CBC ombudsman: How do you judge balance and bias?

Esther EnkinBy Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Diane Weber Bederman, was concerned that CBC News did not pay enough attention to damage done in Israel, and to the suffering of Israeli citizens. She also thought that several World Report items lacked context and balance, especially around the issue of Hamas fighters using civilians as human shields. She thought that Israel’s position should be mentioned in virtually every story. Perspective and balance is achieved over time. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You originally wrote directly to the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, about episodes of The Current and World Report you felt were biased against Israel. You wrote to me on August 20, 2014, about a month after the first complaint was sent, because you had not received a response. After that time you added other complaints about a later World Report newscast.

The first complaint was about the July 24th edition of The Current. The program episode was entitled “Gazans want a ceasefire that does more than just end Violence.” You objected to the fact that you only heard the voices of Palestinians:

I listened to The Current, the version in the early morning. I heard the voices of Gazans who are suffering, especially the pain of those who lost family members in Beit Hanun. I didn’t hear from any Israelis. Actually I don’t recall one interview with anyone from the South. But it appears that the rocket that the media was so quick to accuse Israel of launching into Beit Hanun came from Hamas. Now, that may not be confirmed, yet, but how quickly CBC goes to accuse Israel.

You also were concerned about two editions of World Report. You thought that the edition of August 6 was “one sided” because the reporter only talked about the “problems there” (in Gaza) and did not mention the damage in Israel:

Never hear him talk about the damage in Israel. The more than a decade of bombs dropped on Southern Israel. The suffering of the children there many of whom have grown up knowing nothing but running for their lives when the sirens ring out. I never hear reports about damage from those rockets…

You said that CBC rarely, if ever, talked about the fact that “Hamas plants rockets in civilian areas even though those reports are now freely available as reporters with a conscience are starting to talk.”

You also complained about an interview about interfaith dialogue that followed the Gaza report that was “over the top.” You thought so because there can be no “interfaith dialogue when one side speaks to the need to destroy Israel and the Jews. Hamas and Fatah talk of this all the time. You cannot make peace with people who do not believe you have a right to exist. How nice it would have been if that had been mentioned, as that makes it so much more difficult for Jews to engage in a discussion about peace.”

You also felt that the August 24th edition of World Report showed bias, mostly by omission. You objected to the fact that a report from Derek Stoffel in Gaza began with the fact that Israel had bombed an apartment building and the introduction stated “Israel is ramping up its attacks on Gaza.” You pointed out that there was no mention of the fact that a four year old was being buried because of a rocket attack. You said the coverage, as usual, lacked context:

I am left wondering if CBC would have covered this and the burial if more Jews had been murdered? You left out the fact that Israel was responding to the bombing by Hamas on its citizens, citizens who have been under attack for more than 10 years.

In further correspondence you dismissed the fact that the death of the 4 year old was mentioned on newscasts. You felt there was an inherent bias because pictures were shown of Gazan destruction but CBC News did not show pictures of the town where the boy lived, nor provide coverage of his funeral.

You also were concerned about overall bias of the press in general and CBC in particular and shared an article from the Times of Israel about a statement from the Foreign Press Association there. The association had posted a statement that mentioned that some reporters had faced intimidation by Hamas authorities while working in Gaza. You asked Ms. McGuire for her thoughts “regarding the CBC and its possible participation in biased media reportage.” You noted there were reports that “reporters were muzzled and controlled by Hamas,” so you were concerned that CBC reporters were prevented from reporting freely and that further contributed to CBC’s one-sided coverage.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, responded to your concerns. He apologized for the length of time it had taken to respond to a series of emails to this office and to Ms. McGuire’s. He responded to your specific complaints, as well as making some general observations. He pointed out that Canadians have strong commitments to sometimes opposing points of view, especially on this particular story. He pointed out that there are two or more sides to a story:

It is understandable that those who espouse a given cause may not feel that other opinions on the subject have the same validity as their own. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are two sides to most stories, even (or perhaps especially) the conflict in the Middle East. The CBC has an obligation to cover issues fairly and truthfully, to inform our listeners (and viewers and readers) across the country about what is happening, without bias or prejudice, and without telling them what to think. Our coverage will not necessarily please all our listeners, but they do have a right to expect that we will be straightforward and honest. It is CBC’s responsibility to ensure that Canadians are given the opportunity and information they need to make up their own minds on the important issues of the day. And I believe we did that.

He answered your concerns that reporters were prevented from doing their jobs in Gaza because of intimidation and scrutiny of Hamas officials. In a later email you suppose that they moved about with Hamas finders. Mr. Nagler addressed the issue at some length. You had cited an article in the Times of Israel that noted the Foreign Press Association had put out a statement that reporters were harassed while working in Gaza. He provided more background, saying that the statement noted “several cases” where reporters were harassed. He then referenced other reports that said “all but a handful of the over 700 foreign journalists who worked in Gaza during the conflict reportedly said they were not muzzled.” He told you that CBC correspondents Derek Stoffel and Paul Hunter were not censored or supervised. Their difficulties were those encountered in working in a very dangerous war zone. He assured you that they would not and did not conceal anything.

He also responded to the specific broadcasts you found biased. He provided the context for the interview on the July 24th edition of The Current. He explained that summer host Andrew Chang interviewed two Palestinians, one now in Canada, the other still there, in the context of the search for a ceasefire. He pointed out that the two Gazans had divergent opinions on conditions for a ceasefire. One, Ayman Ayyad, had ten relatives killed in the fighting. He believed that there should be an unconditional ceasefire to end the killing. The other interviewee, Laila Abu Dhani, was trapped in Gaza, unable to go abroad for her graduate studies as she had planned. She believed that the lifting of the blockade of Gaza and other conditions had to be met before there should be a stop to the fighting. He said that telling these “compelling stories” helped a Canadian audience understand the conflict and how the issues are seen on the ground.

He added that two days earlier The Current had spoken with an Israeli resident of Beit Shemesh who talked about her own experience and that of her family and friends living under the constant threat of rocket attack. He said she provided a strong and clear image of that reality. He told you that the essence of fairness in journalism is ensuring that a range of voices are heard over time:

But let me emphasize that balance is not mathematical. Balance does not, for example, mean that every Palestinian voice must be immediately juxtaposed with an equally strong Israeli voice. It is a more sophisticated concept that can be achieved over a period of time. The important thing is to ensure that differing relevant points of view are treated in an equitable fashion. I believe THE CURRENT has done that.

He also pointed out that while you had said the interview involved someone who had lost family in Beit Hanoun, there was no reference to Beit Hanoun in the interview. Rather Mr. Ayyad’s family was in the neighbourhood of Shejaiyah.

He went on to address your criticism of two editions of World Report. He told you that Derek Stoffel’s August 6 report focused on the extent of the damage in Gaza because he was able to see the scope of it for the first time that day. A 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire had just begun. He reminded you that CBC News had reported the damage done by Hamas rockets in Israel, although many of them were intercepted or fell in vacant fields.

Mr. Nagler also explained that the death and damage in Gaza was “on a different scale, where some 20-25% of the houses in Gaza City were damaged or destroyed, a number that in Beit Hanoun reached 70% leaving tens of thousands homeless. That widespread damage was part of the story. Our correspondents would not be doing their job if they failed to report it.”

He replied to your concern about lack of context and missing information in a July 24 report from Derek Stoffel in Gaza. You pointed out that he began the report by saying Israel was “ramping up” its attacks, but did not say that it was responding to the bombing by Hamas which that weekend had claimed the life of a four year old child.

Mr. Nagler told you that the story you heard on the 6 or 8 a.m. editions of World Report focused on a report which said Israel was now targeting multi-story buildings, after first warning civilians to flee. He said that in the alternate editions of World Report, the items focusing on the conflict were quite different. In those, he said, there was a voice clip of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explaining the reasons for the attack, that there would be no immunity to those who fire at Israeli civilians. He wrote:

Then, Mr. Stoffel reported that Gaza militants continued to fire rockets and mortars into communities in the south of Israel. “Five Israelis were injured in a mortar attack today”, he said, explaining, “[Mortars] are smaller and faster than rockets. Meaning there’s much less time to seek shelter”.

He concluded the report this way: “A mortar attack on Friday killed a 4-year-old Israeli boy in a community on the border with Gaza. He was buried today”. Of course, reports on the same subject, even those heard a short time apart, often contain different information, fresh details or new perspectives, as was the case here.

REVIEW

The complaints I receive about Middle East coverage in general and this summer’s conflict in particular often invoke lack of context and omitted facts as proof of systematic bias. Often, people with a very strong set of beliefs feel there is an absolute and just truth, and that is how all the stories must be told. There are some verifiable facts; truth is more elusive. People tend to see and hear what is reported through the prism of their own belief systems. Their idea of what is balanced is similarly influenced.

Journalists covering and writing about these events have an obligation to provide as much information and as many relevant perspectives as possible to help citizens come to their own conclusions about a complex and complicated long-running story. Achieving all of this in the midst of a war, working under incredibly dangerous conditions, makes it even more difficult.

To continue reading this column, please go to the CBC ombudsman’s website where this was originally published.

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