CBC News Balance Report
Oct 7, 2010
To: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting Steering Committee
From: Ian Morrison
The 2010 “News Balance Report,” commissioned by CBC from Erin Research, purports to be “the most comprehensive and detailed examination to date” of this subject. Judging from the attached recently released nine-page executive summary of the report (which is all that I have seen) this is simply not the case.
The report does contain some welcome confirmation of the quality of CBC News on certain basic parameters. In terms of gender balance, CBC has a higher proportion of female anchors, hosts and reporters than other networks, and comparable (though still not sufficient) coverage of women as news subjects. When it comes to representation of visible minorities, CBC has more anchors, and an equal proportion of reporters and interviewees, from visible minorities (though still too few aboriginal people).
In terms of geographical balance, and living up to its responsibility of representing all parts of Canada, CBC’s English-language network news services on radio, television and the web by and large reflect the population breakdown of the country – although they pay less attention to Western Canada than other outlets, over-cover Ontario, and radically under-represent Québec – hardly what we expect from our national public broadcaster.
However, surely this is not what most people mean when they talk about “balance” in news coverage. Only two of the indices covered in the executive summary deal with the actual content of the news. One of these suggests that CBC News is no more negative – and actually slightly more positive – in its treatment of both the government and the opposition than other broadcast news organizations. The other indicates that CBC’s The National gives a slightly larger proportion of air time to members of the federal government (and correspondingly less to members of the opposition) than either the CTV National News or Global National.
So far, so good. This data gives the lie to those who still cling to the old canard that the CBC is biased against this – or any – government.
However, the Erin study is (so far as I can tell) significantly less deep and nuanced than previous research initiatives in its investigation of other potential aspects of balance – for example, the CBC’s treatment of Middle Eastern issues, which has been so hotly and frequently debated by interest groups on both sides of the debate – or its coverage of economic matters, which has been another focus of criticism in recent years, even within the senior levels of the organization itself.
Moreover, the Erin study is restricted to expert analysis of content, and makes no effort to gauge and understand the perceptions of individual listeners, viewers and users to what they hear, see and read. At the end of the day, balance is in the eye of the beholder.
And the corporation's bias that television is more important than radio is there for all to see in the report's emphasis on The National over equally important radio shows such as The World at Six or The House.
Kudos to CBC for being willing to undergo this kind of rigorous self-examination, and for making the results public. But shame on CBC for once again making extravagant claims about their current efforts, as if nothing like this had ever been done before. To do so demonstrates an unfortunate lack of humility, and perhaps worse, a distressing absence of corporate memory.