Protest against electro-convulsive therapy

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Protest on Parliament Hill against electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) (Complaint from David W. Oaks, Executive Director, Mind Freedom International)

You wrote to complain about several related stories concerning a protest against electro- convulsive therapy (ECT) staged on Parliament Hill last May.

You felt that the story on CBC.ca and related radio reports were “unfair and biased” in that, in your view, they did not allow sufficient space and time to opponents of the therapy. Mary Sheppard, Executive Producer of CBC News Online (now CBCNews.ca), replied that appropriate coverage was given to both sides of the controversy, although she acknowledged that the story did contain an error: the wrong first name of one of the anti- ECT researchers. You wrote further in reply: “I think I am understanding from your note that you feel there is no absolutely middle ground here; that is, you feel there is zero room for improvement on future coverage, there is no reason to change anything, and the protestors perspective has absolutely no merit.” You asked for a review. My apologies for the gross delay in responding.

We should first take note of the relevant guidelines set out in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Under Principles, we find: Information programs must reflect established journalistic principles:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

We also find, under Range of Opinions, this:

A journalistic organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed. Almost any opinion may contain a grain of truth that helps to illuminate the whole truth. But proper account must also be taken of the weight of opinion which holds these views and its significance or potential significance. The challenging of accepted orthodoxies should be reported but so also should the established views be clearly put.

The key principle is that fairness and balance is not a mathematical exercise. Journalists have to take into account the relative weight of opinion on various sides and, without injecting their own opinions, reflect that weight in the report. My reading on the subject, while indicating a noteworthy and aggressive body of opinion against ECT, shows that the bulk of medical opinion appears to favour the view that ECT, properly used, has substantial therapeutic benefits. There appears no doubt that there have been negative outcomes— although some of those “outcomes” have been reported anecdotally rather than scientifically. That is true of virtually any medical procedure I am aware of and has to be balanced against the likelihood of positive outcomes. The journalist's job is to reflect those differing opinions in an appropriate manner.

Rather than ignoring the claims of those opposed to ECT, the stories reported those views, not only of the Director of the International Campaign to Ban Electroshock, but also at least one medical researcher in the field. The stories also pointed out that the broad opinion in respected medical circles is opposite.

I can find no basis for your claims that Ms. Sheppard said or alluded to the protestors' perspective having “absolutely no merit.” In fact, the stories covered that perspective, as Ms. Sheppard pointed out.

Conclusion

The reports on both CBC Radio and CBCNews.ca attempted in a brief time to point out the differing opinions on the subject. The stories did not take sides, but accurately reflected the substance of the debate. With the exception of the mistake already acknowledged, the stories were well within the parameters of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman