When I write media criticism, I tend to focus my analysis on something broader than an individual article. Whether it’s exploring a journalist’s entire career, decades worth of bias or an industry wide failure on a particular issue, this sort of scope tends to illuminate trends in the media better than picking apart any single article could.
Sometimes, however, an individual article can be so flawed that it effectively becomes a billboard, advertising all the unique ways the place it was published is shitty. These articles deserve particular attention. Last week, the National Post published one of these articles, titled “More than 800,000 ineligible people received CERB, at cost of nearly $1.7B, CRA documents reveal.”
I’m going to do a line by line analysis of the main portion of this article (the text of which is bolded below), and then look at the story behind the story.
A Conservative MP says Canada Revenue Agency has some explaining to do after more than 800,000 ineligible people got Canada emergency response benefit cheques.
The article starts off by seeming to make the story about something an MP said. This is a technique media outlets often use to bring something into the public discourse that they aren’t sure is factually correct, because the only claim they need to make to do so is that the politician said the thing. Of course, a more responsible media outlet would typically include their own assessment of whether the thing is true or not along with what the politician says (e.g., ‘Donald Trump falsely claims that he won the election’).
But this case is different, because when you read the sentence closely you see that the National Post is co-signing the idea that “more than 800,000 ineligible people got Canada emergency response benefit cheques,” and presenting it as fact. Otherwise they’d write something like, “A Conservative MP says Canada Revenue Agency has some explaining to do, claiming that more than 800,000 ‘ineligible’ people got Canada emergency response benefit cheques.”
CRA’s own records — filed in an inquiry of ministry tabled in the House of Commons — show 823,850 people who didn’t file a tax return in the past year received $2,000 monthly CERB cheques at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $1.7 billion, according to Blacklock’s Reporter.
This part is true, as the CRA record does show these people received CERB cheques. Yet having this sentence directly follow the one above gives the impression that the CRA itself said these CERB recipients were ineligible. They didn’t. That was the National Post.
The CRA didn’t say that because, as noted by academic economist Lindsay M. Tedds in a must-read blog post, you don’t need to have filed tax returns to qualify for the CERB. We’ve known this for months, even if whoever wrote this non-bylined National Post article did not.
In fact, since this article was published, the CRA told PressProgress, “For the emergency benefits, there is no requirement for individuals to have filed a tax return. As such, it would be erroneous to conclude that claims from applicants who have not filed a tax return are being paid out to fraudsters or to non-eligible individuals.”
“I find it remarkable,” Conservative MP Kelly McCauley said. “This is a huge amount. People were losing their homes and really needed help, but claims were made by others who were either ineligible or didn’t really need it. I want the government to do a proper, transparent audit of this. We just owe it to taxpayers.”
McCauley has completely misunderstood, or is intentionally misrepresenting, the data he’s speaking about. The CRA records don’t indicate that these CERB recipients shouldn’t have received the benefit. Moreover, not filing taxes doesn’t mean you don’t need or deserve help. It typically just means that you don’t owe the government money.
McCauley also tries to claim that people have suffered throughout this pandemic because of so-called CERB scammers as opposed to, you know, a range of measures or lack thereof that Conservatives at all levels of government in Canada have supported. This is a convenient narrative, but it isn’t true.
The federal government approved paying CERB to unemployed tax filers who made at least $5,000 in 2019.
The government approved paying CERB to anyone who earned $5,000 or more in the 12 months prior to applying, or in 2019, if they met the other criteria. Applicants didn’t need to be unemployed, have filed taxes or have made the $5,000 solely or even partially in 2019.
So while this line is technically true, it mistakenly portrays the group it mentions as the only ones eligible for the CERB. They’re not.
The CRA didn’t explain how non-tax filers could have claimed the benefit.
The CRA didn’t need to explain how non-tax filers could have claimed the benefit, as you don’t need to file taxes to claim the benefit. This line is misleading, then, because it gives the impression the CRA is trying to cover up some sort of failure on their part, as opposed to not responding to a stupid question (which they should have done, of course.)
For an even more in-depth review of this article, check out the blog post I mentioned earlier.
The Story Behind The Story
So, the National Post published a factually incorrect story, which, according to Press Progress, was then amplified in at least 17 Postmedia outlets.
At a normal publication, this would require, at the very least, a transparent correction entailing: changing the text of the article itself in all Postmedia publications digitally; including a notice at the end of the article explaining the change; running a correction notice in print everywhere the false story was published.
But because this whole article hinges on a factually incorrect claim (due to National Post co-signing it as fact, as I explained) a retraction would be more appropriate. This would mean replacing the article’s text with a retraction notice and apology in all places it was published online, and including a retraction notice everywhere it was published in print.
None of this has happened. Here’s what has.
The article was originally published on November 18, with the factually incorrect (see italicized) headline of “More than 800,000 ineligible people received CERB, at cost of nearly $1.7B, CRA documents reveal.”
Within 24 hours, following outcry from experts and the CRA explicitly stating that the story was wrong, the National Post changed the article’s headline to, “Tory MP demands answers why 800K non-tax-filers received CERB at cost of nearly $1.7B.”
This headline is better, as, ignoring the grammar, there are no actual errors. The non-tax filers did receive CERB payments, and the Conservative MP did complain.
However, it’s still incredibly misleading, as it mistakenly gives the impression that something illegal occured. Moreover, Postmedia didn’t give any notice, in the article itself or otherwise, that the headline had changed. Finally, the actual text of the article didn’t change, meaning the story remained factually incorrect and worthy of retraction. Changing the headline didn’t fix these issues.
On November 20, people noticed that links to the article, such as from National Post’s original tweet of it, went to an error page. This led some to proclaim that the National Post had deleted the article, effectively admitting defeat. This wouldn’t be a retraction, however, but merely an attempt to pretend no mistake was ever made and avoid issuing an apology, as a responsible media outlet would.
But I’m not really convinced National Post actually pulled the article. That’s because I’ve noticed that while the original tweet link (https://nationalpost.com/news/national/audit-demanded-after-more-than-800000-ineligible-people-get-cerb/wcm/3f1e3eb0-1385-4905-b5e4-18cac7479bbe) is dead, simply taking off the random italicized portion at the end and including the bolded part only shows you that the article is still up. (The article is gone at the Ottawa Citizen, without explanation, but seems to remain up everywhere else.)
This time, the article has another headline, used at other Postmedia outlets when the article was originally published, which is, “Audit demanded after more than 800,000 ineligible people get CERB.” Unlike the second headline, however, this one is false. Yes, an audit was demanded, but no, the data doesn’t show that more than 800,000 people ineligibly received CERB payments. And the article’s text still has not changed.
So, despite all the bullshit and lack of transparency on Postmedia’s behalf, we still have a factually incorrect story with a factually incorrect headline, and no correction, retraction or apology.
This article went viral as soon as it was shared. This means that at least tens of thousands of people likely got the mistaken impression that more than 800,000 fellow Canadians cheated the CERB system, providing fuel for those who attack support programs.
Even if Postmedia’s story was true, $1.7 billion is nothing compared to what the rich and corporations steal each year in Canada through tax evasion and offshore tax havens. But the Conservatives don’t want you to think or talk about their rich friends. They’d rather have you blame the suffering Canadians have experienced throughout this pandemic on the poor themselves. Ideologically, Postmedia as a whole does too. That’s likely why they ran with the story in the first place instead of doing a proper fact check.
There should have been a retraction and an apology. A retraction wouldn’t fix the issue, because the mistake almost always gets more attention than the correction. But it would have at least clarified the issue. Instead, Postmedia has doubled down. We should expect better from the largest newspaper chain in the country, which is the only source of print news in many places.
This article was just more than 200 words, and while it was almost entirely bullshit, it has reinforced some important truths about Postmedia. Tedds, the economist I mentioned earlier, said she has filed a complaint about Postmedia with the National News Media Council. I look forward to reading their assessment of this man-made disaster.