Category Archives: Media

Anonymous Comments on the CBC – My letter to the CBC Ombudsman

October 10, 2012

Kirk LaPointe
Ombudsman, CBC
P.O. Box Station A
Toronto, ON    M5W 1E6

Dear Mr. LaPointe:

I am writing to complain about anonymous comments on the CBC – in particular the rebroadcast of these comments from the CBC.CA website on the provincial television program CBC News: New Brunswick.

People are not required to use their real names in online comments attached to news stories.

CBC Radio listeners who want to comment on stories they hear on the Fredericton morning show are required to leave their name and their phone number on the talk back machine in order to have the comments become a part of a future broadcast.  Comments made on the web and broadcast on the supper-hour news program require no such checks and balances.

The web editor chooses what comments are broadcast.  I also understand the comments are ‘vetted’ before they appear on the website.

While I know they ‘choose carefully’, trying to avoid comments that could cause CBC New Brunswick any legal difficulties, I still question the use of anonymous posts.  I do not think these comments add to the collective knowledge of viewers.

When I was visiting my mother over the Thanksgiving weekend I made a point to watch the CBC television news in Nova Scotia.  There were NO anonymous comments from viewers used in that broadcast.  It was, in a word, refreshing.

I think the use of anonymous comments is unethical – more so when you look at the fact one medium in the same city chooses NOT to broadcast anonymous comments (CBC Radio Fredericton) while another medium chooses TO broadcast anonymous comments (CBC TV).

I have personally commented to journalistic staff at CBC Fredericton about this issue.  I have always been told these are ‘things they struggle with’.  I contend they have to STOP STRUGGLING and cease using anonymous comments.  I have posted on the website from time to time – with my full name.  I have never hidden and never plan to hide my posted opinions.  People need to understand the context of my comments, and they can’t do that if I hide who I am.

I don’t think anonymous comments should be used in any medium – on the web or otherwise – but I take particular issue with the rebroadcasting of these comments on the evening television newscast.  I believe the rebroadcast of these ‘comments’ are not only unethical, but they fly in the face of the journalistic policies of the CBC.  I will use direct quotes from the CBC journalistic policies to make my point.

For instance, the CBC must ensure that it is “ 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.”

The interviewee policy goes on to state that only in “ exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part.

I argue that comments directly under a story become PART OF A STORY.  If the people interviewed have to be identified in the story, why shouldn’t those commenting on the story be identified as well?  Some may argue that these comments don’t fall under journalistic standards because they are User Generated Content and the CBC can legally distance itself from these posts.  But can the corporation ethically distance itself from them?

I counter the comments have become PART of the story, not only by their content, but also by their placement with the story.  People go to the story, scroll down, and there, just a sentence away, is the comment section with anonymous sources adding to the web ‘content’.  If they don’t consider it content, then why is it worthy of rebroadcast within another news program?

This leads me to the section on User Generated Content in news stories.

Again, I contend that the comments become part of the story because of their placement on the website and within a television news program.  I believe these anonymous comments violate the CBC journalistic policy on Verification of User Generated Content in News Stories.

“CBC is responsible for all content on its news sites.  This policy covers text, image, video or audio contributions from the public, which are incorporated into news coverage on any platform.  Material that originates from a non-CBC source is clearly identified as such.  Before text, image, video or audio is published, its provenance and accuracy is verified.

I repeatbefore TEXT, image, video or audio IS PUBLISHED, its provenance and accuracy is verified.

How can posting anonymous comments NOT break CBC policy?  How can you verify anonymous comments when people use fictitious names?  How can the publishing and then rebroadcasting of these anonymous comments be ethical?

The policy goes on to state that in exceptional circumstances it may be difficult to authenticate a contribution and that there may be times where, because of timeliness, or if it is in the public interest, we decided to publish without full verification. We are clear with the audience about what we know. The decision to publish material without full authentication must be referred to the Director.

What service does broadcasting these comments provide to the public when the posts don’t clearly identify what ‘interest’ the person has to the story – how they are connected, related, or even beholden to the politician, company or issue at hand?

The policy also states that the decision to use unverified content, when referring to User Generated Content, must be referred to the director.

How often does this ‘referral’ happen at CBC New Brunswick?

In the 14 plus years I worked at the CBC, I was only allowed to broadcast ‘anonymous’ sources/items/letters/talkback on very few occasions.  Any sources had to be identified, all talkback with CBC Radio had to be identified and logged – especially at election time.  Every time anything ‘anonymous’ went to air, we had to have approval from CBC officials at a higher level.

In its policies, the CBC says it strives to be an ethical broadcaster, but yet allows anonymous comments to be attached to stories and doesn’t require the same kind of rigour and ethical approach to this part of its daily content.

Why does it seem that now, in these days of ‘instant’ news gratification, the CBC has forgotten its principles?

Ethics, like spelling, has lost something in this era of social media.

The CBC lays out its mission and values, stating it strives to ‘act responsibly and be accountable.’  They state they are ‘aware of the impact of our journalism and are honest with our audience.’  It also says the CBC strives for ‘journalistic excellence and best practices in all of our journalistic endeavours.’ 

I argue that anonymous ‘user generated content’ IS a journalistic endeavour and allowing these comments to be posted on their website for the world to see IS NOT a best practice and certainly isn’t journalist excellence.  The CBC is my CBC, and as such I take a lot of pride in it – except on the issue of anonymous comments.

The CBC consistently challenges governments to be ethical in their approach to hiring practices, expense claims, and investments, yet in New Brunswick it cannot practice what it preaches.  If they are ‘aware of their impact’ and were ethical in their approach, they wouldn’t allow any anonymous public comments on their websites, or worse, the rebroadcasting of these anonymous comments on CBC News: New Brunswick.  For me, seeing these comments in two mediums adds insult to injury.

The CBC may believe it is providing a ‘public service’ by sharing the posts, but I argue CBC New Brunswick is doing a serious disservice to our province by allowing people to hide behind fictitious names.

I had to file my complaint with my full name, address and contact information because you, as Ombudsman, do not accept anonymous comments or complaints.

I think the CBC could learn a thing or two from its watchdog.


Theresa Blackburn-Chisholm
Journalism Instructor
Former CBC journalist


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