Consider the source - getting information that comes with an agenda.

The complainant, Derek Wright, considered articles about a professor’s relationship with Monsanto were a witch hunt and unjustifiable because there was no financial gain and the university found no wrongdoing with the activity. He was also was concerned because the source of the information came from an advocacy group. The source was revealed in the stories, and a wide range of views on an issue of public interest was provided.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about two articles published on the CBC news website. Your opinion was that it appeared CBC “has decided to become an anti-agscience fake-news outlet, smearing any public scientist who may speak positively about GMOs, and just generally demonizing the agricultural industry and spreading fear and misinformation.” The two articles were entitled U of S professor says there’s nothing unusual about his ties to Monsanto and U of S defends prof’s Monsanto ties, but some faculty disagree.” The articles, based on some documents obtained by CBC news staff in Saskatchewan from Gary Ruskin, head of a group called U.S. Right to Know, mentioned a professor who had worked with Monsanto, although he had not received money from them. You pointed out that despite the fact that Prof. Phillips did not get a research grant, he is referred to as a “sock puppet for agribusiness giant Monsanto” at the beginning of the article. Furthermore, you noted that at the end it revealed he had been completely “absolved of any wrongdoing” after a review by the University. You felt the publication unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of a research scientist because there was no evidence of wrongdoing:

According to the CBC original article, the only thing professor Phillips did wrong was to talk with people within the company (who happen to be one of his former students). and yet now his reputation will be permanently tarnished because of the CBC framing these two articles to do just that.

You stated these articles amounted to “fear-mongering and demonizing agriculture, and intimidating scientists into silence.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

David Hutton, managing editor of CBC News in Saskatchewan, replied to your concerns. He told you after a week’s deliberation the team felt this was a story worth telling. He informed you that they had considered the purpose the U.S. Right to Know organization had in providing the documents, and reviewed the issues raised by the information provided.

The documents received by CBC News raised a number of issues worth pursuing, including the relationship between academics, universities and industry or corporations, we decided. It is a relevant topic worthy of public debate and coverage and worthy of seeking response from the university, Prof. Phillips, and other independent sources.

He explained they considered some of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices that were relevant in pursuing this story. He cited the most important one as balance. He told you he believed CBC fulfilled that policy requirement by contacting and obtaining some response from the key players, including Prof. Phillips. The follow-up story examined the issue in more detail from a range of views, including a defense of Dr. Phillips’s activity. He noted in both stories it was clearly mentioned that the University of Saskatchewan had cleared him of any concerns 18 months before the publication of the article. He stated the story was not one-sided.

He also said CBC fulfilled the obligation of providing affiliation of the source of the information, Gary Ruskin, so the audience could “judge the relevance and credibility to [his] statement”:

In this case, we included Ruskin’s affiliation and stated that his group’s website “lists the U.S. Organic Consumers Association and other groups as donors.” We also stated that a Monsanto spokesperson questioned Ruskin’s credibility, though she declined to provide more information.

He acknowledged that the story provoked quite a bit of reaction and feedback similar to yours, and on that basis the headline was changed from the original “U of S, prof under fire for Monsanto ties” to U of S professor says there’s nothing unusual about his ties to Monsanto.”

REVIEW

Mr. Hutton referenced all the correct policies in his response to you. You raised an important issue when you pointed out that the man who had provided the documents had an agenda. Journalists work with all kinds of sources. Because the reporter took the documents from an organization in opposition to Monsanto does not mean he endorses their position, or that Mr. Ruskin had any editorial input into the articles. That was the first step - the reporter, Jason Warick, received all the documents after a phone call from Mr. Ruskin, and then independently read all of them. He did ask Mr. Ruskin what he thought was noteworthy. Mr. Warick told me he put the same question to all the other people he approached in researching these stories. Because of the volume of material, the news staff allowed several days for responses. He also told me that the emails were authenticated by both Dr. Phillips and a Monsanto official - which is another requirement before publication. The news team believed that the issue of the relationship between universities and large corporations raised some important ethical questions, and it was in the public interest to report on the documents received. This happened to involve Monsanto and the issue of GMOs, an extremely divisive and polarizing topic. The pieces did not focus on the particular subject area but on the larger questions of how universities, university researchers and corporations work together, and what the public can reasonably expect to know - that is a legitimate public policy issue. The journalist’s obligation is to ensure that public policy questions are examined from a variety of points of view, over time. They did so in these two articles.

From the outset, the first article quickly laid out the accusation and the response, both from Dr. Phillips and the University. The language used by Mr. Ruskin is highly charged. The information that follows allows the reader to form an opinion on whether it is warranted or not.

Ruskin recently shared with CBC News nearly 700 pages of U of S emails and other material. Ruskin said the documents show Monsanto has recruited a team of top academics in a "Machiavellian" effort to sway public opinion.

But a Saskatchewan professor featured in the documents says there's nothing inappropriate about his work with Monsanto. The U of S agrees.

Peter Phillips, a distinguished professor in the U of S Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, said no money ever changed hands, and academics are mandated by their universities and granting agencies to partner with industry and other groups.

"We don't do research in isolation," Phillips said. "Where appropriate, we have been fully transparent."

The article also included some of the emails, again giving readers a chance to judge for themselves how serious the issues raised are. It is clear throughout that there was no financial gain, and the broader questions are ethical ones about academic and industry co-operation. Prof. Phillips is quoted as saying there is nothing out of the ordinary in these kinds of relationships, and that is one important perspective to have in the piece. There are alternative views - not only Mr. Ruskin’s, who also provided the emails - but others within the academic world such as a consultant and author of an article about the relationship between universities and the agricultural industry. He provided further context to the issue. The second article, based on follow-up interviews, provided more of the University’s perspective and views on the matter. There was a vigorous and full explanation and defense of the university’s policies and Prof. Phillips’s activities.

There is one area where the journalists could have been even more transparent. They were open about the fact that these stories originated with emails provided by a third party. At the outset, he is identified with U.S. Right to Know, and in a later reference, Mr. Warick wrote that the organization listed the U.S. Organic Consumers Association as one of its funders. CBC journalistic policy encourages disclosure of relevant information about those who are interviewed for stories:

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 policy is fulfilled because Mr. Ruskin’s affiliation is clearly mentioned. It might have been helpful to provide a link to the organization so that readers could see for themselves what the positions of the organizations were, and to have mentioned any advocacy done by the group. Having said that, these articles were well balanced with a range of views, there was disclosure about the origins of the documents and who had first raised the concerns. There was no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman