Point-of-View Documentaries | The Case of Sled Dogs

The complainant is a sled dog operator. She wrote on behalf of many in her business as well as some of the participants in the documentary “Sled Dog” to complain about bias in the film misrepresentation of its purpose to those who were featured, and the advocacy work of the filmmaker. Sled Dogs ran on the Documentary Channel and is an outside production. There is room for point-of-view documentaries, and this one qualifies, but it should have been clearly labelled that way before it aired.

Note that due to a miscommunication, the name of the complainant has been removed.

COMPLAINT

You are the owner of a sled dog operation in Ontario. You are concerned that Sled Dogs, a feature-length piece run on the CBC documentary Channel, unfairly portrayed and misrepresented the industry - the competitors in races, the breeders and those that offer tourists an experience of sled dogging. Even though your company is not featured or named in the broadcast, you said you have lost business because of it. You stated your property has been attacked twice since the film was released. You objected to the filmmaker’s continued advocacy through her website and screenings of the film:

Fern is also using this film on social media as a platform to harass and ultimately shut down all dogsled companies including the Iditarod.

You gathered information from many of those who are featured in the film, and provided many examples you believe indicate the filmmaker, Fern Levitt, misrepresented what she was doing and what the purpose of the film would be. They felt betrayed, having provided her broad access to their operations and activities. You said that Ms. Levitt approached the owner of Windrift Kennel, who breeds sled dogs, to get permission to film her operation, including the training of puppies, by telling her she was planning to show a positive side to the industry:

Fern approached them in the same way, saying she wanted to film amazing kennels and a puppy growing into and becoming a sled dog.

You cited other examples of the same approach. The musher who was filmed training and then running the 1000-mile Iditarod race in Alaska told you something similar, you said. He himself has spoken out saying he felt he was lied to and that there was no indication of what kind of production was being contemplated. He was misled by the warm treatment he received from the team:

Like the others was misled, he was told they wanted to film the amazing journey a musher and their dogs went on.

You cited some inaccuracies as well. The documentary shows a scene in which staff found a dog which had died. The camera followed Gina Pierce, owner of Windrift, as she ran to confirm what had happened. This is what you say transpired:

The dog who passed away Rachet was an old dog (14 years old) who had been fine when they did chores that morning, when Fern & crew arrived and everyone went up to get her started they were out of the dog yard for about 45 minutes. When they came back down the dog had passed of a heart attack. It was snowing hard that day and he was already covered with a dusting of snow. Fern called the Barrie Tourism Association and told them she had found a dog who died overnight of hypothermia in the kennel that morning and demanded they stop promoting Windrift Kennels. The Tourism Assoc. said as long as the SPCA had no issues with the kennel, they would still promote them.

There was a segment of the documentary that told the story of a kennel and dog sled operation in Colorado, called Krabloonik Kennels. The former owner was charged and convicted of animal cruelty a few years ago. You said the film used footage of the kennel under the former owner in such a way as to leave the impression this was the current condition of the dogs.

You also mentioned that an image of dead dogs in Alaska which led to an animal cruelty conviction against their owner was erroneously labelled “abandoned sled dogs found in Willow, Alaska”. You said the man ran a puppy mill and Ms. Levitt was aware they were not sled dogs.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Sandra Kleinfeld, Senior Director, Documentary for CBC, replied to your concerns. She explained that Sled Dogs is indeed a documentary with a “strong point of view.”

I want to emphasize here that Sled Dogs is a point of view documentary. In other words, it’s a documentary that deliberately sets out to explore a subject or issue from the single perspective of the filmmaker. Think of it as similar to the individual perspective that a columnist writes in a newspaper or the single perspective offered by one the many contributors to the CBC News Opinion section. (You can find the section here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion).

She told you that Ms. Levitt decided to make this film to alert Canadians to the way some sled dogs are treated. She also said that the film belongs to the filmmaker, and that CBC aired it as one of a range of perspectives on a controversial issue. Ms. Kleinfeld added:

But she is quick to say that she doesn’t think that “all dog mushers are cruel or evil”; and indeed, the documentary does include memorable scenes with caring mushers who treat their dogs well.

She stated this is a “well-established” format which is allowed under CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP). The purpose of the presentation was to provide “a compelling perspective and insight into controversial issues,” as well as stimulating public debate.

She acknowledged that the documentary channel should have done a better job of making it clear that this was a point-of-view documentary which took a position on the issue. She said she would consider adding “information to the written material on the Documentary Channel website.

She also explained that CBC journalism is required to achieve balance over time. She cited several other productions which have aired on CBC channels which provide a different perspective on dog sledding:

The documentary Channel aired an episode of the program “Where the Wild Men Are” (with host popular British broadcaster and writer Ben Fogle). As well, CBC Short Docs commissioned a short digital documentary entitled “Underdog”, which also explores a different story and perspective on dog sledding. Future documentaries and programs may well carry additional perspectives, some I expect, closer to yours and those of some others involved in the sled dog business.

She mentioned that there had been other coverage of the controversy around this film which generated news coverage containing different perspectives.

She replied to some of the other issues you raised. She told you that Ms. Levitt came across a dead dog when she was filming at Windrift and alerted the staff:

You also wrote that the dead dog seen in Sled Dogs had been “fine” a little earlier that morning, that it had only been dead “about 45 minutes” and had died of a heart attack not hypothermia...As seen in the documentary, the dog was frozen stiff and had apparently been dead for some hours. Ms. Levitt said she is clearly not an expert and at no time offered her opinions as to the cause of death.

Finally, she noted that the title “abandoned sled dogs” does not appear in the CBC broadcast version of the documentary.

REVIEW

Your complaint included references to Ms. Levitt’s website, screenings and activism around this issue. If she were a CBC employee this would be under my mandate, and a problem. Ms. Levitt is an independent filmmaker who retains control over the dissemination of her documentary. Ms. Levitt’s activities outside the creation of the documentary are not issues I can address. CBC is accountable for the material it runs on its platforms. CBC’s JSP is clear in the scope of its application:

News, current affairs and public affairs content commissioned by CBC and produced by third parties:

JSP apply to all news, current affairs and public affairs content commissioned by CBC and produced by third parties.

A manager commissioning content produced by a third party ensures compliance with JSP. A proposal for content that is not fully in compliance must be referred to senior editorial management.

Sled Dogs was made from the point of view of the filmmaker - but it does not ignore other perspectives. I will address that aspect later in the review. As Ms. Kleinfeld indicated to you, there is a policy to guide the productions and airing of point-of-view documentaries:

From time to time, we air documentaries created from a single perspective.

We air these point of view documentaries for some of the following reasons:

1) There is a compelling first-person narrative that provides insight into an issue or perspective.

2) The creator has special knowledge, expertise or a body of work that has artistic merit, and/or is recognized as an expert in a field.

3) There is a compelling argument, well presented, for a single point of view that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.

4) The production is not financed by an advocacy group, lobby group or government agency.

We label point of view documentaries as such when they are aired.

We ensure balance over time by publishing other perspectives and opinions on the same subject in other programs, program segments or platforms. When the subject is highly controversial, we consider scheduling additional programming with alternate opinions, in an appropriate time frame.

CBC hosts and journalists do not participate in or create point of view documentaries

CBC News also has policy regarding balance and fairness:

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.

I reviewed the two documentaries Ms. Kleinfeld mentioned: “Where the Wild Men Are” and “Underdog”. While they are not defenses of dogsled racing or commercial sledding operations, they present the activity in a positive light. As the public policy debate continues about regulation of the industry and treatment of the animals, CBC news platforms should ensure presentation of a full range of views.

Sled Dogs conformed to the criteria for point-of-view documentaries, but failed in one aspect - it should have been clearly labelled as such, and it was not - neither in its broadcast nor on the CBC website. Ms. Kleinfeld said she would consider adding it, and I would urge her to do so. I would also ask management to consider language or branding that would clearly delineate the content in the interests of openness, and living up to the policy.

I would observe that this film generated opposition before it aired on the documentary Channel. When it was presented at the Whistler Film Festival, those in the industry voiced their objections. I appreciate your concern for your livelihood and for your belief that the dogs are treated by most operators humanely and with great care. While the documentary does feature cases of abuse, and Ms. Levitt has been vocal in her call for the end of the activity, the film itself is not relentingly negative. There are spokespeople who present another view - including the head veterinarian of the Iditarod race, a former winner of the race and supporters of the sledding operations in Colorado. Both the musher, Patrick Beall, and the kennel owner, Gina Pierce, are presented as genuinely concerned and committed to their animals. The first thing I heard from Ms. Pierce is “I love my dogs.” She is further seen talking about her commitment to them for life, and for doing everything she can to make them happy. Both Ms. Pierce and Mr. Beall are shown tending to and being affectionate toward their animals. The fundamental disagreement is whether having them chained or driven for such long distances in the race is appropriate or not. So, while this is an advocacy piece of work, it does not ignore other perspectives. It also documents some instances of abuse.

You raised a separate question around the methods used to get access to people’s activities. Both Mr. Beall, and by your account, Ms. Pierce, were under the impression that they were participating in a production that would highlight their work and support sled dog activities. I asked Ms. Levitt how she approached people for access. She told me that she informed them there was concern about the industry and that she would like “to follow what you do here.” She wanted to follow a musher and a puppy being trained. She told me she did not characterize it any further than that. It is impossible for me to ascertain the precise language used. I appreciate that everyone you spoke to had a different expectation. There is no precise policy about what a journalist owes a source in this regard. There is some analogous policy that might be useful: Journalists are discouraged from ever misrepresenting who they are - in other words, pretending to be a customer but working as a journalist. CBC policy does allow for the use of certain clandestine methods under particular circumstances. Among them is credible information that there is questionable behaviour, and that by being open, there is almost a likelihood of capturing the activity in question.

As for your specific concerns, I don’t know what you base your assertion on that the dog which died had only been dead 45 minutes, or that Ms. Levitt said it was a heart attack. Ms. Pierce is shown to be clearly distraught, and is heard saying “yeah - he passed away in the night.” There is no mention of a cause of death. Further dialogue indicates that this was likely an older dog, and the film reveals the genuine grief and concern of the owner.

You also thought that the state of affairs at Krabloonik Kennels in Colorado was misrepresented. In fact, all the footage regarding the former owner is clearly dated. The new owners are identified, speak to the changes they have made and current images of the facility are shown. You also mentioned Ms. Levitt asked a question about the previous owner and his conviction, even though the new owners said they didn’t want to talk about it. It may seem unfair, but the couple were working there at the time. While rudeness is to be avoided, journalists are frequently put in a position of having to ask hard questions in the interests of providing information and seeking accountability.

You are concerned that the segment showing dead dogs in Willow, Alaska, is erroneously included and described in the film. There is a trailer with the text you mention, but in the broadcast version the text only states “Willow, Alaska.” They were not identified as sled dogs; nevertheless their presence strongly implies that they were. You challenged that view. Ms. Levitt said the shot was used to illustrate the previous speaker saying that dogs are shot if they don’t make the race. She used these images because the dogs were associated with a breeder in Willow who provided dogs for sledding.

As a dog-sledding operator, I can appreciate your objections to this film. However, CBC journalistic policy does allow for point-of-view documentaries. I would expect its news and current affairs department to continue to monitor this issue and provide a variety of perspectives.

There was one violation of CBC policy - the film was at no time labelled point-of-view, and it should have been. I recommend CBC management develop some standard language and presentation elements to properly identify documentaries of this kind.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman