Assessing the Damage. CBC Ombudsman Finds Wrong Flood Damage Values Reported, Notes "broader concern that there is a pattern of imprecision in CBC’s coverage relating to flood events"

The CBC Ombudsman has found violations in the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices related to an April 11, 2019 article entitled "Canada's building code is getting a climate change rewrite. Is your home ready?" (link).

The violations relate to publishing the wrong value for flood damages resulting from a Toronto August 2018 storm, and failing to note corrections to an article.

The CBC has always been very responsive to feedback on extreme weather reporting, including on the frequency of extreme events.  In January 2019, the Ombudsman also found violations related to reporting of more frequent extreme rainfall events (i.e., 100-year storms) - corrections to a couple stories were required.  Those Ombudsman's findings are noted in a previous post.  Other CBC story corrections have been made since 2015, again relating to storm frequency and the causes of flooding, and are noted in this previous post.

The new Ombudsman findings are described here.

While the complaint surrounding the April 11, 2019 article is related to a single storm, the Ombudsman noted that there is a broader issue stating:

"I have a broader concern that there is a pattern of imprecision in CBC’s coverage relating to flood events."

This comment is based on the fact that the cited average flooded basement claim or payout was $43,000 was really based on an extreme 2013 flood event in Toronto - not an average at all - yet it has been repeated over and over by the media including CBC.

A previous post shows how this value started (as $40,000 back in 2017) and how it has been expanded to cover the whole country.  It has been used in Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation's infographics as well:


Intact Financial Corporation's website refers to the $43,000 value too:


Global News. The Globe and Mail. Canadian Underwriter. TVO's The Agenda. All repeat the incorrect $43,000 value. Only CBC has been keen enough to entertain a review and make corrections to the record.

The full review is noted below for reference

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Assessing the Damage
  • Sep 20, 2019
    CBC reported that concerns about climate change are causing government to re-think the rules for construction of buildings and infrastructure. Complainant Robert Muir took exception to several details in the online article. Among them was an estimate of damage caused by one particular storm, which led to this review about expert sources, and the importance of precision in journalism.

    COMPLAINT

    You listed four deficiencies in the original version of a story headlined Canada's building code is getting a climate change rewrite. Is your home ready? which was published on April 11, 2019.
    The article concerned various proposals to create tougher standards for the construction of buildings and infrastructure projects in Canada. It explained to readers that governments are considering these changes in order to mitigate the expected impact of a changing climate.
    Two of your points prompted CBC News to make amendments to the article. One concerned wording that implied that predicted changes in extreme rainfall events had already been demonstrated. The other concerned the use of incorrect terminology to describe a backwater valve. Many homeowners will recognize this device which can decrease the risk of a sewage backup in their home.
    Your third point suggested the article should have more fully addressed the cost effectiveness of the various proposals.  In response, CBC News explained that this was outside of the scope of this particular article. 
    You were satisfied that those three points were properly addressed. However, on your fourth point, you requested a review. The remaining dispute relates to a section of the article which included an interview with Natalia Moudrak, Director of Climate Resilience at the University of Waterloo's Intact Centre. At one point she discussed the amount of damage caused to homes by flooding in Toronto.
    Here is the relevant excerpt of the article:
    While architects and construction workers grapple with reducing emissions from large buildings, average Canadians will face other problems. 
    "Flooding is the biggest challenge" linked to climate change for most homeowners, said Natalia Moudrak, director of climate resilience at the University of Waterloo's Intact Centre. 
    And there are measures homeowners can take now to safe address flooding.
    If a homeowner has a pump to get water out of a basement, "it's important to install a backup generator," she said. Widespread flooding often leads to power outages, leaving regular pumps useless when they're most needed.
    Homeowners can also take simple steps to elevate valuables, like expensive electronics, off their basement floor or put items in plastic or steel containers in case water does creep in, Moudrak said. 
    To prevent sewage from flowing into your home during a flood, David Foster, a spokesperson for the Canadian Home Builders' Association, recommends installing a backwater valve, a mechanical backflow prevention device linked to the plumbing and designed to allow water from sewer drains to only flow away from the home.
    "There is not a lot of cost involved in that, it just involves changing the way things are done," said Foster, who has consulted with the government on the new code. 
    When constructing a new home, installing a backwater valve costs roughly $400, Moudrak said. When retrofitting an existing home, it usually costs about $3,000. But municipalities often offer subsidies to help offset that expense.
    The problem, she said, is most people don't know about them.
    Only six per cent of Toronto homeowners took advantage of the city's flood resilience subsidy program, she said. When floods hit the city last year, she said the average cost to affected homeowners was $43,000.
    The sentence at the heart of your complaint is the very final one. You wrote that the $43,000 figure was “misstated”. It reflected the Intact Centre’s Toronto 2013 Flood Report, not the 2018 one (i.e. - the article states “last year”). You also suspected that the calculations of the estimate are based on studies done in the United States by the National Flood Insurance Program.
    You said more accurate numbers could be obtained from the CatIQ database, which you describe as “the definitive source for compiled flood damages from Canada’s insurance companies.” Based on the number of claims and total value of payouts from the 2018 storm, you suggested that a more accurate number was $18,509 rather than $43,000. You wrote:
    I believe that it is important to clarify given the fact that urban flooding is a significant issue, the costs of risk reduction are immense, and sound economic data and analysis is required to make evidence-based decisions on damage reduction management strategies. Flood damage data is a key piece of this economic data and many municipalities have cited the $43,000 value in federal infrastructure grant applications, which may not reflect actual damages, and could therefore adversely affect how scarce resources are allocated to address an important infrastructure challenge. 

    MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

    Paul Hambleton, the Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, responded on behalf of CBC News:
    To be clear, the story quoted Natalia Moudrak, director of climate resilience at the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation: “When floods hit [Toronto] last year, she said the average cost to affected home owners was $43,000”. That information is also included in Weathering the Storm: Developing a Canadian Standard for Flood-Resilience in Existing Communities, a report published in January and co-authored by Ms. Moudrak.
    In a footnote, the report attributes that estimate to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) “based on Toronto flooding in 2013”. However, you wrote, the actual source is FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) cited in a July, 2012 story in Forbes. The story cites the interactive “Cost of Flooding” found on the NFIP page as estimating nearly $40,000 damage to a 2,000 sq. ft. home after a 6-inch flood.   
    It’s interesting to note that in looking at it now, almost seven years later, “Cost of Flooding” estimates damage of a little over $20,000 for a 1,000 sq. ft. home and about $52,000 to a 2,500 sq. ft. one-storey home. (There was no estimate for 2,000 sq. ft. home).
    It’s pretty clear that there is a range of estimates and, it seems, little public information about how those numbers were reached. But you have touched on an interesting issue here.
    On one level, while reporters can tell us what they see and hear, there are many things that they don’t witness or can’t know. In those instances they attribute the information. That way, readers know the source and can make their own judgment about its reliability. In this instance, we attributed the information to Ms. Moudrak, identifying her position and the organization she works for.

    REVIEW

    In a perfect world journalists would have expertise in every subject they cover. In the real world, many reporters, along with their editors, are generalists who strive to learn as much as they can in a short time so they can report faithfully and accurately on the subject at hand. 
    This means that there are times where they reasonably rely on subject experts to explain how something works, why something happens, or what might happen next. It might be a doctor, a realtor, or a marketing executive. In each case, the reporter looks to use their expertise as a way to improve the story with informed insights. 
    In such situations reporters willingly put themselves at the mercy of the expert’s knowledge. If an expert were to give bad information, CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices doesn’t let either of them off the hook. There is a section called “Responsibility and Accountability Related to Interviews” which reads as follows:
    CBC takes responsibility for the consequences of its decision to publish a person’s statements in the context it chooses. When we present a person’s statements in support of our reporting of facts, we ensure that the statements have been diligently checked. In the case of comments made by a person expressing an honest opinion, we ensure that the opinion is grounded in facts bearing on a matter of public interest.
    The interviewee also takes responsibility for his or her statement. As a general rule, we offer the interviewee no immunity or protection from the consequences of publication of the statements we gather.
    Sometimes the experts provide a recitation of facts, but not always. Often they are called on to analyze a situation or express an opinion related to their field. It is sensible that there is wide latitude in these cases for what constitutes reasonable comment. Realtors may disagree on which way the housing market is going. Marketers may clash over whether that new trend will fizzle. Doctors may have varying levels of enthusiasm for a prospective new drug.  
    The estimate of how much damage the average affected homeowner experienced during Toronto’s big summer storm of 2018 falls into this category of commentary and professional judgment. There is no single demonstrable number that has universal support, so the reporter went looking for someone to estimate the total.
    You disagreed with the Intact Centre’s methodology. Instead, you pointed to the CatIQ database, which is an excellent starting point. However, as you know, that database represents only the payouts insurance companies made to people who put in a claim. Others might think you should add in property damage not covered by the insurance policy, or people who opted not to file a claim. There are other expenses that could be considered as well. Should you include the value of time homeowners missed from work as a result? What about the cost of infrastructure repairs absorbed by government, or the cost of policing, firefighters and ambulance drivers? Should they be included or costed separately?
    Looked at through a different kind of prism, how much of the damage was caused by flooding, and how much was caused by wind, or by lightning? 
    Now, I recognize that you know a great deal about all these subjects. You have your own expertise, and you have told me about work you are doing that seeks to consider both direct and indirect costs to come up with a ratio of overall losses to insured losses. However, it is apparent that determining an estimate has at least some degree of subjectivity. 
    With all that in mind, it was acceptable journalistic practice for the CBC reporter to use the Intact Centre as its expert source and ask them to estimate the damage from a big storm. The Intact Centre is an applied research centre affiliated with the University of Waterloo. That may not bring it reputational immunity, but it does come with an inherent base level of credibility. The reporter was entitled to use Ms. Moudrak as an expert, so long as he attributed the estimate to her. I disagree with you that the JSP standard of “diligent checking” of her statement meant the reporter should have done extensive research to test that estimate. It is more reasonable to believe that diligent checking refers to facts that can be categorically confirmed or refuted, not to a matter of professional judgment such as this. 
    Nonetheless, you are correct that the number in the story WAS the wrong number, regardless of the quality of the estimate. The $43,000 figure did not represent the Intact Centre’s estimate for the 2018 Toronto storm, but instead was their estimate for the 2013 Toronto storm - something raised by you in your complaint, acknowledged by Mr. Hambleton in his response, and confirmed in my own communication with Ms. Moudrak.
    That this was wrong is, naturally, a violation of policy. That it has not been corrected means it continues to be so. It does not matter whether the original misunderstanding was caused by the source or by the journalist. It ought to be clarified for the record, and for the readers. 
    Further, I noted while reviewing the story that there is no note on the web page acknowledging the two other corrections prompted by your initial complaint. This is a second violation of policy.   
    I have a broader concern that there is a pattern of imprecision in CBC’s coverage relating to flood events. You provided me with a list of other recent CBC stories which make reference to the $43,000 damage estimate. Several confuse the matter by not indicating this is a specific estimate for the 2013 Toronto floods. One said, “The average basement flood in Ontario costs the homeowner $43,000.” Another said, “The average payout for a flooded basement is $43,000 and rising.”  These types of references take a single (and unusual) event in 2013 and treat it as if it is now a generic standard.
    Reporters and editors need to ensure they understand what's included (and what's not) in any estimates provided, and they need to ensure that they associate that estimate with the correct event - or events, as the case may be. Based on my review, that is not happening consistently enough. 
    All of this needs to be distinguished from your belief that the Intact Centre’s $43,000 estimate to be incorrect, even when attributed to the 2013 storm. I would encourage CBC News to take your perspective into account, but that is as far as I will go. It is not my intention to take sides on the quality of the Intact Centre’s estimate. If journalists continue to find the Intact Centre credible, they continue to be free to consult them for stories.
    Sincerely,
    Jack Nagler
    CBC Ombudsman

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