Quirks & Quarks interview about "Shock Therapy"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Quirks & Quarks interview with Dr. Edward Shorter concerning his book, “Shock Therapy,” about the history of Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT)

You wrote to complain about an interview done on Quirks & Quarks on March 8, 2008. The interview was with Dr. Edward Shorter, the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Toronto. The substance of the interview by host Bob McDonald was the book “Shock Therapy” that Dr. Shorter had recently co- authored.

The interview was a tour d'horizon of Dr. Shorter's findings in his history of Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). It briefly covered the history of ECT, its portrayal in popular media, particularly the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and its more recent resurgence as an effective therapy for certain severe psychiatric disorders.

It was not, in the taxonomy of journalistic interviews, an “accountability” session, but an effort to bring forward Dr. Shorter's views.

You and others complained that the program did not provide an accurate or fair perspective on ECT. You cited studies that appear to show some short and long term memory effects from certain types of ECT.

The program's senior producer, Jim Handman, replied that the interview was “a standard Quirks & Quarks interview with a scientist who has written a book. It is not our practice to invite an author onto our program in order to attack them or question their book's basic premise. We do try, wherever possible, to ask some challenging questions, but we are in no position to criticize his research…”

He also pointed out that the program solicited other views and experiences of ECT. “The responses both supported and disagreed with Dr. Shorter's position, although the majority disagreed. Rather than ‘ignoring or marginalizing the views of former psychiatric patients' (as some complainants contended) we presented those views in the letters we read.” You rejected Mr. Handman's explanation and asked for a review. My apologies for the length of time it has taken. I was overtaken by historical events involving elections and wars in the Middle East.

The interview conducted by Mr. McDonald was a clear and understandable discussion of a complex topic. There was no doubt that Dr. Shorter was of the view that, properly administered, ECT was an effective therapy for some severe psychiatric disorders; that it had a bad image, thanks, in his view, to movie portrayals such as “Cuckoo's Nest” but that there was substantial acceptance of its efficacy in the scientific mainstream.

Mr. McDonald raised some of the common perceptions of ECT along the way and Dr. Shorter attempted to deal with them. I note that the interviewer did not go into detail on certain subjects, such as memory loss, which remains a topic of considerable controversy. However, the program did not cut off discussion, but encouraged those with other opinions to share them with the Quirks & Quarks audience.

Fairness and balance are concepts that require some context, particularly in the scientific realm. The exposition of a generally held scientific opinion does not summon up a requirement to have equal time for a countervailing point of view. As the CBC policy states under the heading Range of Opinion:

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.

My research indicates that the effectiveness of ECT is broadly supported by the scientific community. There are, as you have cited, many who disagree. As a continuing program of science exposition, I assume that Quirks & Quarks would be looking for significant research that might provide an opportunity to revisit the subject, but controversy should not preclude them from exploring mainstream ideas.


The interview met the parameters of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices and, by giving the opportunity to those who disagreed with the main thrust of the interview, Quirks & Quarks fulfilled the obligation to acknowledge other points of view.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman