Scent sensitivities

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant said CBC.ca did not sufficiently explain the more serious health consequences of scent sensitivity in two stories. I did not conclude there had been a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In stories January 18 and April 18, 2012, CBC.ca reported on how the Windsor-Essex School Board in Ontario was creating a policy on environmental sensitivities in the workplace — specifically, scent sensitivities.

In its first story, CBC.ca reported that new school board rules were coming to regulate the presence of synthetic scents—perfumes, body sprays and the like.

One school trustee said the time had come for a fragrance policy because some synthetic fragrances caused allergic reactions. “Perfumes, hairsprays, deodorants, heavy cologne items. It's unpleasant,” said trustee Julia Burgess. “It's hard to work when you've got a three-hour headache.”

A teacher and a student indicated support for such a policy, which Burgess said would only aim to reduce and not ban outright such scents.

The second story was published when the board agreed to a policy that encouraged students, staff and visitors to be considerate of others. Signs would be posted but there would be no ban.

The complainant, Chris Brown, has been an advocate for three decades for stronger public safety policies on environmental sensitivities. He wrote April 19 and said the stories left out any reference to the more serious health consequences of such sensitivities on learning or behavioural disabilities.

“Instead, CBC includes only a description of trivial consequences, jeopardizing people who are seriously affected by doing so by making a ban seem draconian,” he said. In failing to note the more significant impact, CBC News was further participating in the “ongoing exclusion, injury and unnecessary killing of Canadians with sensitivities.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back June 19 and explained that the more serious consequences were not noted because the stories were narrowly focused.

“Of course, I understand that some Canadians have far greater and sometimes debilitating sensitivities to synthetic scents and airborne chemicals. Those more profound consequences would more properly be included in a broader story looking at the scent sensitivity issue and the possible effects,” she wrote.

“Thank you for drawing this matter to our attention. I have circulated our correspondence among our senior editors and reminded them of the consequences, sometimes very serious, that can result from such exposure.”

Brown wrote again June 21 to ask for a review. He said the stories were part of a pattern that trivialized the serious impact of environmental sensitivities.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed, open and respectful treatment of individuals.

It adds: “In matters of human health we will take particular care to avoid arousing unfounded hopes or fears in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses.”

Conclusion

The mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman does not permit review of trends in coverage. Nor can an Ombudsman be involved in determining the day-to-day editorial direction or assignments within CBC News.

Instead, the mandate permits the Ombudsman to examine specific content and assess its performance against CBC's journalism policy

In this instance, I agree with CBC News that the profound consequences of scent sensitivity would be more properly part of a broader story. I take note that CBC has reminded its editors of the more significant impacts of such sensitivities.

But there was no violation of policy in limiting the description of the impact.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman