Balance and Perspective

The complainant, Jackie Thipthorpe, objected to a story about visitors at a veterinary school open house. The research project featured involved a cow with a fistula which enabled participants to reach into its stomach. She questioned the judgment of reporting the story in the first place, and its lack of criticism of the treatment of the animal. The report was not about the ethics of animal testing, and the reporter raised the issue of the impact on the cow. While there was no violation of policy, the story was improved in response to this complaint with the addition of a critical voice

COMPLAINT

You objected to the tone of a story published on cbcnews.ca Saskatchewan. The article was entitled “Gutsy crowds line up for chance to feel inside hole-y cows at Saskatoon vet college event”. The story recounted a demonstration at a yearly open house at the veterinary college of the University of Saskatchewan. The demonstration involved allowing up to 75 visitors the opportunity to feel the inside a cow’s stomach. The animal is fistulated as part of an ongoing research project being conducted at the university. You said “the story was disgraceful on its own merits” and CBC exacerbated the situation by treating it as a joke:

There is nothing funny about the mistreatment of animals nor should it be made into a game or challenge for the public to participate in...But there are many of us already fighting against this treatment of making holes in the sides of cattle. We already have x-rays and sonograms. We would never accept them doing this to humans so why would we accept this in other species?

You asked that the story be removed and the reporter be trained “in appropriate behaviour in journalism.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

David Hutton, the Managing Editor of News in Saskatchewan, replied to your concerns. He told you the news staff judged the research demonstration newsworthy because there were long lines of people waiting to experience placing their arms in a cow’s stomach. He explained that he believed the story conformed to CBC journalistic practices because those policies allow for a range of views and perspectives. He noted the policy states that the journalism “does not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate." He pointed out that the reporter did question the veterinary student about the impact on the research animal:

We questioned the fistulating practice to the student leading the demonstration. There were no protests or problems raised at the event nor has there been in the 30 years of the event and the research demonstration, according to event organizers.

The reporter asked the student in charge of the demonstration about the practice and its effect on the animals with the student researcher indicating the animals did not feel pain.

He told you that your complaint prompted amendments to the story: a spokesman for an animal rights group was asked for a comment on the event, and the somewhat tongue-in-cheek headline was rewritten in a more straightforward matter to read Crowds line up for chance to feel inside cows at Saskatoon vet college event.”

REVIEW

You questioned the editorial choice of reporting this event at all, and for its lack of criticism of the practice. News judgement is a subjective thing. This was not a story about the testing of animals or their treatment. There was no ongoing controversy about this experiment or the practice. In a response to Mr. Hutton you said you thought he was “insinuating that because there was a long lineup that this makes this practice ethical” - I don’t think that was the point he was making. He was pointing out that the story focused on the attention the research project was getting at the open house. News values include that which is unusual and surprising. This was something of an oddity, and it attracted a lot of interest - those are legitimate grounds for a news story. The reporter asked the question about the impact on the animal, which raised the issue of the animal’s comfort:

Bartsoff said the demonstration is not painful for the cow, adding that what she feels is probably akin to what we feel when we push our tongue to the inside of our cheek.

To say the story should not have been covered would go against journalistic principle. Arguably, having done the story even in a superficial way let members of the public know it was occurring and they, like you, could raise concerns. The issue of animal experimentation and what is acceptable treatment is a contentious one, and in the original coverage that was overlooked. The staff at CBC news Saskatchewan responded to your request for a more fully-considered story, and reached out to a member of PETA for comment. That remark was added to a revised version of the story:

Cinnamon [the cow] is fitted with a fistula, a rubber tube that creates an opening in her stomach that can be plugged. It also allows Vetavision visitors to reach in and feel inside her stomach.

Animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals object to the practice, and to these animals being put on display at demonstration and recruitment events.

The staff also changed the headline to reflect that some might find nothing amusing in the practice. The story did not violate journalistic standards as it was a narrowly-focused report on a public event. There is not an obligation to present all points of view in every report. If questions are raised about the treatment of animals used in experiments, as there has been in the past, I would expect fair and even-handed representation of a range of views. Mr. Hutton is right that CBC journalistic policy precludes advocating for any one position. There was not an obligation to report the event in a negative way. Your complaint improved the story and provided a broader perspective. Changing the headline acknowledged that for some this was not a frivolous matter. Your input improved the reporting.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman