Balance in Science Reporting

The complainant, Richard Reeleder, objected to an interview with an opponent of the herbicide Glyphosate. He thought he was presented as a scientific expert when he was not, and that his comments went unchallenged. He thought it was alarmist and unbalanced.

This was one interview in ongoing coverage, but it raised the important question about what is a reasonable time to present balance.

COMPLAINT

You challenged the decision of the programmers of Information Morning in Fredericton to interview a critic on the use of the herbicide Glyphosate. You pointed out that there is also an article on the CBC News website based on the interview, which contains the same information you said is false. You thought that he was presented as someone qualified to speak to this matter and pointed out that he has done no research on the herbicide:

I carried out searches of the scientific literature using Google Scholar in Nov 2017. I did not find any scientific articles published by T. Vrain that involved herbicide toxicology or the toxicological effects of herbicides or pesticides on mammalian or human tissues or organs, nor do I find evidence of expertise in public health risk assessment. His work has been confined mainly to plant parasitic nematodes; he has no documented research experience or expertise in herbicide evaluation or in herbicide toxicology.

You thought the way his credentials were presented gave him a legitimacy to speak to this subject which he did not deserve. In fact, you challenged the justification of running the interview at all. You wanted it retracted. You also thought the staff at CBC News in Fredericton should be better trained in “scientific analysis, risk assessment and science reporting.”

You thought the interviewer should have challenged many of Dr. Vrain’s statements, and put them in a context that would counter what you consider an alarmist presentation about the toxicity of the herbicide. You pointed out that the interviewer provided no context when he stated that the product has been classified a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a body of the World Health Organization. You noted there was no context for what that meant, or how it was defined:

Although regarded as posing little or no risk to humans or the environment by regulatory agencies in Europe, Canada, and the United States, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (a body of the World Health Organization) concluded in 2015 that glyphosate was a ‘probable carcinogen’, placing it in the same category as red meat and working as a hair dresser … Exposure also matters; a product may be carcinogenic but if risk of exposure is very small, how concerned do we need to be?

You noted that the IARC came to this conclusion, despite the fact that most regulatory agencies in Canada, the United States and Europe have deemed there is little harm from its use. You also cited an investigative piece published by Reuters in October 2017 which called into question how the IARC made the “probable carcinogen” designation.

You saw the broadcasting of this interview, and the publishing of the companion online piece, as part of a pattern of irresponsible coverage on the use of the herbicide:

Information Morning Fredericton and the CBC office in Fredericton have a history of exaggerating toxicity of glyphosate and producing alarmist 'news' stories on the subject.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Darrow MacIntyre, Executive Producer of CBC New Brunswick, replied to your concerns. He told you he did not agree with your assessment that there was no justification to air this interview. He said Dr. Vrain is a “respected scientist and retired public servant,” with years of experience in the areas of biotechnology and food production. He also did not agree that he was falsely presented as an expert on glyphosate, but rather as someone who has been a critic:

He has been a voice advocating for more scientific study of the issue of glyphosate safety and warning the public that, in his opinion, there are significant risks that have not been sufficiently explored. It is not CBC’s role to silence such voices. Rather, CBC’s role is to present all sides of the debate so members of the public can make their own informed judgements.

He added that was the reason both the website article and the on-air introduction explicitly listed his academic credentials. He noted that both the story and the interview mentioned he was in New Brunswick at the invitation of anti-glyphosate activists.

Mr. MacIntyre rejected your characterization of CBC New Brunswick’s coverage as alarmist or unbalanced. He cited examples of other stories and broadcast interviews, which provided other views and information, some of it refuting Mr. Vrain’s position:

CBC reported widely on Dr. Jennifer Russell’s (NB Public Health Officer) report finding that glyphosate use in this province does not pose a public health risk.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/glyphosate-report-released-nb-1.3700581

CBC has spoken repeatedly to Dr. John McLaughlin (Ontario’s Chief Science Officer and one of the scientists who studied glyphosate for the WHO) who consistently states that there is virtually no risk of humans getting cancer from exposure to Glyphosate.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/programs/informationmorningfredericton/is-glyphosate-a-threat-to-human-health-1.3019230

This summer, in response to the mayor of Moncton’s concerns about glyphosate spraying, CBC interviewed Dr. Len Ritter (toxicologist, University of Guelph) who says the public should not worry about glyphosate exposure.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/programs/informationmorningmoncton/len-ritter-glyphosate-spraying-1.4264905

CBC published an article on a scientific study concluding that there is no significant link between glyphosate and cancer in farm workers.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/monsanto-weedkiller-cancer-study-glyphosate-roundup-1.4394848

REVIEW

There are two CBC journalistic policies with relevance in this matter. One is CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices’ commitment to balance:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The second refers specifically to science and health reporting. It was written as a caveat to the coverage of specific studies and trends, but the spirit of it speaks to the issue you raised about well-informed and contextualized science reporting:

We take care to understand properly and reflect the true implications of medical or scientific study results that we obtain, especially those involving statistical data.

We will exercise caution with regard to results disclosed at a conference but not yet published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

In matters of human health we will take particular care to avoid arousing unfounded hopes or fears in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses. We will also avoid suggesting unproven benefits or risks to health related to changes in habits of consumption of food or pharmaceutical products.

The decision to interview Thierry Vrain did not violate journalistic practice. As Mr. MacIntyre informed you, he was in New Brunswick to speak to anti-glyphosate activists. His presence, and his association with this cause, made him an appropriate interview subject. The coverage on the safety of the herbicide, public reaction and public policy implications have been an ongoing part of CBC New Brunswick’s news coverage. The introduction to the interview lays out the controversy around the use of it in a neutral way:

Glyphosate, a single word that sits at the centre of an international scientific controversy, a controversy that has taken root here in New Brunswick. It’s a general-use pesticide, a pesticide that is used a lot in this province. A recent report on glyphosate use in New Brunswick by the province’s Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, found that in 2016, nearly 29,000 hectares of forest had been treated with the chemical, and that’s where the controversy lies. In New Brunswick, in North America and in Europe there is significant disagreement about whether glyphosate presents a danger to human health. The European Union is currently considering banning it, a position which would contradict the European Food Safety Authority finding that glyphosate is safe. However, the World Health Organization Agency has deemed glyphosate probably carcinogenic. The same arguments are occurring here.

Dr. Vrain is introduced as a scientist who is involved in the opposition to use of the spray:

Dr. Thierry Vrain is familiar with the glyphosate safety debate. He was the head of the Biotechnology Department at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, British Columbia and most recently served as President of the International Federation of Nematology Societies. He has a doctorate in Plant Pathology, is currently retired but he is active as a speaker and he is in Fredericton at the invitation of groups opposed to glyphosate spraying.

I understand that in providing his credentials it might have left the impression he had some special knowledge, but nowhere in the introduction or the body of the interview was it implied that he had done research in this area. More importantly, he is identified as someone who is associated with those who oppose glyphosate use. Anyone hearing what he had to say would understand he was citing data and interpreting it in a way that bolstered his argument. In the course of the interview, host Terry Seguin does put to him that the province’s chief medical officer of health deemed its use safe. He did not challenge some of the other contentious things Dr. Vrain had to say. Sometimes interviews are done to elicit the views from one perspective, knowing that other interviews have been or will be done to balance that view. The policy allows for this when it states that balance is achieved over time - it does not state what a "reasonable amount of time is" in any given instance. That is a judgement call based on the complexity of the issue, the familiarity of the people dealing with it, and how controversial it is. Mr. MacIntyre cited many examples of treatments that provide deeper information and assertions of the safety of the substance. That fulfills the requirement for balance over time. The article on the website also provides links to other stories which refute some of what Dr. Vrain had to say. It also reiterates that provincial health officials have found it safe. Reporting is an iterative process - it would be wrong to shut out the voices of those who do not trust or believe the status quo. In the area of environmental risk and science reporting, it is particularly confusing. For people without deep knowledge and background in the science, it is difficult sometimes to know what to believe, when the evidence appears contradictory.

This is the landscape generalist journalists have to navigate. CBC News staff are obliged to report on a range of views, although even then the policy notes that one must take into consideration the weight of that view - that means evaluating who is putting it forward, how widespread it is, and based on what evidence. However, there is still an obligation to provide context and perspective when addressing issues, especially those that pertain to public safety. I have written many times about false equivalence - the presenting of a side to an argument that is so discredited it gives it a weight it does not deserve. This is the case with climate change and the efficacy of vaccination. I do not think this issue falls in this category.

However, because it is unclear and confusing, your point about ensuring skill in scientific analysis and risk assessment is a good one. I note, for example, Dr. Vrain is not alone in his opposition to the herbicide, but he does appear to be one of the more controversial opponents. It might have been appropriate in this case to raise the issue with him. Mr. MacIntyre told you that the information was laid out so the public can make informed judgments. The suggestion to ensure that at least some staff have good skills to assess scientific data is an excellent one. Programmers should think about what a reasonable amount of time to achieve balance is when dealing with complex and contentious subject matter. They should consider providing more context and other perspectives at the same time or shortly thereafter.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman