Stereotyping people with mental illness

The complainant, Diane Weber Bederman, thought Metro Morning should never have broadcast the fact that the girlfriend of slain soldier Nathan Cirillo thought a failure of the mental health treatment system had some responsibility in his death. She was concerned it stereotyped violence and people with mental illness. It is a valid concern. However, Metro Morning provided context and another perspective. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to an item aired on CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning on November 5, 2014. The segment featured part of a Facebook entry by Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s girlfriend, posted two weeks after he was shot and killed while standing guard at the National War Memorial. Her posting called for better mental health services in Canada as a result of the shooting. The host of the program, Matt Galloway, also interviewed a psychiatrist to provide background and a response to the concerns raised by Cpl. Cirillo’s girlfriend.

You thought it wrong to report and repeat what Andrea Polko, Cpl. Cirillo’s girlfriend, had written because it connects violence with mental illness and increases the fear of the mentally ill. You questioned why a serious discussion began with the views of a young woman who had “no background in mental health or terrorism.” You said that the psychiatrist negated what the young woman had to say, but that did not constitute balance. You felt both views were given equal weight, and that it would have been unnecessary to interview the expert if Ms. Polko’s views had not been aired in the first place. You wrote:

So you turned to an expert for an informed view to counteract her unfounded, uninformed accusation against our mental health care system and that is your idea of presenting many views in a balanced fashion. How is any of this balanced when one guest has absolutely nothing factual to add to a very serious discussion and the other is a professional?

You had a further concern, beyond the linking of violent behavior with mental illness. You believe that there is a CBC agenda and an underlying bias in the coverage of the Ottawa shooting and the attack on soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu. You believe that CBC News deliberately makes a link to mental illness because it does not acknowledge that the perpetrator was a terrorist:

A twenty-something girlfriend, of sadly not very long, had written a piece on Facebook that the CBC chose to present as proof that the terrorist was not a terrorist but mentally ill. That was the agenda.

In later correspondence you added, “the CBC seems unable or unwilling to accept the fact that there are Islamic Jihadists in Canada and that there are terrorists in the world including Canada…” You linked this item to another panel discussion on Q on October 24th to show there is a pattern. (I have already reviewed your complaint about the earlier discussion).

You were critical of the way that Matt Galloway conducted the interview with the psychiatrist, Dr. Kwame McKenzie. You felt he was pushing the mental health agenda and gave far too much weight to the view of an uninformed young woman, even after Dr. McKenzie had refuted her assertions. You cited the end of the interview, when Mr. Galloway asked about money spent fighting ISIS and on security versus money spent on mental health:

In a final effort to carry forward more of the CBC’s agenda, Mr. Galloway raised his concerns about spending money on bombing ISIS versus spending money on mental health care as if it were either/ or. The CBC does not agree with the government’s stand on fighting terrorism, yet your expert guest would not agree with Mr. Galloway despite the fact that he said he was a pacifist. Mr. Galloway tried throughout the interview to pivot away from calling the murderer of Corporal Cirillo a terrorist pushing the CBC agenda as stated October 24 that the murderer was mentally ill-“clinically insane.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of CBC Radio in Toronto, Joan Melanson, replied to your concerns. She rejected your characterization of the interview and defended the decision to cover the Facebook posting by Andrea Polko. She explained it was one of many endeavours to provide context and meaning to the deaths of two Canadian soldiers, one in Ottawa and the other in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu. She said:

I regret you see the principled effort to understand the reasons behind the shocking events that morning in Ottawa as “demeaning”. We had no intention of demeaning the mentally ill or anyone else for that matter. Nor do I believe we did.

She said at the time, November 5, two weeks after the shooting, there was not very much known about the shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. That was when Ms. Polko posted her opinions on Facebook. She added others had talked about Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s mental state, including his own mother, who characterized him as “mentally-ill.”

She added that she considered Ms. Polko’s view newsworthy because it showed how someone close to Cpl. Cirillo had come to understand what had happened. She said that although you do not agree with it, it “does not diminish its validity or undercut the reasons for discussing it.” She explained it is acceptable to present a wide range of views and perspectives so that listeners can make up their own minds about an issue. She pointed out that in this case a well-qualified and credible professional rebutted Ms. Polko’s remarks and placed them in context. She told you that he cautioned that there is no certainty that Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions were due to any mental health problems and reminded listeners about the danger of stereotyping people with mental illnesses.

She acknowledged that you believe this was an act of terrorism. She said that what the discussion aimed to do is to understand what prompted or might have been the underlying causes to that act of violence, whether it is labelled terrorism or not. She wrote:

The deadly shooting on Parliament Hill was a searing event in this country. It is fair to say that many Canadians struggled to understand how such an event could have happened. In the days and weeks since then, we have learned more about Zehaf-Bibeau’s activities, his interactions with police and the courts, his drug addition, religious beliefs, ideological commitment and often erratic behavior. Yet, the reasons, his motivation, for going on a shooting rampage that morning remain murky. It is still under police investigation and a matter of some conjecture.

She noted the program would continue to monitor developments and would continue to discuss them on the program.

REVIEW

The discussion on Metro Morning was prompted by a public statement (via Facebook) from Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s girlfriend. In her posting, she created a link between people suffering from mental illness and acts of violence by calling for better mental health services. Underlying her statement seems to be a belief that the man who shot her boyfriend had a mental illness. It is important to always provide context and reminders that the link is not an obvious or automatic one, and that people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims as perpetrators.

You believe that Ms. Polko’s views should not have been aired because they are damaging and demeaning to those who live with mental illness. Daily journalism is always about choices. The fact that this young woman had spoken out was a newsworthy event. While it is not best practice to have unqualified people make these statements, this is a different set of circumstances. To suppress what she had said as a significant player in a story with enormous interest and emotion would have been equally wrong. When you listen to Polko’s words, she was not creating a dichotomy between terrorism and mental illness – in fact she seems to be prompted by a desire to end speculation about Cpl. Cirillo. I understand her to be saying that people should not be arguing about Cirillo’s bravery but about the mental health system. Here is the part of her statement that was read by a Metro Morning producer on the broadcast:

Nathan Cirillo was my boyfriend. I loved him deeply as did all the family and friends who knew him and we all still mourn him every day. That being said, I feel I should weigh in on this ridiculous was he a hero or was he not debate. My response is this: Wake up Canada. What we should be talking about is the dismal state of mental health care in our country. What that deeply disturbed man killing my boyfriend should make Canadians focus on is how we can prevent another event like this through more accessible and effective mental health treatment programs that target the real source of this tragedy. Stop tearing apart the honor and love bestowed upon a wonderful man who deserves every bit of it, and start taking a good hard look at the awful dysfunctional system in our nation that needs to change. We can do, and are, better than this.

Her opinion is never presented as fact. Reporting on something newsworthy is not an endorsement. The very thing you criticize the program for – that the program turned to an expert to deconstruct and analyze what she had said – is in fact fulfilling the requirement of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. The interview served to “contribute to public understanding” and to provide a range of views and perspectives. Dr. McKenzie clearly dealt with the false connection that is implied in Ms. Polko’s statement. With great respect he acknowledged her feelings and provided important information and context. In response to Mr. Galloway’s question if the system is partly to blame for Cpl. Cirillo’s death, he replied:

Initially it’s hard not to react at a human level to Andrea Polko’s post. At a time when she is clearly grieving she is still able to offer compassion and think about other people; and think about the care that other people need and that goes to her credit. So I thank her for that. I’m always a bit worried about jumping to conclusions. We know that Mr. Bibeau wanted some help for his substance misuse problems. We know he was asking for help. But we don’t know exactly what he did was due to his mental health problems and we have to be slightly careful ‘cause every time something like this happens, actually a lot of people with mental health problems feel really fearful because they are already discriminated against. They are worried about the acts other people perpetrate against them. They are much less likely to be a perpetrator of a violent crime than to be a victim of a violent crime.

The interview continues, largely focused on the delivery of crisis services to people experiencing symptoms of mental illness or wanting to deal with addictions. That seems to be a legitimate discussion about an important public policy issue. There is no inherent bias in asking if a discussion around mental illness would have some value along with a discussion of security concerns. Metro Morning and many other news and current affairs programs devoted time and attention to those very questions. As Dr. McKenzie so aptly put it in his response, “I think that every time you have a trade-off where you have an either/or, you lose something.”

Metro Morning reported an evocative and newsworthy statement which risked reinforcing stereotypes about people with mental illness. The program then provided the context and information for members of the public to make up their own minds about all the information given.

You link this discussion to a panel discussion on Q aired on October 24th. It is true they both raise the possibility of mental illness as a factor in the shooting and attacks on Canadian soldiers. The treatment and the adherence to policy were completely different. Two programs raising the same issue is not an agenda. News and current affairs programs address a wide range of issues because they are in the public discourse. Sometimes they do it well, and sometimes they do not meet standards. In the case of Metro Morning, there was no violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman