Balance and Fairness.

The complainant, Dr. Stephen Malthouse, thought an article about the cancellation of a diploma programme in homeopathy to be close-minded and biased. The article presented both sides of the reason for cancellation. The question of what constitutes balance when talking about homeopathy, a practice rejected by a consensus of science and medicine, is a different matter.

COMPLAINT

You are the president of the Canadian Integrative Medicine Association. You thought an article by a medical sciences reporter, Kelly Crowe, about the cancellation of a proposed diploma programme in homeopathy at Georgian College was biased. You said it was “close-minded and uninformed.” You pointed out only critics of homeopathy were quoted. You said as a physician you think there are many conditions that don’t respond to conventional treatments, including “pain syndromes.” You believe this negative coverage makes it more difficult for patients to access alternative treatments:

We need a critical, unbiased approach to new therapies such as homeopathy, if we want to get out of this mess. This type of prejudiced journalism only prolongs the suffering of patients, while maintaining the status quo of a mediocre medical system.

You see this as a pattern of coverage on CBC, which you characterize as negative and derogatory. You stated that there is a body of scientific literature that shows some evidence of the efficacy of these treatments, and that a major critique out of Australia has been debunked.

You believe the “juggernaut of big pharma,” as well as “small minds and pseudo-scientists” bringing pressure to bear, led to the cancellation of the proposed programme at the college:

Do we now have to think about Big Media as an offshoot of Big Pharma and sacrifice Canadians' future health to their bullying? This not the first anti-CAM article that Kelly Crowe has written, and I wonder if this is her own biased angle or if she has been sent out on a mission by her editors.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of the Science and Technology unit, Mark Harrison, replied to your complaint. He told you had the focus or purpose of the story been about the “uses, methods and efficacy of homeopathy” it would have been reasonable to include the perspective of supporters. In this case he said the narrow focus of the article was the cancellation of the proposed programme at Georgian College:

In an unexpected statement earlier in the day we published this story – February 9 – the college had said it was cancelling the planned three-year course. The story began with that information immediately followed by the college’s statement about the reasons. Subsequent paragraphs offered some background information suggesting the reasons for that decision.

He went on to explain that the reporter focused on two of the people who were responsible for the pressure to rescind the programme and cited their criticism and skepticism about homeopathy. He said that the story contained information that explained the support for the programme in the first place. Ms. Crowe noted it had been approved by the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development and the Board of Governors of the college and included links to the programme documents prepared by the college. He added that the article ends by stating that some homeopathic products are approved by Health Canada. He pointed out that “accurately reporting the cancellation of the course and the reasons its critics felt it should be cancelled does not constitute prejudiced journalism.”

REVIEW

In his reply, Mr. Harrison pointed out that the focus of the story was the pressure brought to bear on Georgian College to cancel the homeopathy diploma programme, despite it having gone through a review and approval process at the college and through the appropriate provincial ministry. The college explains why, and the critics are heard from. You are correct that no supporters of homeopathy are present in the story. CBC journalistic policy on impartiality states:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

Policy also states that balance is achieved by representing a range of views based on relevance and the weight it has in the debate. Reporters have a responsibility to avoid giving weight to ideas that are generally held to be untrue, or unproven. There is a strong consensus in the medical and scientific community that the claims of homeopathy, and its basic assumptions, have not passed the scrutiny of rigorous science. The organization Science-Based Medicine sums it up this way:

The principles of homeopathy run contrary to modern science and have never been empirically established.

Should that consensus change, then CBC News would be required to report on the ensuing debate. Ms. Crowe referenced two ongoing studies, one at the University of Toronto and the other at McMaster. As the results are released, I hope CBC News will make note of them. Having said that, while CBC reporters are expected to know their subject areas and to research thoroughly, in areas of science and medicine they are not expected - nor could they interpret or consider all studies on a particular topic. To provide equal weight to information generally held to be incorrect as a balance to the views of most scientists, physicians, and regulatory bodies would create false equivalence. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” balance can distort the truth if applied mindlessly:

Balance for instance, can lead to distortion. If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, as an example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create the impression that the scientific debate is equally split. (p.109)

You cite examples of areas where traditional medicine has been unsuccessful in its treatments such as pain management. That may very well be true, but that was not the subject of this article. There is nothing in the report that suggests there is a rejection of any sort of alternative or natural remedies. I think you will find that in its treatment of the opioid crisis, CBC coverage has presented the views of those who are highly critical of the reliance on drugs and who advocate other methods of treatment.

I appreciate that you believe journalists are unduly influenced by the work of large pharmaceutical companies. Independence is another core value of CBC journalism. It is, of course, important that all information be treated to rigorous examination and scrutiny. In this case the reporter is relying on the overwhelming consensus of medical and scientific practice and presented the story in a reasonable manner.

Mr. Harrison apologized for the length of time it took him to respond. I ask CBC management to do their best to stay within the prescribed response times.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman