The ethics of interviews

NOTE: If you choose to link to the documentary, Generation Porn, under review here, it contains very explicit language and discussion that some may find difficult to hear.

Ideas broadcast a documentary which explores the impact of internet pornography on young men. Gary Wilson is one of the experts featured in it. His wife, Marnia Robinson, who works with him, wrote to complain that she and her husband had been misled about the areas to be used from the interview. CBC has clear policy about establishing ground rules, and for the use of interviews. After reviewing transcripts and emails I concluded that there was no attempt to mislead and no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You made a complaint on behalf of your husband, Gary Wilson, who was interviewed for an Ideas production entitled “Generation Porn.” You said that the producer of the program misrepresented the purpose of the interview, and what he would ask him. Mr. Wilson has a website called “Your Brain on Porn” which the Ideas program described as a “science based information website that helps young men overcome the effects of excessive porn use.” The site also provides information and links to studies that consider internet pornography use as an addiction. This is how the site explains its purpose:

This site will help you understand exactly how today’s extreme Internet porn can alter the brain. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll realize that some primitive circuitry in your brain is just trying to do its job when it pushes you toward porn. And you’ll see how to outsmart it and restore your balance.

This site grew out of a decade of research analysis on the effects of sex on the brain, and six years of listening to recovering porn addicts. There’s a vacuum of critically important information about porn's effects on the brain. It is lost in the gulf that exists between the folks who see porn use as immoral, and the mainstream who sees Internet porn as no different from Dad’s Playboy magazines.

In our view, porn use isn’t a moral issue. Yet, to the human brain, Internet porn is as different from erotic magazines as “World of Warcraft” is from checkers. This has major implications for users' neurochemical balance.

You said Mr. Wilson was clear with the program producer, Hassan Santur, that he did not have the “’right’ credentials to speak on national public radio about addiction, even though his knowledge of it is quite deep because he has been studying it for so many years.” You provided the names of researchers who could speak more authoritatively on porn addiction.

You said Mr. Wilson finally agreed to the interview because Mr. Santur told you and your husband he would “stick to inquiring about what young men today are reporting in terms of porn-related symptoms and their recovery experiences after giving up porn.” You felt it was a betrayal to ask questions about addiction in the course of the hour long interview. And in the representation on air, you felt he was deliberately set up to undermine his credibility:

When the program aired, the sole segment featuring my husband was my husband's brief comments explaining addiction, in direct contravention of Mr. Santur's promise. Not only that, Mr. Santur went out of his way to point out that we don't have the right credentials to be speaking about such subjects.”

You also felt the documentary lacked balance in its presentation of porn addiction and was “biased reporting.”

The documentary was an examination of the impact of internet pornography and featured the views of a variety of researchers and experts, as well as the experiences of a young man who was a heavy user.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Greg Kelly, the Executive Producer of Ideas, responded to your concerns on behalf of the researcher and presenter of the documentary, Hassan Santur, and the producer, Mary O’Connell. Mr. Kelly had just assumed the leadership of Ideas and was not involved in its production.

Both Ms. O’Connell and Mr. Santur categorically deny there was any sort of deal or understanding about what would be discussed. Ms. O’Connell points out that Mr. Hassan, whom she has worked with many times before, would have shared with her that there were off-limits topics for the interview. She stated that “at no time did Hassan ever come to me and say that there was a guest who wanted to participate in an interview but certain areas would have to be off the record.” Mr. Santur is equally clear:

“I didn’t ‘press’ Gary to be interviewed. He was a willing participant. And there were no rules, boundaries, agreements, hand-shakes about what would be in the interview.”

He understood that Mr. Wilson wanted him to talk to the various neuroscientists and brain researchers he suggested, and in fact he did talk to some of them. But in his editorial judgment for the documentary he had in mind, he decided not to include them. He decided that Mr. Wilson, with his knowledge and experience, could provide the kind of interview he needed, based on their discussions before the formal interview:

“I asked if he believed porn was addictive and his response was an unequivocal yes. Then and only then did I ask him if he would consider doing a one hour-long interview in which he can say that he believes porn to be addictive and give an explanation for why he believes that. He said yes, he can do that…I wanted to know how he got into this debate considering he’s not a researcher or a doctor. I wanted him to share with me a few of the many stories he hears of young men whose lives are ruined because of porn addiction. In short, we agreed to a wide-ranging interview on all aspects of his work on yourbrainonporn.com. I also specifically asked him about his opinion regarding porn’s capacity to be addictive since that was going be the most important aspect of our interview. At no point did I press him or cajole him. And at no point in the hour long pre-interview on the phone did the subject of anything being off the record even come up. I never promised implicitly or explicitly that I was not going ask Gary about porn addiction.”

Ms. O’Connell also notes that the documentary was not actually about porn addiction, but a broader look at porn from a variety of perspectives, and Mr. Wilson’s was one of them.

Finally, as the person responsible for the content of the program and the conduct of its staff, Mr. Kelly offered his assessment. He said he could understand if Mr. Wilson wished his arguments had been more fully represented because “he's passionate about the subject and wants the empirical basis of his arguments, which at times don't find favour with certain scientists, to be taken seriously.” He said he had reviewed the correspondence between Mr. Santur and Mr. Wilson and the transcript of the interview, that he did not think there was any bad faith in Mr. Santur’s approach, and that Mr. Wilson’s views were not “misrepresented.”

REVIEW

The Ideas documentary “Generation Porn” was a one hour examination of the impact of internet pornography on young men. It addresses issues about its ubiquity, and accessibility to younger and younger boys, and its explicit nature. The web site describes the program this way:

Thirty years ago, a peek at a Playboy or Hustler centrefold was a rite of passage for teenage boys. Today children as young as ten are viewing hard core pornography on smart phones. The ramifications for young men and women are both complex and disturbing. Hassan Ghedi Santur explores the long-term consequences of this burgeoning exposure to pornography.”

The documentary approaches the subject from a variety of perspectives: there are interviews with sociologists, psychologists and sex educators. One participant has started a site for videos of “real life sex” as a healthier alternative to porn sites. Another voice is of a young man reflecting on his conflicted relationship to pornography and the impact it has had on his sexuality and relationships. Mr. Wilson’s role is described on the documentary’s website as “The host of Yourbrainonporn.com, a science-based information website that helps young men overcome the negative effects of excessive porn use.”

CBC journalistic values of balance and fairness call for a variety of perspectives or points of view on matters of controversy. The goal is to present information so that citizens can inform themselves on issues of importance and form their own opinions and conclusions. The value of fairness calls for “even-handed” treatment. In introducing Mr. Wilson and his work to the audience, Mr. Hassan stated:

“He (Gary Wilson) is a former teacher of human anatomy and pathology. He is now the host of your brain on porn.com. It’s a website that provides information on what he calls porn induced negative effects like erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation and loss of attraction to real partners. Gary Wilson says his website averages 15 thousand visitors a day. However, depending on who you ask Gary Wilson is either a brave advocate for young men struggling to overcome porn addiction or an anti-porn crusader who is spreading needless moral panic…”

The section Mr. Wilson is featured in conveys his experience working with young men and touches on the reasons he sees pornography as addictive. He is also referenced at the beginning of the documentary, although unnamed, when program host Paul Kennedy states “some experts call it (porn) a dopamine producing machine.” You were concerned that the “sole segment featuring my husband was my husband’s brief comments explaining addiction…” Your husband also speaks about the despair felt by men who experience sexual dysfunction as a result of porn, explains why it is even more dangerous for young adolescents, and provides a brief explanation of addiction. Later in the piece, contrary views on addiction are presented. This fully lives up to CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. There was no bias in the reporting.

You cited as proof Mr. Santur acted in bad faith that he did not include any of the people you suggested he interview. He in fact indicated that he did approach or research several of them, but for various reasons chose not to include them. While omission can at times be a sign of bias, this is not one of them. It was a valid editorial choice.

I acknowledge that you and your husband believe you had an understanding about what was to be the subject of the interview. In one of Mr. Wilson’s emails (June 19, 2013) he wrote:

“I am happy to speak with you and offer you my experience based on tracking the self-reports of thousands of guys on various forums… It’s ominous that guys who started youngest with high speed are needing longer to establish normal sexual functioning after they quit porn… However I am not a doctor or professor, so I would not make a good spokesperson for your documentary.”

Mr. Wilson did agree to an interview. Perhaps he felt this statement made clear what was on or off the record. In his mind, he was not going to explain porn addiction for the record. I have reviewed the interview in its entirety. At no point did he ask to go off the record. The last thing Mr. Santur asked is if there is anything else Mr. Wilson would like to say. He did not mention any restrictions. While it may have been clear in your mind, it clearly wasn’t in Mr. Santur’s. Since issues of addiction are addressed on Mr. Wilson’s website and clearly he has some mastery of the field, it is hard to know why Mr. Santur would have thought it would be out of bounds.

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices set out guidelines for the responsible conducting and use of interviews:

We inform the interviewee of the subject of the interview. We do not provide in advance the questions they will be asked. That could give a false impression of spontaneity in the interviewee’s responses and unduly limit the interviewer’s ability to react to interviewee statements with supplementary questions.

We advise the interviewee of how we plan to use the interview. When an interview is recorded, it may be edited before publication for length or to select the relevant passages. At our discretion, we may choose to rebroadcast an interview in whole or in part, post it online or make it accessible in website archives, or not be published at all.

Whatever the context in which we choose to use the content of the interview, we will respect the meaning of an interviewee’s statements. We try to avoid situations where prior restraint would be agreed to or imposed.

If, for serious cause, we do agree to restrict the use that may be made of an interview, we take the necessary measures to comply with this commitment. It may be necessary to explain to the audience that such restrictions have been agreed to, so the public can assess the credibility of the interviewee’s statements.”

Having reviewed the transcript, the edited segments did “respect the meaning of the statements.” In the course of the interview, Mr. Santur characterized what the documentary was about. He prefaced one of his questions by saying: “As I said, this program is specifically concerned with porn and its impact on young people, young men specifically.”

He was also clear that he would be talking to people who held different views than yours: “But this is again where some of your critics are pointing out that even Jim Pfaus, who I have spoken to…even he is not willing to go so far as saying porn causes addiction…”

He also references the issue of qualifications in the course of the interview: “And just in terms of your own background, can you talk a little bit about, because we’re gonna be talking a little bit about the people who criticize your work, whether or not you’re qualified so could you talk a little about your background?” There is nothing in the tone, from either participant, that sounds combative or contentious.

There does not appear to be any intent to hide or deceive. While Mr. Wilson had a different understanding of what the conditions of participation were, there is no evidence of an explicit arrangement. There is no evidence that the host or producer operated in bad faith or violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman