Tanning beds

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review follows a complaint that inaccurate information was presented in a CBC Television report February 3, 2012 on The National involving federal guidelines for tanning beds. The review found a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

CBC Television's The National featured a report February 3, 2012 following a call by the Canadian Paediatric Society to ban those under the age of 18 from using commercial tanning facilities.

The Society had issued a position statement that tanning beds posed a serious health risk because they emitted ultra-violet (UV) radiation linked to the development of skin cancer. The CBC report said the Society had joined other health organizations in calling for such a ban. The report noted one in four teens used tanning beds.

The report featured a young woman who CBC said had used tanning beds since she was 15. It featured one of the Society study's authors, Dr. Richard Stanwick, who said the damage was cumulative and that it was necessary to keep young people away from the devices.

The report included reaction from a tanning salon proprietor against the ban and attributed to him that equipment was increasingly safer and that the industry standard was for parents to consent to use by minors. The report noted there were health benefits to limited UV exposure and noted the young woman had used tanning beds to deal with acne.

The report also discussed federal standards for tanning beds. It said Nova Scotia and parts of British Columbia already banned minors from using the beds and that the federal Health Department said it is up to the provinces to create and impose any laws involving them. The report said Health Canada had published guidelines that “no one under the age of 16 should use a tanning bed.”

The complainant, Linda Jeaurond, wrote CBC on February 4 to say that the Health Canada recommendation was inaccurately reported and should be corrected before it impeded efforts to protect children. To support her assertion, she cited a Health Canada website in which the agency recommended against the use of tanning beds, particularly for those under the age of 18 — not 16, as the CBC reported.

When Jeaurond did not get an immediate response, she wrote this Office on February 8 and her correspondence was forwarded to CBC News.

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote her February 17 and acknowledged that the Health Canada website Jeaurond identified said something other than what CBC had reported. “We regret the error. Thank you for drawing it to our attention,” she wrote

Jeaurond wrote this Office on February 20 to say she was disappointed CBC admitted the error, “yet there is no apparent interest in setting the record straight.” She noted the impact of The National in leaving an errant impression and asked for a review of the matter.

(Neither the online story nor a segment on CBC News Network on February 3 mentioned the federal guidelines.)

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for clarity, accuracy and accountability. Among other things, it notes: “We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow- up a story when a situation changes significantly.”

Conclusion

Given the number of decisions made each day by news organizations, it is not surprising that academic studies have consistently found that factual errors occur in about half of all stories. What differentiates media is how they deal with journalistic inaccuracies and whether corrections are seen within their cultures as signs of virtue or weakness.

Some corrections are minor or impractical to present. This is particularly true for broadcasting with finite program space. It is never possible to capture the same audience and its same attention for the correction. But in general, the presence of corrections demonstrates accountability and a commitment to the truth.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices grant latitude in this matter. The policy calls for a corrected record “when necessary,” wording I interpret as leaving CBC in the position to determine if and how an error should be noted.

Thus, while there was a policy violation in presenting inaccurate information, there would not be any further policy violation if CBC did not correct the record — that is, CBC can acknowledge an error in correspondence but not necessarily communicate that to the wider audience. This is an area of policy that I have found complainants often find puzzling. I take note that CBC News is bringing forward new practices involving corrections in the near future.

In this instance it bears noting that the 2011 census data indicated there were roughly 2.2 million Canadians between the ages of 15 and 19. Detailed age-by-age information is not yet available, but the available data would still suggest there are several hundred thousand Canadians aged 16 and 17 — a cohort Health Canada recommends should not use tanning beds. As noted, CBC reported Health Canada only recommends those under 16 not use the beds. The relevant group involved in the errant information was not inconsequential.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman