Pursuit of the right to die

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review involved a complaint that a CBC.ca feature on the pursuit of the right to die was biased in favour of one perspective and used terms that were not accurate. There were no violations of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

CBC.ca features several pages devoted to particular issues when they require background material, including one on the theme of assisted suicide. It is titled: The fight for the right to die.

The complainant, Kelden Formosa, wrote December 16, 2011, and asserted the page was “heavily biased in favour of the legalization of assisted suicide.”

The term “right to die” is politically loaded, he said, because it assumes there is such a right. He said the explanation of opposition to assisted suicide was confined to a brief passage of four sentences in a lengthy text. He also noted that links to other sites with varying perspectives on the issue did not include one from the largest organization opposing assisted suicide.

Formosa noted that the page was created in 2009, beyond the one-year period in which content is typically reviewed following its production under the practices of this Office. But because it remains online and is referenced elsewhere by CBC News as a resource on the subject, Formosa argued that a review should be conducted in the “spirit” of the Office.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back to note the page discussed “the fight” for the right to die — that is, the progress toward legalizing it. Enkin noted the page looks at the 1993 Supreme Court of Canada case involving Sue Rodriguez, “perhaps the country's most famous right to die advocate,” and examines the legal situation around the world and the differences between assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The issue was again timely because Gloria Taylor, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease — was bringing a case to the British Columbia Supreme Court in an expedited attempt to permit her doctor to help her end her life before she became incapacitated. Given that the issue was now back to the court, Enkin said, “Canadians will likely be hearing a lot more about it including, I expect, a broader examination of the issue.”

Formosa wrote again January 16 to say he was dissatisfied with the response. He maintained there were two key issues: the inappropriateness of the term “right to die” and the limited explanation of the opposition to assisted suicide.

Formosa came upon the page while researching a university paper and asserted he could not trust it as a credible resource. “Moreover, it ill-serves the public by giving people a skewed perception of the issue in what is supposed to be an introductory resource."

Journalistic Standards and Practices call for CBC to not promote “any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” It calls for even-handed treatment of individuals and organizations.

“We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views,” the policy says.

It adds: “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.”

Conclusion

The customary practice of the Office of the Ombudsman includes the review of news and information content within its first year. That practice predated the arrival of extensive online journalism and did not contemplate such material as a permanent reference point.

The public treats these topic or background pages as a form of current content. While it would be challenging to indefinitely review long-ago published material, there need to be new guidelines for oversight at some point.

In this instance, I concluded it was in the spirit of the Office to review this complaint because the issue had resurfaced and this page was the most evident CBC News resource.

Some media routinely update such pages as new resources and information emerge, but CBC News creates pages as issues arise and doesn't typically return to them.

Journalistic policy permits CBC latitude to carry a range of views “over a reasonable period of time,” suggesting that there need not be a comprehensive resource on any topic page or even on any one platform.

The complaint in this instance indicates this may not square with the increasingly conventional online media technique of producing and audience practice of consuming all-in-one-place resources.

Existing policy recognizes that not all forms of journalism can self-contain a range of perspectives. It does not impose impractical and often unachievable requirements on individual programs, segments or other forms of content. I suspect that the policy is bound to experience greater tension in an age of stand-alone online resources on topics.

There is also no requirement under policy to create a mathematical equivalence of perspectives. As long as there is a reflection of the range of perspectives, the policy permits more links to resources on one side of the issue than on the other — for instance, more explanation of advocacy than opposition. In this instance, it meant the links were within policy.

I agreed with CBC that the online page was on the theme of the “fight for the right to die” — that is, it was about the effort to reach the right, and did not assume that right already existed. The term was fairly applied.

This field, which broadly reflects the entitlement of the individual to take one's own life, is replete with a minefield of euphemisms. CBC's approach is to use neutral terms whenever possible. But when the focus of a legal challenge by someone seeking an end to her own life is doctor-assisted suicide, it is fair to call it a right-to-die matter. The page was appropriately titled in this circumstance and there was no violation of CBC policy in doing so.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman