East coast seal hunt

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Feature story about the east coast seal hunt

You wrote to complain about a feature story on The National on April 16, 2008, prepared by Mark Kelley, on the East Coast seal hunt. You felt that the item, which ran about 18 minutes long, had a “clear agenda of portraying the following:

  • sealers are impoverished people who live off the land and have no other opportunities
  • sealers eat the meat of the seals they kill and rely on the hunt for food
  • sealers walk lightly on the land and are not contributing to global warming because of their ‘subsistence' lifestyle
  • those who oppose the hunt are wealthy urbanites whose lifestyles destroy the planet
  • those urbanites who opposed the hunt are simply disconnected from the realities of food production (again, suggesting the seal hunt is about food production)
  • celebrities who protest the seal hunt are wealthy, uninformed urbanites who care little and know little about the people and industry they are opposing
  • animal protection groups oppose the hunt solely on emotional grounds
  • seal hunt opponents are against Newfoundland and Canada.”

You offered information to serve as a point by point refutation of those claims. You also had other specific problems with the item: the time allotted to each side; the tone of the interviews; the “lack of clarification” of roles of industry advocates; the reporter's consumption of seal meat; “lack of facts”; indications that the seal hunt is a subsistence activity, that the hunters “live off the land” and that they rely on the income from the seal hunt. The Executive Vice-President of English Services, Richard Stursberg, responded, disagreeing with your assessment, saying that “I think you will find the report not only covered the three aspects of the story Mr. Kelley promised in his first few sentences, but did so in roughly equal parts.” He went on to say “there was nothing here intended to ‘belittle' the anti-sealing movement or anyone else for that matter. ‘Culture' and ‘history' may seem like ‘abstract notions' at this distance, but as the report tried to show, they are

very tangible considerations for many East Coast sealers. Mr. Kelley presented three perspectives on the hunt, I believe in a fair and even handed fashion.”

You asked for a review.

The set-up to the feature led viewers to believe that they would receive information on three perspectives: the hunters, the protestors and the “seals.” Substantial time was given over to those who hunt, and their families.  Excerpts from a sympathetic documentary about the hunt were included, along with shots and interviews with members of a Newfoundland community. One had the impression that a relatively ordinary family was being portrayed, although we came to hear, if only in passing, that the family is actually one of the more active proponents and spokespeople for the hunt.

The “seals” perspective included shots of eco-tourists going out to the ice-fields by helicopter and of Mr. Kelley saying “hello” to baby seals on the ice. All agreed the seals were cute, a fact long established since the famous Life Magazine cover of the 1960s. (Full disclosure: I was employed by Time-Life at the time of that famous cover, although I had no involvement in the Life story).

Interestingly, at no point in these first two segments did a viewer get a sense of the real economic impact of the hunt or the strength of the market for seal as either food or pelt. The emphasis in the first segment was on the cultural heritage of seal hunting, but with no material that might help a viewer judge the current economic value of the hunt. I am sure, for instance, that buggy whip makers may have been intensely attached to their crafts, but as buggies were replaced, they would have moved on to other activities. In the item, there was no discussion about society's responsibility to maintain activities that no longer have economic viability. The culling of seal pups would appear to have the same “cultural” value as the slaughter of cattle or other animals for food, a point made by one of the Magdalene Island sealers. The third segment concentrated on the protestors who were, indeed, pictured generally as “well-heeled”, as illustrated by the fancy shoes worn by one anti-seal hunt demonstrator. The main interview, however, was with a former Newfoundlander, Rebecca Aldworth, now working for the Humane Society in the U.S. She pointed out in passing that the family at the heart of the pro-hunt documentary in the earlier portion of the item was actually a very active family in the pro-hunt lobby. You made mention of the fact that at one point in the interview with Ms. Aldworth, she appears to be in tears. You thought this made her look hysterical. I have to say that I found the lack of specific context for her emotion did not create a negative impression on me, since I assumed that she was genuinely moved by the plight of the pups.

In his interviews, Mr. Kelley seemed to establish a theme of asking how the people felt about those who opposed them, rather than probing the bases for either position. (Despite his efforts with the seal pups, we don't really know their views on the matter, although a New York judge is quoted on their seeming intelligence). It strikes me that with so much valuable time at his disposal, it would have been helpful for viewers like me, without a strong position one way or the other on the question, to receive real factual information instead of further emotional content. The viewer probably knows that both sides are emotionally vested in the issue. What he or she does not know are the economic and social facts that underlie the industry and whether they justify continuing an activity which some would find anachronistic. My task, of course, is not to decide the future of the seal hunt, but to test the item in question against the guidelines contained in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. Quite often in my work I note that viewers and listeners often ask too much of relatively brief items—demanding hundreds of years of background in short items which are, at base, mere updates of the latest information.

In this case, however, the item was, in broadcast terms, substantial: approximately 18 minutes long. One could have hoped for some solid, factual reporting rather than an impressionistic tour of some of the pro-and anti-sealing highlights. Mr. Kelley is an intelligent journalist with an engaging manner, but with this item we rarely saw substance.

You raised some very interesting specifics in your complaint, all of which would bear scrutiny in a documentary of substance on the hunt.

Conclusion

“Behind the Hunt” failed to provide sufficient context for a viewer to form any coherent opinion about the seal hunt. While I do not find that it was organized to create a false impression of the anti-hunt activists, it did little service to viewers trying to come to grips with the substance beneath the shouting.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman