Transparency Issues: What you should know about interviewees

The complainant, Lena Lindstrom, thought the religious affiliation of two palliative care physicians against assisted suicide should have been mentioned in a piece on that issue. CBC policy states that religion, race or sexual orientation should only be mentioned if there is a strong editorial case to do so. I didn’t think there was a need here.

COMPLAINT

In October of 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada heard an appeal to strike down the ban on doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill who wish it. The local late-night CBC Ottawa News program presented a feature on the arguments for and against the practice on its October 15, 2014 broadcast. You initially wrote directly to the reporter, Steve Fischer, to ask if he knew that the doctors who argued against physician-assisted suicide in his report were Catholic. You told him they were actively involved in religiously-based organizations. You thought it wrong to include their views without mentioning their religious beliefs and affiliations. You said:

I feel that the lack of transparency in this matter resulted in viewers being misled, as in both cases the physicians presented their positions as solely professional rather than religious. Of course, it is fine to interview deeply religious individuals about this issue, AS LONG AS THEIR OPINIONS ARE IDENTIFIED CLEARLY AS RELIGIOUSLY INSPIRED. [sic]

I hope we are agreed that such fundamentalist Christians do not have the right to impose their religious views on others. Mentally competent adults who are suffering terribly from incurable or terminal illness and need assistance to end their life in a safe and humane manner should have the right to decide for themselves without the religious discrimination...especially religious discrimination dressed up as medicine.

In your email to me you emphasized that you were not complaining about overall bias in the piece. It was the failure to identify the two physicians as “extremely active and devout Catholics” that was the issue for you: “I maintain that the omission of this information prevented viewers from properly assessing the opinions put forward by these individuals…” Since the reporter did not agree with that assessment, you asked me to review the matter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

In this case, the response came from the reporter, Steve Fischer, since you had written to him directly. Once your complaint came to this office, CBC News managers reviewed his correspondence and let us know they stood by his assessment and response, and had no more to add.

Mr. Fischer told you he was not aware, at the time he conducted the interviews, of the religious beliefs of the two doctors. He was interviewing them because they had been referred to him through “medical officials” he had contacted. He chose to interview them, he explained, because they are well known in the fields of palliative and geriatric medicine and “both men, in their professional lives, deal with people who face terminal illness on a daily basis - from a medical and psychiatric standpoint at two of Ottawa's hospitals.” He added he learned of their affiliation later.

He felt that their religious beliefs were not relevant in this context, and they were speaking from their clinical experience. He added that he had done research which led him to the conclusion that their views represent the majority of palliative care practitioners in Canada. He pointed out that the piece presented other contrary views on the matter. He also told you he thought it unwise to consider religious affiliation when considering what quotes to use in stories: “If I start screening clips based on the religious background of the interview subject - it would be a slippery slope - not to mention journalistically unethical.”

REVIEW

The issue you raise is an interesting and important one. Who we are and what our experiences are, what our ethical and moral framework is, clearly informs all that we do, even when it involves professional expertise. The question is, how diligent must journalists be in ferreting out broader beliefs and affiliations, and then how transparent should their reporting be in mentioning it. There are two policies in CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices that provide guidance on these questions. One deals with the identification of interviewees:

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. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

The second deals with the appropriate use of religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and ethnicity when describing a participant in a report or broadcast. In part, the policy on Respect and Absence of Prejudice states:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

We both agree that Mr. Fischer’s report was balanced, and provided a range of perspectives on the issue of assisted suicide. The two physicians you are concerned about, Dr. John Scott and Dr. Timothy Lau, both have extensive experience dealing with terminally ill patients. Dr. Scott has been involved in palliative medicine for forty years. They are eminently qualified to give their views. Both of them say that they believe often patients who are seeking to end their lives are really asking for support or meaning. Dr. Lau put it this way:

They are looking for someone to have hope for them, for the patients and their families and what I can say to my patients is you matter to me; your life has meaning, has value.

Later in the report, Dr. Scott talks about alternatives to ending life by using medications effectively and providing appropriate support. He said: “I never feel inflicted death is the best option for that patient.”

Whether these physicians have come to this conclusion through a set of religious beliefs, clinical practice, or a particular ethical and moral set of convictions, it is the position they hold and expressing it provided important balance in the report. It is rather a complex thing, and not relevant in this context to sort out how these doctors came to the views they hold.

The default in the policy is that the mention of religious affiliation is exceptional and must be strongly editorially relevant. Whether you agree with their position or not, it is hard to argue that either of these physicians is not qualified to speak to the matter at hand. The reason they are present in the piece is to provide a view that rejects making physician-assisted suicide legal in Canada. That is a view held by a large number of doctors and lay people. What drives those convictions is not the relevant bit of information here. Naming a specific religion might lead to stereotyping all practitioners as holding the same view. That is clearly not the case. Mr. Fischer’s report provided a balanced look at a range of perspectives on a controversial matter of public interest. He did not violate CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman