The Current's documentary about a wind energy project on Wolfe Island
On December 21, 2010, CBC Radio's The Current carried a documentary, Beauty and the Beast, on a wind energy project on Wolfe Island in eastern Ontario on the St. Lawrence River, near Kingston. The documentary, reported by Kristin Nelson, examined attitudes in the divided community and explored some of the project's social impact.
The Wolfe Island Wind Project is Canada's second-largest wind energy generator. Owned by TransAlta Energy Corp, it comprises 86 turbines at the western end of the island. At capacity it would generate power for 75,000 households. It falls far short of that at the moment, with the most recent measurement in 2010 at 24 per cent of that capacity. The community receives royalties and amenities under the development agreement, along with some tax revenue.
The focus of the documentary was the community attitudes and the tensions created by the project. Given the history and the bucolic nature of the island, it is not surprising that the process and result of the energy project have met with some disquiet. In her documentary, Nelson talked to proponents and opponents.
It did not deal in a material way with any controversies involving the environmental review process, any possible health-related issues in the project's operation, the impact on wildlife, or the economic costs and benefits. It had examined related issues on wind energy (although not directly involving Wolfe Island) in earlier programs.
The complainant, H.G. Garand, wrote CBC that the documentary selected and omitted material with a bias, that it lacked context and balance, and that it featured ageism and gender stereotyping, among other things.
Garand said the documentary promoted itself as exploring the costs and benefits of wind development. While it featured facts about the electricity produced and financial benefits, it “cites no facts about the issues of noise and health, bird mortality, or property values.”
Garand asserted that the report presented a view of supporters preoccupied with economics and energy supply and the opponents preoccupied with social disharmony and personal discontent.
He objected to the assertion in the documentary that opponents were a small minority over the age of 50 who did not like change. He provided a range of questions about the project he felt were not properly addressed. He objected to the frequent use of wind chimes as background sound in the documentary and felt even its title was inappropriate.
Two days later, as part of its weekly segment featuring letters to the program, The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Mark Mattson, a local resident who intervened in the hearings that licensed the project. He explained the history of the island and the challenges of the project and expressed concerns that residents had not been sufficiently informed and compensated.
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for reflection of a “wide range of subject matter and views. On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”
On the matter of interviews, the policy says: “We inform the interviewee of the subject of the interview . . .We advise the interviewee of how we plan to use the interview. When an interview is recorded, it may be edited before publication for length or to select the relevant passages . . . Whatever the context in which we choose to use the content of the interview, we will respect the meaning of an interviewee's statements.”
The complaint reflects the challenge for media when elements of a community expect a particular form of documentary.
The Current set out to chronicle an element of the wider story — the challenges and divisions within a small community when a major project springs to life — but expectations among some Wolfe Island residents were for a definitive story.
Even though some of the interviews for the documentary extended into larger issues, CBC did not violate its standards and practices in choosing to edit the discussions and focus on a subject within the subject. It was clear in its approach and intent and did not profess to be providing the last word.
CBC recognized, though, that it had not delivered what some in the community expected. In response, it quickly scheduled an interview with Mattson to deal with questions about the project process and to identify the larger political, environmental and scientific issues. The discussion was particularly important in noting a report commissioned by the energy company on the impact on birds and bats in the area.
This response was a sensitive measure, and since it was not the final word, The Current says it intends to pursue this issue in future episodes.
There were some specific areas of the complaint to discuss.
On the matter of age and gender stereotypes, I found the program did not conclude that those resistant to the project were all older residents or women. Some of the opponents were middle-aged and women were representative voices but not portrayed as the only ones.
On the issue of the background sound of wind chimes (as opposed to wind turbines), I found no violation of policy. It was an acceptable technique and its presence did not demonstrate or suggest a bias about the project.
As for the title of Beauty and the Beast, there was no violation of policy in applying the often- used title to a project that involves a scenic setting and a less sightly presence that isn't universally supported.