Service dogs or support dogs: Getting the definition right

The complainant, Andrew Sprague, said that CBC News wrongly identified the status of an emotional support dog that was banned from an Edmonton base. I agreed the writer could have done a better job of sorting out the loose use of terms and it affected the clarity and meaning of the story.

COMPLAINT

In January, CBCNews.ca published a story about an Edmonton soldier and a move to ban his dog from locations on his military base. The story was entitled “Edmonton soldier’s battle over service dog wins support from top general.” You objected to the fact that the CBC writer referred to the dog, Diego, as a “service dog.” You said that CBC Edmonton reported that this was a “certified service dog” and it was not. You said that based on the available evidence, Diego was likely an “emotional support dog” which does not have the same training and the same status when it comes to “unfettered public access.”

You said it would have been easy for a reporter to find out that owners of certified service dogs are provided with documentation, which Sgt. Yetman should have been obliged to provide to substantiate his claim. You said:

While this particular news story did not expressly state that Diego is a certified service dog (except for "Yetman said his dog is certified in the United States and has all the necessary training required by ADI"), and only falsely stated that Diego is a service dog, the implication by stating that Diego is a service dog who resides in the province of Alberta is that Diego is a certified service dog because only certified service dogs are legally recognized in that province as service dogs.

You thought that by implication, CBC Edmonton was saying that “Sgt. Yetman’s public access rights with his dog are protected under Alberta law” because the story referred to the dog as a service dog.

You said that the story did not mention what you thought was the case: “that the Edmonton Garrison made some changes to its policies regarding emotional support dogs so it could balance the competing interests of Sgt. Yetman and other persons working and visiting at the garrison.”

You thought the staff at CBC Edmonton should have done a great deal more fact checking, and that they owed it to members of the public to provide the relevant information about the issues around certified service dogs. You explained at some length how the certification process works, and what it would take to have the dog recognized under Alberta law. You noted that if CBC News staff had provided some of this information, it would not have been as sensational a story, but it would have reflected reality.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of CBC News in Edmonton, Gary Cunliffe, replied to your concerns. He agreed that the distinction between service dogs and emotional support dogs is a real and important one. But he did not agree with you that the story had stated that Sgt. Yetman’s dog was a “certified” emotional support dog.

He pointed out that it was the soldier who referred to his dog as a service dog. As well, Mr. Cunliffe explained that Sgt. Yetman told the reporter that the sign on the mess states that “Service dogs will not be permitted in the mess” and other base facilities. Mr. Cunliffe said the reporter sought further explanation and got a response from a base public relations officer, Capt. Donna Riguidel. At this point in the story, she explained that there had been a misunderstanding about what is meant by a service dog, and that in fact that term only applied to certified dogs.

Mr. Cunliffe said the story fulfilled its journalistic obligation because it presented two opposing views and left it to members of the public to draw their own conclusions:

For his part, Sgt. Yetman says his service dog has “all the necessary training required by ADI”.

The story accurately sets out Sgt. Yetman’s view, and describes his efforts to gain support, and Capt. Riguidel’s view.

And that’s the point. Indeed, it’s allowing the expression of different – often opposing – views that is at the heart of the notion of fairness in journalism. Of course, not everyone will agree with the views expressed, as clearly you do not in this instance. Fair enough. However, it is not the CBC’s obligation to determine what is “truth” or what views are “acceptable” (a truly dangerous notion for any broadcaster), but only to present differing views fairly and accurately affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the nature or quality of the views expressed. And I believe we did that in this story.

Mr. Cunliffe also thanked you for “taking the time to write to us with such clarity about a subject that is not widely as understood as it should be.” He said he circulated your email to the journalists at his station for their information.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices requires a commitment to accuracy which is defined as:

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.

This story and your concerns provide an interesting test of the spirit and meaning of this requirement. As Mr. Cunliffe points out, this story was about one episode and not a broader look at the issue of service dogs and their qualifications. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the military wasn’t precise in its terms either, as apparently the sign on the mess said that service dogs were not allowed.

In your correspondence you said you doubted that the military would contravene Alberta law, which allows unfettered access for certified service dogs. That may be, but it is unclear, and the imprecision permeates all parts of the story. The base spokesperson does seem to clarify the situation. But here too, the two terms are used somewhat interchangeably. The story quotes the base spokesperson:

“Clearly this man, and the others who have emotional-support animals, they have a need for these animals, and we want to be sensitive to that and we want to accommodate it as much as possible. But we have to balance that with the other needs of people on the base. We do have some people who have severe allergies; there are other people who have phobias about dogs.”

Standing Order 109 was actually drafted last fall, Riguidel said. It came about, she said, because someone brought a dog to an appointment on base, and another person there was allergic and had a severe reaction.

Riguidel said in Yetman’s case there was a “misunderstanding” about what constitutes a service dog under Alberta regulations.

The order applies to service dogs certified by Assistance Dogs International, she said. Diego doesn’t have ADI certification, which is required by the province, not the military.

So it is clear that Sgt. Yetman’s dog is not a certified service dog, even though that term had been used to describe it. Mr. Cunliffe says that the policy is fulfilled because different views are presented, and that it is up to the reader to discern the truth. There are times when that is true, when it really is a matter of opinion. I think that CBC journalism should be held to a higher standard and that in this case there was room to provide greater clarity to fulfill that part of the policy that says, “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.”

Further, CBC managers and staff might want to review the policy on language:

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

I don’t believe this was honoured in the case of this story. Sgt. Yetman is quoted as saying it’s all about semantics. And it’s true that the root of the lack of clarity in this story is an imprecision in the use of the terms. I frequently say in my reviews that context matters. From your correspondence it seems you have a deep understanding and concern about service dogs in general and this incident in particular. It is not reasonable to assume a daily reporter would have the same depth of understanding. But given that semantics and definitions are important to this story, the news staff had an obligation to provide more clarity in a matter of controversy.

A “he said/she said” presentation was not sufficient in this case. The definition and legal status of various categories of support dogs is readily available. If the written report had provided that information, readers would have been much better served and better positioned to decide the reasonableness of the two positions put forward.

This story is confusing. Sometimes clarity is not possible because a situation is murky, or unclear, or in flux. In this case more clarity was readily achievable and would have enhanced accuracy and fairness about a significant issue.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman