The 180 doesn't have to go full circle: A single perspective in a single interview can be acceptable practice

The complainant, Dean Vandenbrink, thought the radio show The 180 presented a completely biased view of genetically modified organisms and presented the opinion of someone without the expertise to give one. The feature wasn’t actually about GMOs; a passing comment is not a definitive look. There was no need to provide more information or other opinions in this context. With balance over time, it is legitimate to explore a single perspective in a single interview.

COMPLAINT

On its August 29th edition, the CBC Radio show The 180 launched Food Fight, an ongoing series about issues dealing with food. This episode, entitled “Skip the Farmer’s Market,” featured agricultural economist Al Mussell and his arguments that intensive farming is actually better for the environment than local smaller scale farming.

You were very concerned that Mr. Mussell was put forward as an “independent expert” and relied on for his expertise. You were particularly concerned that Mr. Mussell was asked about genetically modified food. You objected to his answer and to the fact he was presented as an expert on the subject:

Mr. Mussell, however, is not an expert in genetically modified organisms or the safety of genetically modified organisms; in fact, he is a consultant employed by businesses deeply involved in profit­making from genetically modified organisms – a conflict of interest that was not revealed during the program.

You also felt there was a bias in the way the discussion was framed:

Both the question from the CBC host and the answer gave the strong impression that the expert view is that genetically modified organisms are safe and people who believe otherwise are irrational.

You pointed out there is no consensus about the use of genetically modified foods, and said there was clearly a lack of research done by the show producers. You wondered why someone in favor of “monoculture and factory farming” would be asked to speak on these matters. You said that most independent researchers believe that GMOs are not safe to eat, and it was “reckless” to broadcast this program “attributing expertise to these remarks.” On the whole you thought the show was one-sided and did not address other kinds of farming in Canada.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Karen Burgess, the senior producer of The 180, replied to your concerns. She explained that the program generally seeks out opinions that offer a different perspective on issues of national importance. In this case, the guest was putting forward an argument that large-scale industrial farming actually provides environmental benefits that small-scale farming does not. She said Mr. Mussel was appropriately identified, and that his affiliation was mentioned twice, once at the beginning and then at the end of his interview. He was described as a “senior researcher at the George Morris Centre, an agriculture policy think tank in Guelph, Ontario. At the end of the interview he was identified as an agricultural economist.”

She addressed your concern that the interviewee was not qualified to address GMO safety issues. She pointed out that the issue came up twice in the context of a more general discussion about agricultural sustainability and environmental impact. She explained that the safety of GMOs was not the focus of the conversation. She pointed out that the first mention was referring to the logic of an overall approach to farming, and was not meant to infer that it was “irrational” to oppose GMOs:

After Al Mussell framed his overall argument for the audience, our host challenged him on his assertion that his premise was one the facts would “logically” lead to. Jim Brown’s question was: “Now you say that’s logical, but I think a lot of people might hear it and think that it’s counter intuitive because the intensive agriculture that you defend involves heavy mechanization, extensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, now there’s increasing use of genetically modified crops. How can that be environmentally preferable to small scale, organic farming?”

Al Mussell's response was, in part: “To your point, there are some risks that are associated with that, in terms of more chemical fertilizers, more pesticide type products -- I think the better approach would be to mitigate those risks and look at how we use protocols and very specific production practices to engage that, rather than just sort of saying ‘No, we’re not going to use those technologies,’ because the logical implication is we’d going [sic] to have to bring more land into production.”

Ms. Burgess explained that the second reference to GMOs came when host Jim Brown asked the guest whether large-scale producers were feeling the pressure from supporters of the locavore movement to change some of their practices. Part of Mussell’s answer was an anecdote about General Mills removing genetically modified organisms from the supply chain of one of their products. In a follow-up the host asked the guest if he thought there was any reason, in his opinion, for the company to remove the GMOs. The guest answered that in his opinion there was not, except for the possible marketing advantage it might give.

She said that overall host Jim Brown challenged some of the guest’s assumptions, and that in order to balance his views, the next week another agricultural economist with different views was interviewed and asked to respond to Mr. Mussell’s ideas.

REVIEW

Your concerns speak to CBC News values of fairness and balance. You felt that the issue of the safety of GMOs was not dealt with fairly, because the overwhelming view of independent scientists is that they are not safe. This view was not represented in the discussion. CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for a range of views on a given subject to be presented over a reasonable period of time, with due consideration of the range of views and the degree of controversy about a subject. It is true that the use of genetically modified organisms is controversial. But even had this been a discussion of that topic, not each segment must provide all views. It is legitimate for an interviewer to probe the perspective of one individual, and allow him or her to elaborate and explain a position. CBC News programs have covered many aspects and many perspectives on the use and safety of genetically modified organisms on a significant number of programs on all its platforms.

But this Food Fight segment on The 180 was not one of them. You are right, and Ms. Burgess acknowledged, that the subject of GMOs came up in the context of this discussion. But context and expectations do matter. This was not an episode devoted to the use and safety of GMOs. It was an interview that was clearly framed as a discussion about sustainability. It was part of a broader series on issues around food and food production. This segment was the first in what became an ongoing feature on the program. Host Jim Brown introduced it this way:

Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at how the choices at the dinner table can get complicated by a messy stew of politics, economics and ethics. And for Round One, we are going to talk about why small and local might not be so virtuous after all.

It was the exploration of one man’s thesis and ideas around the use of intensive agriculture. It is his contention that intensive agriculture, which would include the use of GMOs, does less environmental harm than smaller, locally-based farming styles. It is clear he is a supporter of the technologies and products that support this intensive style of agriculture. He was on the program so that listeners could hear those views. It is reasonable for a host to explore those views in some detail. Mr. Brown did present a different perspective in his questions in order to have Mr. Mussell explain his views. The program honored the notion of balance over time by interviewing a different agricultural economist the following week, who presented a different set of answers to sustainability. The issue of GMO safety was not directly addressed in that interview because it really was not central to the discussion.

It is not clear why you thought the host and the guest gave the impression they thought people who opposed GMOs were “irrational.” Perhaps, as Ms. Burgess mentioned in her reply, it was because Mr. Brown and Mr. Mussell from time to time used the expression, then it is “logical to think.” This is a way of formulating an argument. There is no inference, at least not in this context, that other ways of thinking are “irrational.”

You also thought Mr. Mussell had been wrongly identified and that it was misleading to say he was with the George Morris Centre. Mr. Mussell has been with that Centre for 15 years. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices stresses the importance of providing relevant information about guests:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.

Mr. Mussell’s primary affiliation was properly given. His point of view was the reason he was being interviewed. His comments on GMOs were in context, and cursory. There was no attempt to mislead, nor a violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman