What's killing the bees? When the answer is in dispute how do you get balance?

The complainant, Terry Daynard, was critical of two stories on The National. He thought the pieces did not give voice to those who dispute the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees. The stories provided some context and other views so there was no violation of policy. But it is a reminder that there is special responsibility to provide lots of context and information, especially when the scientific evidence is evolving.

COMPLAINT

You complained about two stories that dealt with the impacts of neonicotinoids – insecticides used on a variety of crops – on bee populations. You characterized them as sensational, “superficial and biased.” The two stories ran on The National one week apart.

The first, on May 24, 2014, featured a beekeeper who organized a rally in Toronto, dubbed “Requiem for Bees.” It was part of a larger anti-genetically modified seed protest held that day. The beekeeper kept hives in Toronto, and blamed the demise of her bees on neonicotinoids, often referred to as neonics. She was calling for a ban of these insecticides. You objected to the fact that all the voices heard supported the moratorium. You felt the reporter should have done much more to verify whether the bees were actually killed by neonics. You pointed out that “Her claim that the dead bees were found within hives is inconsistent with the manner by which neonics kill bees. With neonic-induced deaths, dead bees are outside the hive or they die while out foraging for nectar and pollen.” You suggested it was far more likely that her bees died as a result of the harsh winter.

A second story ran on May 31, and you thought it was one-sided as well. You stated that neither of the stories included the opinion or comments of “beekeeping professionals” at the University of Guelph. Rather it relied on people who are affiliated with organizations which are calling for a ban on the use of neonics. You thought that only people who blamed the insecticide for their difficulties were heard from. You pointed out there were many others who had different experiences. You also disputed the claim made by one of the interviewees that bee numbers are declining in Ontario and the rest of Canada:

The claim presented on The National by the NFU representative and the Toronto beekeeper filmed at Queen’s Park, that bee numbers are declining/under threat in Ontario/Canada is not supported by Stats Canada data showing a steady and substantial increase in Ontario/Canadian bee colonies since neonic seed treatments were introduced in 2004. http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/pick-choisir?lang=eng&p2=33&id=0010007.

You are concerned that CBC’s overall coverage skews to anything that links bee decline to these insecticides, and has neglected to cover any statements or events that present a different picture.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, replied to your complaint. He apologized that it had taken him so long to respond, and explained that your emails had inadvertently been misfiled.

He explained that the core of the piece was the demonstration that had occurred at the Ontario parliament buildings, Queen’s Park, which was part of a world-wide protest against genetically modified seeds and calling for a boycott of certain agricultural chemicals. Karen McKenna was featured because she had spearheaded the protest “Requiem for Bees.” He said that while Ms. McKenna believed that her bees had died as a result of exposure to neonicitonoids but no proof was provided, the reporter did give “contextual information about the pesticide and included brief comments from an organic farmer and a wildlife biologist who appeared to agree about the risks. She said Health Canada is working to reduce such airborne pesticides. However, she pointed out that Health Canada also cautioned that there is ‘no single factor in the decline of bees.’” He acknowledged that there might be other causes for the decline of Ms. McKenna’s bees, but reviewing the evidence pointing to the pesticide as culprit, or presenting the debate around it, was beyond this narrowly focused story.

Regarding the story that ran on May 31, he did not agree that speaking to a member of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, which supports a ban on neonics, and not talking to a member of another professional organization, the Commercial Beekeepers, which does not, was a breach of policy on balance. He pointed out that:

“balance is a more sophisticated concept that can be achieved over a series of programs or over a period of time. The important thing is to ensure that differing relevant points of view are treated in an equitable manner. I believe they were here. Indeed, because the May 24 report focused on the Toronto demonstration and the concerns of beekeepers, in fairness we realized that it may not have acknowledged as fully as it might have the controversy surrounding the issue. So, a week later, we returned to subject, this time focusing on grain farmers and their perspective.”

He also disputed the conclusions you drew from the Statistics Canada numbers. He pointed out that the report you referenced indicates the value and production of honey across the country. It does not deal with bee deaths or fluctuations in absolute numbers of bees.

REVIEW

Assessing balance in the coverage of scientific controversies is more challenging than many other kinds of stories. The evolving understanding of the impact of neonicotinoids on bees and the environment generally is no different. Over the course of the summer, several reputable studies provided further evidence of the link between bee health and the use of these insecticides. But they are not conclusive, nor is it clear what other factors are at play. As with many environmental issues, there is duelling science. I spoke to several experts in an attempt to understand the background to this controversy. One of them, Ernesto Guzman, the Director of the Honey Bee Research Centre and a professor at Guelph University put it this way:

Neonicotinoid insecticides seem to be an important factor contributing to bee mortality. But the message that should be sent to the public is that honey bee decline is a consequence of the impact of a number of factors including insecticides, parasites, diseases, climatic effects, stresses from transportation and malnutrition, among others. It is not the effect of a single factor and it is not possible to say what factor has the greatest weight on the overall mortality of bees. It may vary in different locations and at different times of the year. For example, in Ontario, the varroa mite seems to be one of the most damaging factors during winter, but neonicotinoid insecticides seem to be more damaging than varroa during spring. In summary, this is a complex issue that a single culprit cannot explain. If you want to focus only on neonicotinoid insecticides, there is no doubt that these insecticides kill bees, they are extremely toxic to them (more toxic than DDT), but how much of the mortality cases can be attributed solely to these insecticides or to varroa mites or to climatic effects, is hard to tell. I do not think you will find a concrete, well supported answer for that question.

There is growing evidence implicating neonicotinoids, and others might put the case more strongly. Regardless, the message is that it is complex, and the science is ongoing. Neonicotinoids are a fairly new class of insecticides. Almost all corn seeds in this country are coated with it. It is a systemic product — it protects the seedling, and continues to be present in all parts of the plants, including the pollen, as it grows. Proponents say there would likely be significant crop loss if use is banned.

Supporters of the ban say that so many of our crops rely on pollinators, and if they decline, there will also be significant impacts. Some of the researchers concerned about neonics are not calling for a complete ban, but want to change practices of widespread use. So to say the least, it is complicated, and the stakes are very high. Health Canada, which regulates the use of the insecticide, is just completing a review. The European Union has imposed a ban on its use. Some farmer and bee organizations are calling for a ban. Others warn of dire consequences if one is imposed. I provide this background as a context to assess what can reasonably be expected from daily news reporting on this topic, and what CBC News’s obligations should be in reporting a complex scientific story – complex in its science, and in the competing interests interpreting that science.

Basic CBC News journalistic values apply. CBC policy calls for the presentation of a range of views and perspectives over a reasonable period of time in matters of controversy. The goal is to contribute to informed debate. The value of accuracy talks about more than having the facts right:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

The stories that are the subject of your complaint are two of many that have been published on all three major platforms – radio, television and online. The first, from the May 24, 2014 edition of The National, focused on a beekeeper who had organized a protest to coincide with an existing demonstration against genetically modified food.

It is a reasonable question to ask where were the other perspectives or opposing views to her assertion that her bees were killed by neonicitonoids. In two places, the reporter offers some context. After an organic farmer says he believes there are more pollinators present because neonic laced corn and soy have not been planted, she says: “Still, some scientists are asking for more data on neonicotinoids.” She also reports that “Health Canada says there is no one single factor in the decline of bees, but it says it is working to reduce airborne pesticides.”

The question is, on matters of controversy, is it enough. The images of the dead bees being dumped are very powerful, and certainly give credibility to the beekeeper’s assertion that her bees died because of exposure to neonics. It is reasonable to report she believes so, and in the context of a news story it is not necessary to prove whether she is right or wrong. In matters like this one, that pertain to science and health, to achieve balance and accuracy it is necessary to provide enough context to assess how realistic her claim was. It’s true it is mentioned that there may be more than one cause. It might have been clearer. A simple disclaimer that although she says so, there is no definitive proof this is the case would have been preferable in the interests of accuracy.

The second story zeros in on the crux of the conflict in the use of the insecticides. It provides the perspective of a farmer who relied on the treated seeds for his livelihood, and a beekeeper who is concerned that they are threatening his. Once again the reporter raises the point that there is likely more than one cause for the demise of the bees. Featuring these two points of view in the context of sowing crops, and Health Canada’s requirements for farmers to minimize harm to bees and other species while planting seeds, is providing information about one aspect of the story. It fulfilled the need to provide a range of perspectives.

It is understandable that much of the focus right now is on the potential harm of neonics – there have been several major studies published that are pointing to a link, if not a definitive one. Daily news has to compress a great deal of information, so it cannot be expected to capture the nuance in every story. It is asking for a high bar on these stories, ones where knowledge is evolving quickly. In particular, scientific stories, where there would not be a lot of public knowledge, require a level of rigour and the need to provide background, context and appropriate weight to divergent opinions. It is a challenge to do so in short news stories, but it is sound journalistic practice.

I note that the CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks did a thorough examination of the issue early in October, and the CBC News website has many in-depth features that provide a range of views, context and information to help Canadians understand the issues at stake. This story is still evolving – I encourage CBC News and current affairs to continue to cover it in depth.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman