointment of a new U.S. Secretary of State would affect the prospects for the Keystone Pipeline; in the other, we were reporting on the findings in his 2013 study on Canadian global tax competitiveness.

We have a policy for how to handle the identification of interviewees, laid out in our Journalistic Standards and Practices.

"We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret."

With that in mind, we conceded that we were wrong in the Keystone Pipeline story - we should have noted Mintz's affiliation with Imperial Oil. But we maintain we were correct to leave it out of the tax competitiveness story. We instead noted his long-time advocacy for lower corporate taxes, and felt that gave readers of the story enough information to decide for themselves how to filter and interpret his comments.

The question ended up before the CBC Ombudsman, who just completed a review you can read here. The Ombudsman agreed that it is important that our journalists pay extra close attention to this issue, but felt that we had honoured our commitments in how we characterized Mintz.

It's not the first time the issue has come up. The Ombudsman issued another review just last month (you can read it here) about how CBC Nova Scotia identified one of our analysts the night of the provincial election.  We introduced Graham Steele as the former NDP Finance Minister, but didn't also include the fact that he was at that moment still part of the government as Minister of Economic and Rural Development.  An audience member felt we did not give enough context. The Ombudsman agreed that we should have mentioned the most recent portfolio but declared that we had still provided sufficient information for people to form an opinion on Mr. Steele's analysis.

The bottom line in all of this is our commitment to you that CBC News will provide you with enough relevant information about our interviewees to help you understand their agendas. That way you can decide for yourself what to think about them.

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

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Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.