This headline's fine

The complainant, Gerald Parker, strongly objected to a headline on a brief news story about a Windsor area man pretending to be a doctor trying to sell a prescription for medical marijuana. He thought it was unfair to people seeking relief from medical marijuana. I found the opposite.

COMPLAINT

On March 20, 2014, CBC News in Windsor posted a story entitled “Fake Windsor neurosurgeon offered patient pot prescription, police claim.” The story recounts that a man in Windsor has been charged with fraud after he allegedly offered a chronic pain sufferer a medical marijuana licence for a fee. The same man had already been charged for pretending to be a surgeon who could provide a family the surgery they were desperately seeking for a child, also for a fee.

You thought the headline on the marijuana-related story was “salacious.” It was also “lazy, unethical and pandering to the orchestrated demonizing of many of Canada’s most medically vulnerable by the present government that is USING CBC (sic) as its political propaganda unit.” You also pointed out that the headline was the same as the news release from Windsor police.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Since you had phoned and emailed Shawna Kelly, the managing editor of the Windsor station, to let her know your views, she responded by telling you that she had considered your position, discussed with her staff and had concluded that “my staff and I are confident that both the story and headline are factually accurate.” She assured you they would monitor the story and update it as was appropriate.

REVIEW

The story in its entirety was very brief. As well as the fraud charge, it mentioned the man had also been charged with assault because he had examined patients and was in fact not a doctor. It pointed out the same man had been charged for offering to perform a surgery for a fee. Police say in both cases he was posing as a doctor.

But it is the headline that appears to disturb you the most. While the story was prompted by a news release from the police, it was not a verbatim lift from it. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a news release as a source for a brief article such as this. Headlines require a balance between compelling writing to grab the reader’s interest and the requirement to be accurate. This one seems to do just that. I am completely at a loss why you feel that it somehow contributes to the “demonization” of medically vulnerable people and is misleading. If anything, it highlights the potential exploitation of people seeking prescriptions for the medical use of marijuana by indicating someone had been accused of perpetrating fraud. The headline highlights the newest development in the case, which is what headlines frequently do – provide the latest information. It is accurate in what it says, even if it uses the vernacular “pot prescription” rather than the term “medical marijuana.”

I understand the issue of the use of medical marijuana, the reluctance of many physicians to write prescriptions, and the ongoing controversy about licences to grow it are of some concern to you. You are president of the Institute of Canadian Justice. Judging by your organization’s Facebook page, you are a strong advocate and have a particular point of view on these issues. You may not have approved of the headline, but it neither misrepresents the details of the story, nor does it somehow telegraph any kind of message about the use of medical marijuana.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman