"Broken Heroes"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The Fifth Estate's “Broken Heroes” – an examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)/Operational Stress Injury (OSI) within the Canadian military (complaint from Dr. Rachel Thibeault, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa)

You wrote to complain about a program on The Fifth Estate called “Broken Heroes.” The program was a lengthy examination of the problem of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)/Operational Stress Injury (OSI) within the Canadian military. You said the program lacked “journalistic integrity” in not highlighting the therapeutic gains that have been made. You said the program had a “tone of hopelessness” and was “to the detriment of truth and of veterans' mental health.”

The program's producer, Sally Reardon, responded. She cited instances in the program where therapies were mentioned, saying that “it is clear from (the) opening remarks that we are going to examine the difficult and complex reality of those who live with PTSD or OSI...as well as what is being accomplished for them, specifically, the OSISS (Operational Stress Injury Social Support). The best way for us to explain the urgent necessity of a program such as OSISS is to first explain the breadth and many layers of the injury itself, which we do.”

She went on to cite instances that she felt pointed up some of the steps being taken to help those who are suffering.

You were unsatisfied with her response and asked for a review, offering an analogy to hypothetical coverage of H1N1 without mention of possible remedies. I am sorry for the time it has taken to do the review. I have been dealing with a backlog of material.

First, I would like to review the basic principles from which I work. They can be found in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices:

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.

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

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.

In addition, I will mention the policy on balance, since you appear to be arguing that the cases cited should have been “balanced” with similar discussion of therapies.

CBC/Radio-Canada programs dealing with matters of public interest on which differing views are held must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.

The Fifth Estate, it should be noted, is not a newscast. Within a traditional news format we would expect to find reporting of a question of public controversy and an appropriate sampling of relevant, possibly divergent views on the subject. The Fifth Estate is a long format program which takes on a variety of topics in some depth and, in some cases, leads to a conclusion based on careful research.

In this case, it appears to me, the task was somewhat different. The intent seems to be to bring forward into the light of public consciousness a subject that had been not widely discussed: the traumatic effects on some military personnel of service in a war-zone. Experts like yourself may be thoroughly familiar with the situation and what can be done, but the broad civilian population would be relatively unfamiliar with it. Before one can rationally discuss solutions, one must understand the problem. That appears to be the intention of the program—to give direct and personal substance to the somewhat abstract concepts of PTSD/OSI.

You describe the human suffering depicted in the program as “one side of the coin,” the other side being “an outstanding pan-Canadian support network, and of the very real possibility of getting better.” While it might be convenient to view these two ideas as being “opposed” on opposite sides of a coin, and therefore requiring some kind of “balance,” it strikes me that they are really part of a continuum. In fact, both General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of the Defense Staff, and General Roméo Dallaire, now a senator, both speak of the change in response that has taken place over the last few years.

Before public support and understanding can become wide-spread, it is necessary to have the nature of the problem laid before us. Each of the men profiled is attempting to deal with his condition with, as noted, the help of therapists and fellow veterans. None of them is out of the woods, but, contrary to your conclusion, I did not find a note of hopelessness, but a note of struggling humanity.

It is clear in the documentary that supports are now in place and that help is available, but I presume you are not arguing that these men are hopeless because they have not yet been cured. While I appreciate the care with which you elaborated your H1N1 thesis, I cannot find that it is analogous to the work done on “Broken Heroes.” The Fifth Estate item, as Ms. Reardon mentioned, did point the way to therapeutic measures, although the focus of the piece was on the soldiers themselves. I, like you, will look forward to the follow-up to which Ms. Reardon referred. The continuum of this story obviously has myriad aspects. It is not my function to tell programmers when and how to schedule items in the future, but to judge their material against existing policies.


“Broken Heroes” does not violate any of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices within the context of its stated intent.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman