The complainants felt that a CBC Radio program October 21, 2012 on wind turbines was unfair and lacked balance. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.
The program noted that turbines — the devices that convert kinetic energy from the wind into mechanical energy, better known as wind power — were once considered benign and quaint. Now they are contested and controversial.
The segments comprised a radio documentary by journalist Paige Ellis on turbines in her Ontario hometown of Kincardine and an interview by guest host Karin Wells with John Twidell, a wind power champion and British editor for the journal Wind Engineering.
The documentary looked at the local debate, in particular the neighbourhood disputes about land use and concerns about the economic and health impact on the community. Ellis reported that five families had moved from the area owing to their health concerns, but would not talk to CBC because they had settled — and agreed not to disclose terms of — financial claims against the turbine company.
The interview with Twidell of about 17 minutes examined many elements, including similarities and differences in the European and Canadian approaches and attitudes to the planning and development of turbines.
Twidell was questioned on the health-related issues involving turbines. He acknowledged many people experienced “real” psychological effects of their presence, but asserted there was no scientifically accepted evidence to support claims of physiological or medical effects.
Wells asked about the work of Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician who has written about the health effects of the turbines, in particular the impact of ultra-low frequency sounds. Twidell said her effort was “sincere” but not academically reviewed.
No academically reviewed research had been produced to support such claims, he noted. While there are continuing “high-level reports,” no one has found a “causal relationship” between turbines and physical health issues.
Asked about the noise of turbines, Twidell challenged people not to take his word but to visit sites themselves to determine if they were noisy.
Following the interview at the end of the segment, Wells noted that the wealthy Koch family, prominent in their support of the Tea Party element of the Republican Party, is involved in the anti-turbine industry in the U.S.
The interview segment prompted a handful of complaints to CBC. This review consolidates the complaints because of their common concern that the program demonstrated bias in featuring Twidell and in not featuring research about health issues related to turbines.
Harvey Wrightman wrote October 22 and called the segment “pure wind industry pap.” He took umbrage with the reference to the Koch family's involvement in the anti-turbine industry.
Brett Horner wrote October 24. He asserted there was high-quality information to support health-related claims. Horner said Wells did not sufficiently challenge Twidell and that he was neither a health professional nor an original researcher. The program did not sufficiently disclose his associations with the wind energy industry, he wrote.
Debbie Shubat wrote October 29 and said the program “did not fully address the complexities of health issues associated with exposure to noise and infrasound” from the turbines. She called the segment “the most biased information and pro-wind drivel possible.”
Susan Mahoney, the executive producer of The Sunday Edition, wrote back October 29 and said much of the Twidell interview segment was informational in nature. When he expressed pro- turbine views, he was consistently challenged, Mahoney wrote.
Mahoney said Twidell did not mock those who believed their ailments could be attributed to turbines. He did not discredit Pierpont but did note she “did not have the financial resources or the institutional support to carry out the clinical trials or scientific research needed to establish a connection between wind turbines and ill health.”
She said the Koch reference was based on credible information. She noted that several other CBC programs had dealt with the wider issues of wind power.
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for respectful, even-handed treatment of individuals and fair-minded treatment of subjects.
A single point of view can be presented, but CBC has to label it clearly and ensure the opposing point of view is not misrepresented. Divergent viewpoints need to be represented over “an appropriate time frame.”
While the policy on science and health reporting does not specifically address these circumstances, it calls for caution to avoid raising false hopes and fears and to be cautious about research that is not peer-reviewed.
I have some sympathy for people closely connected to stories who feel they haven't been heard or understood. In this instance the complainants believed CBC ignored evidence of physiological effects of wind turbines and presented a wind power advocate who discredited their views.
I listened repeatedly to the interview segment and tried to detect any unfairness that breached CBC journalistic policy.
I concluded that the interview with John Twidell satisfied policy in several respects:
- Twidell was sufficiently identified — indeed, he self-identified — as a wind power champion. There was no doubting his perspective.
- He did not discredit or distort the other point of view about the health impact of turbines. The line of questioning was reasonably challenging and made him defend his position.
- Twidell acknowledged there were “real” psychological impacts of the turbines and that Pierpont's views were “sincere,” but accurately stated no peer-reviewed academic research had confirmed physiological impacts. While his remarks did not necessarily validate the views of those who oppose turbines, they did not violate policy.
- He left open the door for studies that might find a causal connection. He noted that the anti-turbine proponents lacked resources or access to facilities to conduct a study that would bear a peer review.
The Office of the Ombudsman does not have a mandate to determine what is and is not strong science. Rather, the Office assesses if CBC news and information content adhered to CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.
Journalists depend largely on peer-reviewed journals to set a standard by which they can explain the advancement of understanding. That is why CBC elects to avoid as much as possible scientific research that has not borne peer-reviewed rigor. While it is possible such unreviewed research has legitimacy, it is also possible that peers would find flaws in methodology and other conditions and factors. CBC and many other media steer clear of those controversies by setting the standard at the peer-reviewed level.
In its review of the peer-reviewed and popular literature on the subject in 2011, the journal Environmental Health stated: “To date, no peer reviewed articles demonstrate a direct causal link between people living in proximity to modern wind turbines, the noise they emit and resulting physiological health effects. If anything, reported health effects are likely attributed to a number of environmental stressors that result in an annoyed/stressed state in a segment of the population.” I found no academic literature or reference guides to since challenge that and found several citations to confirm it.
Given CBC's policy not to raise false health hopes or fears and to be cautious about citing studies that had not faced peer review, I concluded the interview was well within its Journalistic Standards and Practices. The wider segment also attempted to give voice to those who were expressing health concerns.
I concluded that remarks at the end of the segment about the Koch family involvement in the anti-turbine industry were neither aimed to discredit nor a violation of policy. They were accurate if somewhat of a digression.