Sorting the Science when the evidence isn’t clear

The complainant, Beth Rawding, disputed the conclusion of a wildlife biologist that a group of caribou had starved to death because their habitat couldn’t sustain them. She said there was no evidence and the narrative was designed to bolster the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s position regarding conservation policy. It comes down to the journalistic decision to report an expert’s interpretation. In this case it was justifiable.

COMPLAINT

You thought an article about the demise of a caribou herd in Labrador, and the reasons given for it, were wrong and misleading. You explained that you have some knowledge of the animals because of your work:

As noted, the article concerns Labrador Caribou, a subject which is of utmost importance to me for various reasons, including the fact that my husband and I have owned and operated Labrador Hunting Safari since 1998. Our primary focus as a Tourist Operator/Outfitter was the George River Caribou Herd (GRCH) however, we kept somewhat abreast of the overall caribou situation in Labrador as a whole.

The article, “What the swift collapse of some Labrador caribou can tell us about endangered species” told of the demise of about 300 animals on George’s Island. They derived from the Mealy Mountain herd, which had threatened species status. That smaller group was first surveyed in 2005, and had disappeared by 2010. The article quotes a biologist and a local Inuit official saying the animals starved to death. They believe the herd would have benefited from a controlled hunt to cull their numbers, but because of their protected status this did not happen. At the time this story was published, there was a public policy discussion going on in Newfoundland and Labrador about designating more herds as endangered species. The minister of Fisheries and Land Resources is quoted as saying the designation creates another level of bureaucracy “which may not necessarily assist in the herd recovery.” It was around this time too that the government renewed a hunting ban.

You challenged the explanation of the disappearance of the George’s Island herd. You said the science and other available information did not back it up. You questioned the motives of the scientist who said that starvation of the herd was the cause of the disappearance. You noted the scientist, Tony Chubbs, was part of the Woodland Recovery Team in 2004, but you question whether he is still associated with it. You could also find no documentation of his discovery that the herd had starved, as he had predicted it would. You said you had never heard of “such an event” and found nothing else online which backed it up. In the course of obtaining government documents in an access to information request, you received a redacted email from Isabelle Schmelzer, a scientist who, according to her LinkedIn profile, worked as a government ecologist until April 2017, and is an expert on caribou. You cited the email to refute Mr. Chubbs’ version of events. Dr. Schmelzer states:

As for those caribou on George's Island? Not ONE emaciated caribou was ever found-but there was at least one wolf on that Island (and several documented kills) and numerous folks in Cartwright saw caribou swim back to shore.

You think the reporter uncritically reported one version of the story, and should have been more diligent. You said CBC News coverage has only supported the position of the provincial government. You are critical of the way the government has handled the whole question of the stewardship and monitoring of the diminishing caribou herds. You believe other voices and perspectives should be heard:

So far, any CBC news coverage of this issue has been to simply reiterate GNL [government of Newfoundland and Labrador] rhetoric, and publish the messages that suits government agendas, such as the article at the center of this correspondence. The truth is, the GNL is protecting industry, not caribou, and they are not taking any of the actions they claim to be, to conserve the herd. There are no protections in place outside of the hunting ban, and with the rejection of the SAR status, it is abundantly clear there is no desire to "recover'' the herd. If the GNL wishes to exploit an iconic natural resource such as our caribou, in favor of resource development such as mining, they should just OWN it, and STOP.LYING.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Nancy Waugh, Managing Editor of CBC Atlantic, replied to your concerns. She told you that this article was part of ongoing coverage leading up to and following the provincial government’s decision not to list two Caribou herds as endangered. She noted that critics of the government decision were interviewed more than once, and cited several articles which provided a range of perspectives from Indigenous communities as well as politicians and conservationists:

In that body of work, there’s clear evidence that editorial leaders were trying to explore a complicated topic from multiple angles. In stories that have run since the government’s decision on endangered status, journalists have included the fact that the decision ran counter to recommendations from Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

I view Ms. White’s February 12 article in the context of the other journalism underway at the time. She independently pursued the story of what happened on George’s Island. She sought comment from multiple sources who she deemed to be credible based on her best journalistic judgement. Those sources argue that regulation failed the herd -- which happens to be the position of the provincial minister. However, I note that Ms White also included an opposing point of view from the wildlife critic for the (opposition) provincial PC party.

She also informed you that the coverage of the issue—what is the best way to conserve and husband the remaining caribous herds—is still ongoing. She cited a story about the status of the George River herd in September as an example. She added that coverage will be ongoing as the debate continues on what appropriate policy and next steps should be.

She also responded to your criticism of the biologist who is quoted in the story stating the herd starved to death. You believe he had another agenda, and that there was no scientific evidence to back up his assertions. Ms. Waugh explained that Mr. Chubbs was one of several sources who had interpreted the disappearance of the herd in this fashion. She stated that Mr. Chubbs has been a source for other stories, and in those instances he was identified as a wildlife biologist. She also stated that it might be useful to add this information to this article so readers would be able to evaluate the information he provided. She reminded you that although the Labrador Woodland Caribou Recovery team has not met in recent years, Mr. Chubbs is a member. Ms. Waugh concluded that there was sound journalistic reason to present Mr. Chubbs’ perspectives on what happened to this particular group of caribou.

REVIEW

Journalists have a duty to verify information. That is a basic tenet of accurate and fair reporting. That obligation has to be understood within the construct of daily journalism. A reporter cannot reasonably be expected to have the same level of knowledge as a research scientist or academic with years of experience and expertise. This poses particular challenges to reporting, especially in science, where equally qualified professionals can look at data and come to different conclusions. The reporter’s duty of care is to let the public know the qualifications of the person making the assessment and, where possible, provide some information to show how the conclusion was reached.

In this case, Ms. White was using a source she had used in the past whose information had been reliable. He had worked directly with the herd in question. He is a wildlife biologist and in 2010 worked for the government of Newfoundland and Labrador in the department now known as Fisheries and Land Resources. Ms. White also talked to the former angajukKak (mayor of the Inuit Community Government) in the community of Rigolet, who had the same view regarding the demise of the herd. She relied on the analysis of an expert, backed up by the views of two others with intimate knowledge of the area. To report their perspective is not a violation of CBC policy.

You do raise an important point though—that it is important to be clear on what the information is based. You have provided two emails you obtained that you believe contradict Mr. Chubbs’ analysis entirely. One is from a scientist also involved with the herd and the other a statement from the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources. While the latter does not endorse Mr. Chubbs’ view, it does not contradict it either. It says in part, “based on this information, the department cannot identify a single cause for the loss of Caribou on George’s Island.” Ms. White also interviewed the Minister, who did not contradict the information she brought to him. I think, on that basis, she cannot be faulted for the level of diligence she brought to this story. It might have been better if it had been clearer that there was a general absence of good data and study, and this was the belief of some of the people who were involved with the herd. It is plausible that a range of factors led to the demise of this particular herd. It would appear this is a complex and not easily solvable matter. The response from the Ministry does not rule out unsustainability as a factor.

You provided a redacted copy of an internal email from another scientist involved in the project, refuting Mr. Chubbs’ assertion. Some of what she was responding to was other things she thought Mr. Chubbs had said in the published story. That is beyond the scope of this review. Dr. Schmelzer wrote an internal memo to colleagues in the Fisheries and Land Resources department, which disagreed with Mr. Chubbs’ conclusions. She did not choose to contact the reporter or engage publicly. I recognize you think Ms. White should have done much more digging to test the contention of what happened to the herd, but once again I would repeat, in the context of daily journalism, she had someone with knowledge and expertise as well as others familiar with the issues and the animals telling her this was a possibility. Journalists are expected to use critical judgement and acquire some background knowledge. It is not reasonable to think they will have technical and deep scientific knowledge. Ms. White and other reporters covering the caribou now know there is more than one view of what caused the demise of the George’s Island herd.

I appreciate you think it is critical to ascertain the real cause of the disappearance of this herd, and you reject the explanation of the scientist quoted in this story. You also believe there has been a lack of information about the state of the George River Caribou herd and its “unprecedented collapse.” You take issue with the way the current government is going about consultation and developing policy to protect and manage the remaining herds. That is the larger context and the basis of some disagreement among professionals, politicians and Indigenous communities. It is important that journalists seek the accountability of the provincial government for its managing of this dwindling wildlife. The story was published at a time when there had been a decision to refrain from designating some herds as endangered. It also coincided with a decision about prolonging a five-year moratorium on hunting, which was a matter of some public debate. On those broader issues, it would appear that CBC News and Current Affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador have provided a range of views and perspectives. The body of work available contradicts assertions that this was some deliberate agenda to promote the views of the provincial government.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman