Sex Ed Controversy

The complainant, Wietse Jagersma, was concerned that The Homestretch in Calgary violated CBC’s policy on balance. The program ran a story about a faith based pregnancy counselling service that also teaches part of the sex education curriculum in Edmonton and Calgary. The program first interviewed a critic of the group. The next day a spokesperson from the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre had a chance to rebut the criticisms against it. Because CBC policy on balance refers to achieving balance over time, I found there was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

In early October, The Homestretch, CBC Calgary’s afternoon program, featured two segments on sex education in Calgary schools. The coverage was prompted by a report that a group of Edmonton parents had launched an on-line petition against one of the providers of the sex education curriculum in that city. The Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre is a faith based organization that emphasizes abstinence in its work with young people.

The Homestretch treatment on October 7 featured a statement from a spokesperson from the Edmonton school board who explained that the group talks about abstinence but also addresses other contraceptive methods. The school board official was followed by a studio interview with Pamela Krause, the Executive Director of Calgary Sexual Health, a group which provides some sex education in Calgary schools, as does Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre. The Calgary and Edmonton branches are independent of each other, although they are both affiliated with the same international organization.

The interview focused on her concerns about the message she felt the Pregnancy Care Centre conveyed. She said “…they specifically focus on abstinence and what the consequences are if they (students) are not. So it’s from a shame-based perspective which is of great concern to us.” She characterized their approach as judgmental. You objected to the fact that only a critic of the organization was interviewed:

“Why would CBC’s Homestretch not get input from the group in question (Calgary or Edmonton Pregnancy Care Network).”

You noted there was only “one position on a topic.” “How is that reflective of a diversity of opinion?” you asked. You also felt program host Doug Dirks allowed his guest to characterize the group as “shame-based and judgmental” without challenge or asking for any evidence.

You sent your concerns to this office soon after the broadcast. The next day the program did a second interview, this time with the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre Executive Director, Wendy Lowe. She was able to respond to the comments made by Ms. Krause and to explain the group’s approach in the schools. Bernard Graham, Interim Executive Producer of Programs in Calgary, pointed this out to you, but you were not satisfied. You checked with the Calgary group and you were told that they contacted the CBC and asked for a chance to reply. Even though they were given that opportunity, you felt the fact they had to call underlined the bias, and your complaint still stood. You asked me to review the matter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Interim Executive Producer of Programs in Calgary, Bernard Graham, replied to your concerns. He explained the programmers decided to “pursue an interview based on a story that appeared in that day’s Edmonton Journal.” They had confirmed that a similar group in Calgary also participates in sex education in local schools. He cited the input of the Edmonton school board spokesperson in support of the Centre, who explained what the Centre does in its classrooms: “The spokesperson also stated the school board is confident the organization does not talk about faith and religion to students as part of its presentation.” He summarized the interview with Pamela Krause of Calgary Sexual Health, and her concerns about the message delivered by the Care Centre:

During the live interview, Ms. Krause criticized the focus on abstinence. She suggested the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre uses "shame" as a technique for young women not to have sex. She says young girls are left with the impression that, if they had an abortion, they will be considered "damaged goods".

Ms. Krause also said her group must "clean up the myths that they spread to youth". She claimed students are told that "condoms will probably break" and "abortion leads to breast cancer". Ms. Krause says she heard those stories from students who had experienced sessions with the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre.”

He explained “as a result of the interview with Ms Krause, the program offered the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre the opportunity to respond to the criticism.” He noted that while you correctly point out that CBC policy expects a balance of points of view, balance is not a “mathematical equivalency,” and that balance is achieved over a period of time or a series of programs, and that is what had happened in this case.

REVIEW

You correctly invoke CBC’s policy on Balance in assessing this programming. The policy states:

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.

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.”

In this case, the issue arose because a group of Edmonton parents were objecting to the involvement of Edmonton Pregnancy Care Center in teaching their children sex education.

The introduction to the piece by host Doug Dirks began:

“This fall some parents in Edmonton started an online petition because they are concerned about who is teaching their kids sex education. An organization called the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Center has been doing talks in some public schools in the city and what you might not get from the name is that it is a Christian organization that focuses on abstinence until marriage.”

He then went on to introduce a spokesperson for the Edmonton Board who defended the presence and role of the faith based organization. That was followed by an interview with a critic of the organization, someone who had concerns about the tone and quality of the information she said the Care Center delivered.

While you thought the program host should have pressed harder when she characterized it as “judgemental” and “shame based,” she made it clear it was her assessment based on the emphasis on abstinence until marriage and things students had told her. Interviewers have a role in allowing the interviewee to present his or her particular perspective, challenging each point of view equally, but not necessarily having to challenge each assertion. The guest was being interviewed for her opinion. You would be correct in your assessment if the program had left it here.

On the first day of programming, while not ideal, there was some defence of the organization from the spokesperson from the Edmonton school board. And more importantly, this segment cannot be seen in isolation because CBC policy explicitly states that balance and fairness are achieved over a reasonable period of time. In this case that time frame was pretty short – the Executive Director of Calgary Pregnancy Care Center was interviewed at length the next day and was able to explain her organization’s views, and to refute Ms. Krause’s assertions and characterizations. That certainly fulfills the policy obligation.

But you raise an interesting point – what is an appropriate length of time. When an organization or individual is accused of something, or being criticized publicly, as was the case with the parent petition that brought media attention, it is best practice to seek comment or explanation right away. You point out that Ms. Lowe phoned CBC and it was not, as Mr. Graham stated, that “as the result of the interview with Ms. Krause, the program offered the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre the opportunity to respond to the criticism.”

Mr. Graham told me that the phone call came before the day’s programming was set, but that there had been discussion after the first broadcast, and that there had been every intention to approach the organization for comment. The Ombudsman’s mandate primarily deals with the content once it is created. The process by which it is created would only be relevant if there had been violation of news gathering policy. Taken together, the two days of programming did not violate CBC’s journalistic policy. Mr. Graham says he will review the process in this story to ensure producers follow best practices.

Context is also important in providing fair and balanced coverage. CBC’s commitment to accuracy states, in part: “We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.”

There was an important fact never made clear in either day of coverage. The Alberta government requires schools to discuss abstinence as an option in its sex education programs. This seems a relevant fact for listeners to judge the discussion of the issue. It makes clear that the discussion of abstinence was not the agenda of one organization, but part of the curriculum requirement. Mr. Graham has indicated he will review the research and preparation of this story with his staff.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman