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Letter to the CBC Ombudsman, 15 April 2020

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The following letter was sent by Independent Editor Drew Brown to the CBC Ombudsman on Wednesday, 15 April 2020.


Hello,

I hope this message finds you well. My name is Drew Brown, and I am the Editor-in-Chief of the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent. I am writing today to express my concerns about the way a story on food security in the province has been handled by the local CBC affiliate.

On Monday, David Cochrane with the CBC published a story about Oceanex, a marine shipping company, seeking federal subsidies to keep it afloat through the pandemic. In the original story, it was reported: “If Oceanex shuts down, it would create an immediate food security and public health crisis in the province.”

As it turns out, this was not true; Oceanex actually delivers far fewer food supplies than initially suggested in the article, and according to the company’s own website it freely admits that most perishable goods (including food and medicine) are transported to the province via truck through Marine Atlantic. (The story remains online at https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.5530903?__vfz=medium%3Dsharebar&__twitter_impression=true). Premier Dwight Ball was asked about the initial erroneous story, and stated that the province has roughly a 5-day stock of food in the event of a complete supply chain breakdown. This “5 days of food” line was emphasized by the CBC as suggesting a food shortage was imminent, and reports of panicked buyers at grocery stores soon followed.

Since publication, the story had been criticized as incomplete and alarmist. Other local media sources, digging in further, quickly established that CBC’s initial reporting that “an immediate food security and public health crisis” was misleading. The story has since been updated and clarified—this, from Terry Roberts, is more comprehensive (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/seamus-o-regan-oceanex-1.5531337). But a number of local CBC journalists and broadcasters have not only refused to acknowledge the original error, but have since doubled-down on pushing a dubious narrative of ‘imminent crisis’ and putting blame on the Premier as the source of public anxiety. I will provide some examples:

  • Yesterday, as backlash to the original story was building, Here and Now anchor Anthony Germain made a tweet suggesting that it was the Premier responding to a question about the misreported story, not the problematic story itself, that caused panic: (https://twitter.com/AnthonyGermain/status/1250085390524059648);
  • During the 14 April 2020 Covid-19 public health update, CBC reporter Peter Cowan explicitly blamed Dwight Ball for causing panic with his comments (made in response to questions about the food supply based on the erroneous article);
  • Despite several updated stories on the resilience of the local supply chain and a comprehensive update on the situation from the Premier, CBC reporter Chris O’Neill-Yates tweeted suggestions that the Premier’s initial response on 13 April (explaining 5 day supply) should be compared to a response from the minister responsible for Agriculture from 14 April (explaining that Oceanex is not a critical piece of the food supply infrastructure). When I politely noted that the Premier’s comments from 14 April specifically addressing food security might be relevant to the story, I was met with outright indignation for the mere suggestion. (I have since been blocked for listing my criticisms with the story and the CBC’s approach.)

In the midst of a very real public health emergency where people need accurate and sober reporting from trusted authorities, I believe this is irresponsible journalistic practice. Food security is a very important issue in this province, and the public is still extremely agitated by the uncertainties of the lockdown. Fully two days after running a story that has been more or less debunked and widely panned as problematic, several public figures from CBC St. John’s are still trying to gin up a story about an imminent food crisis—now augmented by a bizarre new narrative claiming the provincial government brought this up independently of the original erroneous CBC report.

In all honesty, I would greatly prefer not to submit any complaints about CBC St. John’s. The public broadcaster is a national treasure and an invaluable resource in times of crisis. But this situation is increasingly troubling. Given that none of the parties concerned seem interested in reconsidering their frankly reckless approach to this story, I feel compelled to bring this to your attention. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation should be Canada’s most authoritative source of news—not harmful and self-interested speculation.

Thanks.
Drew

11:28 AM Update: The original version of this letter noted that the initial CBC story had been removed from the cbc.ca/nl homepage. On a closer inspection, the story is still available near the bottom of the page. The Independent regrets this error.

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