How CBC Failed Its Own Journalistic Standards in Its Coverage of The Epoch Times

May 4, 2020 Updated: June 1, 2020

Analysis

There are many ways in which Canada’s national broadcaster failed its own stated standards of journalism in its recent reporting about The Epoch Times.

The CBC recently aired multiple segments on its different platforms, including radio, television, and online, on a special edition about the pandemic produced and distributed by The Epoch Times.

The CBC’s promotion of the characterization of the special edition as being racist and xenophobic, its one-sided coverage, and its claims that the special edition advances a conspiracy theory, were heavily criticized by Epoch Times Canada publisher Cindy Gu. She published a statement pointing out that the Chinese communist regime is not the same as Chinese people, and that the special edition puts the focus on the regime’s conduct in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, not on the people of China.

Gu also said the CBC’s conspiracy theory claim is based on unsubstantiated comments from one recipient and an unnamed mail carrier, falsely claiming that the special edition says the virus was “manufactured” and that it’s “part of a bio-warfare agenda by the Chinese people,” while it makes no such allegations.

The CBC’s coverage drew rebuke from a number of journalists, and was the subject of a commentary published on the front page of the National Post on Sat., May 2.

The Twitter bios of two of the three CBC reporters covering Epoch Times’ special edition say their focus is disinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic. One holds the title of senior reporter.

Epoch Times Photo
The front page of The Epoch Times special edition that was distributed on April 13, 2020.

In targeting Epoch Times’ reporting and in their labelling, the reporters themselves unknowingly became part of a disinformation campaign—one perpetrated by Beijing to stifle any criticism and exposure of its conduct by characterizing it as racism.

“Reporters who understand the intersection of geopolitics & information warfare would have reported on this quite differently,” Marcus Kolga, an expert on foreign disinformation, said on Twitter in reaction to one of the CBC’s articles. “PRC propaganda, that criticism of the Chinese government is ‘racism’ is uncritically repeated, + PRC mass disinfo isn’t mentioned.”

Kolga, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, wrote in a previous op-ed for Maclean’s that “authoritarian regimes frequently label foreign criticism of their policies as ‘racist’ as a way to delegitimize them and polarize debate.”

In the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), this strategy has its roots in propaganda and education initiatives launched as early as the 1990s in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre by then-leader Jiang Zemin. The goal was to drive home the point that the CCP and China are one and the same.

The Epoch Times, founded by Chinese immigrants who fled communist oppression in their homeland, has been covering disinformation put out by the Beijing regime for two decades. Since the start of the pandemic, using sources in China, The Epoch Times has been publishing exclusive reports on China’s disinformation and hiding of the facts.

For example, in early February, Epoch Times reporters called funeral homes in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak in China, and got testimonies from the staff on the number of bodies they are cremating, showing the death toll to be magnitudes higher than what the regime had been admitting. And in the days that the CBC was targeting The Epoch Times, the outlet published a report based on leaked documents it obtained showing Beijing knew the virus was contagious but kept silent for days.

Meanwhile, even before setting its sights on The Epoch Times, CBC has run stories that were shaped by the Chinese regime’s disinformation about the number of infections in China.

For example, on March 31, the broadcaster published an article headlined, “Canada’s next-door neighbour is now the epicentre of global pandemic. Here’s what that U.S. surge means.” This headline assumes the number of infections in both China and Iran as stated by their governments to be correct, while there is evidence that both governments have been lying about the numbers and their rates could be much higher than those in the United States.

In its reports on The Epoch Times, the CBC also repeats a slanderous term used by the CCP against Falun Gong adherents. By repeating the labelling used by a regime that has been torturing and killing Falun Gong adherents in China for over two decades, CBC is helping spread hate propaganda—the very accusation it levels against The Epoch Times in its one-sided reports. Adherents of Falun Gong anywhere in the world, including in Canada, would find the term derogatory and hurtful.

What the Special Edition Covers

The Epoch Times’ special edition is an eight-page broadsheet paper distributed to various neighbourhoods across Canada. According to publisher Gu, this was done because the paper considers “that information to be important to Canadians,” and is also part of “sampling” efforts to raise brand awareness and garner new subscribers.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese paramilitary police wear protective masks as they guard the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing on May 2, 2020. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The cover page of the special edition is headlined, “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World,” with a subheading that reads, “The Chinese Communist Party’s coverup led to a pandemic that now threatens the lives of people around the globe. What really happened, and what lessons can we learn?”

The topics included in the special edition are:

-An article on how Beijing’s coverup of the initial virus outbreak led to a global pandemic;

-An article examining the cancellation of 21 million cellphones in China and its connection with the real death toll due to the virus, as Beijing has not published factual infection and death rates;

-A timeline on key dates and actions showing how the Chinese regime prevented information about the virus outbreak from becoming public, including reprimanding whistleblowers, and key actions taken by Taiwanese and Canadian officials and the outcome of the scale of the pandemic in the two countries;

-An article examining the initial steps Canada took in the face of the outbreak with comments from a Canadian senator on how more prompt action could have reduced infection rates;

-An article on research work looking into how 10,000 fake Twitter accounts linked to Beijing are being used to spread disinformation about the origin of the virus outbreak;

-An article about action taken by U.S. lawmakers to hold Beijing to account for its role in covering up the outbreak;

-An article on how urn shipments to a funeral home in Wuhan indicate a death toll much higher than the one published by officials;

-One version of the special edition in early April included a commentary by an author quoting China’s former defence minister talking about the need for bioweapons. The author calls for an investigation into the origin of the virus;

-Editorials on why the coronavirus should be called the CCP virus and how countries and regions with closer ties with the Chinese regime were hit the heaviest at the start of the outbreak;

CBC’s One-Sided Report

The CBC aired its radio segment on the special edition on the morning of April 29 and published its first online article at 4 a.m. the same day.

The original headline of the article read: “‘Racist and inflammatory’: Canadians upset by Epoch Times claim China behind virus, made it as a bioweapon.”

Epoch Times Photo
A man leaves the CBC building in Toronto in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

The opening paragraph says The Epoch Times is “coming under fire for advancing a conspiracy theory about the origin of the coronavirus,” but the article doesn’t provide any proof of this claim.

It also doesn’t provide any proof on how Canadians, or a majority of Canadians, feel about the special edition, as claimed by its headline.

Instead, it quotes a recipient in Kelowna who says, “It did seem to allude to conspiracy theories like, you know, maybe it was manufactured.”

“Is that one individual’s opinion the source of a headline speaking for all Canadians?” Gu said in her statement.

The article quotes an unnamed mail carrier who says he didn’t want to deliver the special edition to peoples’ homes and is quoted as saying the edition claims the virus is “part of a bio-warfare agenda by the Chinese people.” The special issue doesn’t make any such claim, however. The CBC reporters and editors again failed to examine and present any proof supporting such an allegation.

CBC then quotes a scientist saying there is high consensus that the virus is not “engineered.” Again, the special edition doesn’t make any claim that the virus was engineered.

The article doesn’t examine the contents of the special edition. The closest it gets is including a photo of the commentary article titled “China’s Bioweapon Ambitions.”

In the commentary, the author quotes a former Chinese defence minister talking about biological weapons. At the end, the commentary notes that Chinese authorities haven’t been transparent about the outbreak and says there should be an investigation.

“There must be an investigation of the outbreak in Wuhan,” the writer argues. “If Chinese officials are innocent, they have nothing to hide. If they are guilty, they will refuse to cooperate.”

The Australian Daily Telegraph published a report on May 2 about a research document by the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, of which Canada is a member, saying China deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence of the virus in an “assault on international transparency,” costing tens of thousands of lives. The document also has parts that cover the possibility of the virus leaking from the lab, and notes that research on bat-related viruses has been conducted in the lab for years. The Guardian reported on May 4 that intelligence sources told the media there is no current evidence that the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab, and disputed the information reported in the Daily Telegraph’s report.

On May 3, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there is “enormous evidence” that the virus outbreak originated in a Chinese lab.

Gu notes in her statement that the Wuhan lab coverage is a very small part of the reporting in the special edition, and that “we simply asked questions, like many others.”

Allegations of Racism

The CBC article quotes the recipient in Kelowna as saying the special edition “feels racist and inflammatory.” This is the basis for the headline of the story.

Gu noted that the special edition’s focus is the communist regime ruling China, not the people of China. She also said The Epoch Times was founded by Chinese immigrants, and that many of the paper’s reporters and editors were arrested in China, jailed, and tortured. The CBC didn’t report these parts of Gu’s statement.

Epoch Times Photo

Not only does the CBC article say The Epoch Times is affiliated with “the Falun Gong movement” and repeat a slanderous term used by the Chinese regime against the spiritual practice, it also words its coverage of the persecution campaign against Falun Gong in China as “its followers say the Chinese government persecutes them.” In fact, the persecution has been well documented by rights groups, and many governments, including Canada’s, have condemned it.

In repeating the regime’s derogatory term, the article perpetuates hate against a marginalized group in China, and those who follow the spiritual practice in Canada.

CBC’s Journalistic Failures

The CBC’s standards of journalism state that it follows the principles of accuracy, fairness, balance, and impartiality.

On accuracy, the standards say, “we invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.”

In its reporting, the CBC demonstrated that it failed to understand the content of the special edition and instead presented viewpoints from two people as facts.

On fairness, CBC’s standards say, “We treat [individuals and organizations] even-handedly.” On balance, the standards say CBC is to reflect “a diversity of opinion,” and on “issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully.” On impartiality, the standards say CBC is not to “promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

However, the CBC’s reporting didn’t include any positive feedback on the special edition. It only reflected negative views and made conclusions based on the opinion of two people, a recipient and an unnamed mail carrier.

In Gu’s April 29 statement in response to the CBC report, she points out these journalistic failings and notes that the broadcaster’s reporting is “deliberately misleading and intentionally excludes crucial information.”

The statement also points out factual mistakes made by CBC, one being that The Epoch Times is found in street boxes in Canadian cities, while it has been a subscription-only paper since July. It also erroneously said Shen Yun Performing Arts is part of the Epoch Media Group.

The full text of The Epoch Times’ response to CBC can be found here.

The CBC chose to go ahead with airing TV segments on its report, despite the fact that Gu’s statement addressing some of the article’s many problems was already released.

In one TV segment, the anchor opens by saying, “The Epoch Times is publishing misleading information about the coronavirus.” In another segment, aired on the network’s flagship program The National, the anchor says, “The Epoch Times published a conspiracy theory about the origin of the coronavirus and China’s role.”

It then quotes a Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) representative saying the special edition’s front cover is “promoting xenophobia towards the Asian community,” and says he wants mail carriers to not have to deliver the special edition.

The CBC report doesn’t attempt to substantiate the claim that the special edition is “promoting xenophobia,” which can be done simply by pointing out what the front page states and evaluating it against the definition of xenophobia from any dictionary.

The report says the minister in charge of Canada Post, Anita Anand, rejected CUPW’s request, and said the special edition “does not appear to meet the required criteria of the offence of wilful promotion of hatred as established in the Criminal Code of Canada.”

Epoch Times Photo
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, whose portfolio includes Canada Post,listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on April 16, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

The Criminal Code proscribes hatred directed toward “any identifiable group.”

The only identifiable group in the special edition is the Chinese Communist Party. Are the multiple CBC reporters credited with these reports, among them a senior reporter, and their editors not capable of making an assessment and analysis on whether there is any substantiation to claims that the special edition is promoting hatred toward the “Asian community”?

The TV segment notes that Epoch Times is founded by Falun Gong adherents, and quotes an academic saying “there is so much bad blood” between the Chinese regime and Falun Gong “that either side would take whatever opportunity they reasonably could to throw mud at the other.”

The “two sides” that the academic is referring to are on the one hand a totalitarian regime with all the institutions, the full force of the military, and financial assets of the country at its disposal, and on the other hand a group of people who practice meditation and who are being tortured and killed by the government that is supposed to serve them.

Is the academic declaring that the actions of the Beijing regime, well known for its egregious rights abuses that include torture and killing, as actions it can “reasonably” conduct? And is he equivalencing those actions with the actions taken by a persecuted group that follows an ancient practice based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance?

In the two-minute, twenty-second segment aired on The National, only about five seconds feature a view defending the Epoch Times, where the senior reporter paraphrases publisher Gu as saying “the Party does not represent Chinese people.”

Changes to CBC Report

After The Epoch Times’ first statement, the CBC changed the factual mistake saying The Epoch Times newspaper is available for free and ran a “clarification” note at the end of the article explaining the change. It also removed the part where it erroneously stated that Shen Yun is a part of Epoch Media Group and ran a “correction” note about the mistake.

However, at the time of this writing, a separate post containing a video segment of CBC’s report on their website still includes the factual mistake that the newspaper is available for free in street boxes.

In its first article, the CBC updated its headline three times, without running any notes about its correction:

Original Version

‘Racist and inflammatory’: Canadians upset by Epoch Times claim China behind virus, made it as a bioweapon

Second Version

Some Canadians who received unsolicited copy of Epoch Times upset by claim that China was behind virus

Third Version

Some Canadians see claims in Epoch Times about origin of virus as ‘racist and inflammatory’

Fourth Version

Some Canadians who received unsolicited copy of Epoch Times upset by claim that China was behind virus

Gu subsequently put out a second statement, reiterating that the special edition is not “advancing conspiracy theories” and that CBC has been making “substantial changes” to its headlines without running any notes about it. The statement notes that all the headlines are still incorrect, as the focus of the special edition is the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup of the pandemic, not the people of China. Gu demanded that CBC retract its “one-sided” article and issue an apology.

CBC later added an editor’s note to its article that it has updated its headline and made other changes. The note reads in part “The earlier headline also incorrectly stated the Epoch Times claimed China made the virus as a bioweapon.” This was done following Epoch Times’ second statement.

Epoch Times Photo
A mail box is seen outside a Canada Post office in Halifax in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese)

However, other issues Gu raised, such as false claims about the special edition alleging the virus as being “manufactured” or being “part of a bio-warfare agenda by the Chinese people” are still there.

CBC proceeded to publish another article on May 1, headlined “Federal government says Canada Post must deliver Epoch Times despite union objection.”

The article again only reflects views critical of the special edition and The Epoch Times, except those of the publisher, which consists of a small part of the CBC report. The article also again uses the slanderous term against Falun Gong, but unlike last time where it had said it’s the group that says it’s persecuted, the new report cites human rights groups on the persecution campaign.

There was no correction or clarification note run in the CBC’s original report about the fact that it’s not just the group that says it is persecuted.

Similar to the first article, the second also doesn’t pass muster when held up against CBC’s own journalistic standards, such as repeating a false accusation of “xenophobia” by the CUPW representative without presenting any evidence to that effect or examining and evaluating the allegations.

The report also fails in its identification of stakeholders and relevant expert commentary.

CUPW is known to take political positions, including on foreign policy. Last year, it issued a statement condemning Canada’s endorsement of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Canada, along with 50 other nations, says the current regime leader, Nicolás Maduro, rigged the 2018 election and is therefore not a legitimate leader of the country.

The CBC report didn’t include any voices from civil society groups or experts on the dangerous precedent it would set if the union was allowed to decide what gets delivered by Canada Post and what doesn’t.

Follow Omid on Twitter: @OGhoreishi