CBC Ombudsman clears reporter Erickson

The CBC’s Ombudsman released his report on Friday concerning Krista Erickson, a reporter who was accused of “planting” questions with the opposition to use during Question Period in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party found out about this and complained to the CBC, and CBC management disciplined her by deciding to transfer her from Ottawa to Toronto.

Erickson successfully fought the disciplinary measure and had it reversed in a mediated settlement in June. She has resumed reporting from Ottawa (she never was transferred), and has already filed some political pieces.

The report from Vince Carlin largely clears Erickson of intentional wrongdoing, and places blame on the CBC for having an inexperienced reporter assigned to Parliament Hill.

Among the specific points in the report (PDF):

  • The CBC does not have a direct written policy concerning this type of journalistic activity (prompting politicians to ask questions during Question Period, or feeding them information that could embarrass their opposition). The Ottawa bureau did, however, have an unwritten rule that this should be avoided. Carlin blames himself partially for not putting that rule in writing back when he was running the bureau and the CBC drafted its journalistic guidelines. He also notes that the Globe and Mail has a direct, written policy prohibiting this.
  • Before it was banned, this type of activity was commonplace. Carlin also hints that other networks may still engage in this practice, though that has no bearing on CBC policy.
  • Erickson is a good reporter and her motivation was journalistic zeal, not partisan strategy. No one has accused her of being inaccurate in her stories.
  • Beat reporters and their subjects have a “symbiotic” relationship which is necessarily informal. A “give and take” of information is normal in this relationship and helps journalists in their job.
  • Erickson joined the Ottawa bureau in 2006 having very little political reporting experience. Normally reporters assigned to Parliament Hill have experience covering local or provincial politics, where the subtleties of journalism ethics in dealing with politicians is learned.
  • Erickson came forward to her superiors when other journalists suggested that her providing direct questions to the opposition might have been unethical.

In short, Erickson did not violate policy, but she did cross the line. But she didn’t know she crossed the line, and that’s the CBC’s fault for not training her enough.

Erickson, who alerted me to the judgment via email, wouldn’t comment on her reaction to the report, on whether she agreed that this kind of thing should be unethical and whether she agreed that she was unqualified for a job on Parliament Hill. She referred questions to the Canadian Media Guild (the CBC’s union), which said it was “satisfied with the report”.

The Ombudsman’s report is clear, honest and makes a lot of sense (in fact, it sounds a lot like what I wrote in January). Little of it is surprising (except perhaps the part where this exact issue was discussed and decided upon by both the CBC and Globe long ago), and it makes clear that while Erickson made a mistake, her intentions were honourable.

Political activists will, of course, view the report through the filter of their partisanship, which will tell them before they read the report whether they approve or disapprove of it. But it’s hard to argue with the points made in it. And other journalists should take note of those points, to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

UPDATE (Dec. 9): The National Post’s Jonathan Kay posts thoughts about this as well, calling it a “quasi-exoneration.”

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