Nutritional health of Palestinian children

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Online article, “Some Palestinian kids malnourished: Lancet” overstated an “unremarkable” situation and should have put the data in context November 16, 2010

I am writing with regard to your complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman and request for a review following the July 2, 2010, publication of a CBC.ca report.

The unbylined CBC.ca report followed the release of several abstracts assembled by the British medical journal, The Lancet, arising from a conference on health in the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The specific abstract spurring your complaint about the CBC.ca report concerned nutritional health of schoolchildren. Among other things, CBC reported that the study found roughly one in four Palestinian children (26%) did not eat breakfast. The research concluded there was an “alarming” rate of overweight and iron-deficient children. It was headlined: “Some Palestinian kids malnourished: Lancet.”

Your complaint to the Office asserts CBC.ca overstated an “unremarkable” situation and should have added other information to give the reader a wider understanding of child nutrition globally to put the Palestinian data in context. You also took issue with the objectivity of the researchers themselves (a team of Palestinian doctors) and suggested the decision to write about their work revealed “political bias.”

Your complaint raises several important issues: how journalists should best report on statistics, how journalists can help the audience by providing context to data, and how journalism can intersect with political and economic conditions in the Middle East. CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices require adherence to the principles of accuracy, integrity and fairness. Among other things it requires information that conforms to reality, thorough research, and equitable treatment of relevant facts. As part of my review, I examined the available abstract from the researchers, led by Kholoud Nasser of the Ministry of Education in Ramallah and financed by the World Food Programme of the United Nations. It (but not the CBC.ca report) directly links the political and economic challenges of the occupied Palestinian territory with what researchers concluded was the “alarming rate” of spreading poverty.

The Lancet is a respected source of peer-reviewed medical studies. In this case it published research based on a representative sampling in 2008 of 2,000 students, in which it measured height and weight and blood composition and compiled self- administered questionnaires on attitudes and practices as they pertain to nutrition. The Lancet accepted the declaration by researchers that they lacked conflicts of interest, and I cannot conclude otherwise or surmise that research of this nature could have been conducted locally by anyone other than Palestinian researchers. The methodology was also sound. Having said that, information concerning health of any population can carry a political quality — as advocacy for resources and policy changes, among other things — and needs to be assessed in that light. This is acutely so in the supercharged political environment of the Middle East.

My review concludes CBC met the test of accuracy. Its reporting was faithful to the findings of the study as summarized in the abstract. There was no distortion of the research, including the headline: “Some Palestinian kids malnourished: Lancet.” The abstract itself said “undernutrition and overweight represent the double burden of malnutrition” in the territories and it carried supporting data to that effect. The headline wasn’t wrong in saying “some” were malnourished; the operative word here is “some,” which carries with it a wide interpretation.

But I have broader concerns about the CBC.ca item’s fairness, given the absence in the article of comparative data. Left without global or other regional or national data, the reader might have concluded there was particular gravity in the health of children in the territories.

While the Lancet-published research data hardly reassured anyone about the state of child nutrition, the findings were also hardly anomalous or extreme in the global context. World Health Organization, UNICEF and other data point to similar and even harsher evidence of child malnutrition elsewhere, including North America.

In this case, I believe the public would have benefited at the outset from the inclusion of wider data to suggest how malnutrition among schoolchildren in the territories compares with data elsewhere. In an era of immense available information, the media have a responsibility to employ context to help the public understand a bigger picture. I would suggest a clarification be included in the body of the story to help readers understand how the territories compare with other countries and regions.

The question might arise: If this information had been taken into account in the first instance, would the story at all have been covered? I believe there was sufficient newsworthiness to merit coverage and I note several major organizations did so. Ideally, though, it would have been in context.

I cannot conclude that the decision of CBC News to report on the findings constitutes political bias. Even without the inclusion of the contextual information I suggest, the research was accurately reported. CBC did not violate the Journalistic Standards and Practices or betray a bias in choosing to report on the research.

Kirk LaPointe
Ombudsman, CBC