Herbal remedies for flu symptoms

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

You wrote initially in September, 2009, to complain about an item on The National concerning the use of herbal remedies for flu symptoms. You wondered whether the same editors would have run an item discussing ‘creation science.' “Of course not,” you wrote, “But for something which is literally life-and-death your news editors presented this unadulterated baloney as if it had equal status with professional medicine, which it certainly does not.”

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National, responded. He took issue with your analogy between ‘creation science' and herbal remedies: “…creation science is widely considered to be a pseudoscience… On the contrary, the effectiveness of herbal medicines in treating certain conditions seems to be widely accepted.” He pointed to a number of common and effective remedies that began as herbal remedies. He also noted that “the report did not suggest traditional medicines would ‘cure' swine flu. They most assuredly will not. It said that these natural medicines could ‘help fight symptoms like fevers and headaches' and could help people ‘stay healthy.'” He also pointed out that under CBC policies and the Broadcasting Act, CBC News is expected to carry a wide range of views on matters of public interest.

You rejected his response and asked for a review, saying, “I am asking the Ombudsman to help the CBC resist mindless egalitarianism which promotes all viewpoints on all subjects as equally worthy of dissemination.”


It might be helpful to look to CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. Under “Range of Opinion” we find 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 question you pose is, in essence, whether “opinion” in this case veers into blatant untruth and that the CBC should not broadcast an untruth.

One of the other admonitions of CBC journalistic policy is that journalists should not state anything as fact that they know to be untrue. However, journalists properly cover a wide range of opinions of others, attributing those views appropriately. Courts have found that journalists cannot be expected to prove the truth or falsity of everything that is broadcast or published. Public debate and discussion would cease if that were the case.

Clearly, though, journalists must acknowledge the “weight” of an opinion. In the analogy you cited, it would be ludicrous to “balance” every mention of evolution with a reference to creationism. At the same time, it is not inappropriate for journalists to cover the fact that a surprising (some might say alarming) number of people in North America hold that unscientific point of view. I recall a previous review in which a CBC journalist reported on the opening of a creationism museum in Alberta. Someone objected that the CBC was promoting “creation science.” In fact, the report did not promote that belief, but accurately reported on this event. The review can be found at www.cbc.ca/ombudsman under the Findings section, 2007-2008.

I guess the question at issue is whether a belief in the analgesic properties of certain herbs reaches the same level of absurdity as, say, a strict belief in Biblical creationism. Journalists should always be wary of ruling opinions “in” or “out.” Scepticism is the default stance for journalists who should always be wary of deciding what “truth” is. We should be reporting the facts we know, and accurately reporting and attributing opinions.

You may be comfortable declaring that all herbal medicine is, basically, shamanism. However, few medical practitioners I am familiar with would rule out all herbals in that way.

In the story at issue I do find that the reporter was not overly sceptical in dealing with his sources. The item was a relatively straightforward recitation of what the “traditional healer” believed. I note that in the final paragraph of the story, the reporter notes that “Woods (the “traditional healer”) says people can stay healthy with a good balance of traditional and Western medicines, but until there's a vaccine, he's going to make sure there's enough of this remedy for his community and he wants to make it available to everyone.”

It seems to me that modest if flawed reportage on the traditional practices of First Nations people within a sea of stories on AH1N1 flu and its vaccine does not equate with an endorsement of shamanism. You may never have used herbal treatments to effect, but many others have. Your point would be valid if there were an apparent endorsement of such methods instead of scientifically based treatments, but, as the reporter noted, even the “traditional healer” endorsed a mixture of traditional and “Western” methods of treatment.

Conclusion

While the reporter could have crafted a more probing item, its faults do not rise to the level of violation of policy.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman