Don’t blame the Messenger

The complainant, Kyrylo Stepanchuk, thought a report about death and injury of young people from firearms was flawed and inflammatory. He felt the study was reported in a sensational and uncritical fashion. The headline was flashy, but accurate. The story laid out the findings with some context. You can disagree, but it doesn’t negate the value or reporting on it.

COMPLAINT

You were critical of CBC’s coverage and presentation of a study published in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) about injury and deaths of children and youth from firearms and other non-lethal weapons. You said the article “took a flawed study at face value and made a lackadaisical effort to clarify the facts and entertain opposing views.” You said the headline “1 child or youth injured by gunfire nearly every day in Ontario, pediatricians find” sacrificed journalistic ethics for the sake of dramatic impact.

The CBC must recognize that many readers do not read beyond the headline, and those that do often lightly skim the content, noticing only the prominent sections. It is irresponsible to bury the clarifying details in the article, or omit them altogether.

You took issue with many aspects of the study and felt that the report should have pointed out and reflected those flaws. You pointed out that the study included flare guns, BB, pellet and paintball guns, and that they do not meet the criminal code definition of firearms. You added the study “did not differentiate legally versus illegally-possessed firearms.” You also took issue with the study’s definition of youth being 18-24 year olds, “who are full grown adults.” You gave this overall assessment to the study and the story about it:

There is also little mention that only seven percent of those incidents are fatalities. What's the result? A dramatic headline, overinflated statistics, and an allusion to more regulation, all based on a foundation thinner than a cat's hair.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mark Harrison, the head of the CBC News Health, Science and Technology Unit, replied to your concerns. He told you that he agreed the initial headline was “not as clear as it should have been,” and was changed to make the meaning clearer. The word “gunfire” was changed to “firearms” and the change was noted in a clarifications box at the end of the article.

He also agreed that the definition of firearms was “an unconventional definition,” and that was the reason there are quotation marks around the word in the headline. He said that the sub-headline “About 75 per cent of injuries from guns, airguns and paintballs are unintentional or accidental” captured that broader definition so that readers would be clear about the scope included in the study. He added there was a quote from the head of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association that reiterated that point. He acknowledged that the study was controversial, and many responsible gun owners felt it was unfair to “include injuries and deaths from guns together with those from non-lethal products.”

He explained the use of the term “youth” to encompass 18-24 year olds is conventional in social science research and is used, with slight variations by many reputable research bodies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, and the United Nations and World Health Organizations. He told you the reason for doing so, even though in law this age group would be considered adult:

That's because the period between 15 and 24 is seen, clinically, as a transition time between childhood and the development of the cognitive and executive functioning that guides decisions around risk-taking behaviours. Statistics Canada uses the same range when it classifies youth unemployment.

He told you that it was important to distinguish between the reporting of the study, which you considered flawed, and the reporting on it. He told you it was reasonable to report on the study and let Canadians draw their own conclusions:

You might disagree with the study’s premise or the way it was conducted or its conclusions. That’s fair. But that doesn’t mean that our report on the study is flawed. The study’s broad categories may contribute to an eye-catching conclusion, but a report of that conclusion is not an “attack” by the media on a segment of society.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices puts accuracy as a primary value. On that score, the headline and the article live up to the standard. You make the point that the headline was dramatic, and that undermined the journalistic ethics; that would be true if the headline were inaccurate or misleading. Mr. Harrison acknowledged that the first iteration was not as precise as it could be, so it was altered and noted. I agree with him that the subhead provided further explanation. Headlines are designed to draw a reader’s attention. They should not distort meaning or be inaccurate, or as the Poynter Institute’s Guide to Writing Headlines puts it: the big type should match the little type - the facts, tone and interpretation should all be consistent. The subhead and the body of the piece explained what is meant by firearms in the context of this study. The number of incidents - 355 each year - is also mentioned near the beginning of the article.

The article went on to provide some context for the headline, and to convey the scope of injury:

Sick Kids staff physician Dr. Natasha Saunders and her team found of the 355 firearm injuries each year, approximately 23 to 25 children or youth — or about seven per cent — die from those injuries. Deaths, but not injuries, are tracked nationally.

​"When we were putting together all the numbers we kind of went, 'Oh my goodness, this is unbelievable,'" Saunders said in an interview. "We were definitely shocked."

You refer to the “innuendo of menace” which is a subtext to the article - that may be how you perceived it. The reporting of the Ontario study and the inclusion of the Canadian Paediatric Society position paper on the prevention of firearm injuries in this same article are indeed raising a public policy health issue. The Canadian Paediatric Society’s statement, released at the same time as the Ontario study, provided context for why weapons not considered firearms were included in the data - they have enough force to injure. The health professionals who conducted the study said they were concerned about the findings and the risks it posed. The physicians who put out the position paper came to similar conclusions - that there needed to be some public policy changes and physicians needed to adopt certain practices to minimize harm. That is not disrespect or disapproval of those who store and use all kinds of guns responsibly and safely, it is drawing attention to documented accidents and fatalities that these professionals believe can be reduced and avoided. Whether you consider it valid to be concerned, it is legitimate for the study’s findings to be presented so that Canadians can come to their own conclusions about the scope of this problem. The body of the article quotes other experts, including one from the Executive Director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, who questioned its methodology:

But the study doesn't detail the type of injuries or guns that are used, said Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association.

Two groups of professionals concerned with the health and safety of children published findings about their concerns. The CBC News articles presented those findings in a responsible fashion. There was no violation of CBC News policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman