What we mean by Balance.

The complainant, Marcus Schluschen, objected to the lack of detail about a syndrome called EHS (Electromagnetic hypersensitivity) in the context of a CBC News online article about a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling that there was not sufficient proof such a thing can be caused by exposure to wireless devices. This was the rendering of a verdict and not an examination of the ongoing scientific disagreement about the issue. CBC was not obliged in this context to refute the findings of a tribunal, and the topic has been covered elsewhere on its platforms.

COMPLAINT

You thought an article about the decision of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal was biased and lacked journalistic rigour. The Tribunal dismissed a complaint brought by a family against the Saanich School district on behalf of their son. They wanted his Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS) recognized as a disability and to have 25% of his school designated a Wi-Fi free zone. You said the story was “not well researched and devoid of journalistic balance.” You stated that a federal parliamentary committee, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health (HESA), expressed “deep concerns” about the dangers of wireless technologies and strongly recommended a range of actions to deal with potential dangers and the prevalence of EHS. You thought the article should have provided information about those dangers as a balance to the decision of the Tribunal, which was, in part, that there was no scientific link to support the family’s claim. You considered the article a “hatchet job” which denied the hazards of the profusion of wireless technologies. You said “EHS is a natural biological response of the body to an unnatural environment.”

You also alleged that the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal was influenced by the wireless industry because the lawyer who dealt with the case used to be a partner at a law firm that represented wireless companies. You suggested CBC News look into this conflict of interest.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Treena Wood, News Director for CBC British Columbia, responded to your concerns. She explained that this story had a narrow focus - and that it was a simple report on what the Tribunal had ruled. The reporter had not been assigned to investigate all the facts in this particular case. Ms. Wood explained the context:

For better or worse, we invest in tribunals to determine facts and findings in various disputes, and reporting on the results is a form of responsible journalism, much the same as reporting on a judgement in a court case or a ruling from a parole board. You may not agree with the decision, but in the context of the Tribunal ruling and the member's comments, we reported the situation accurately.

She acknowledged the debate about the impact of wireless technologies on human health is a vigorous one, and that there would be a desire to explore that debate further to attempt to reach “a more complete version of the truth” - but that was not the task in this case. She told you if at some future time the news team chooses to look more deeply into the issue or the interests of wireless technology companies, it will involve talking to and considering a wide range of perspectives.

REVIEW

In judging the issue of balance and accuracy in this case it is important to consider the focus and context. As Ms. Wood pointed out to you, this was a modest account of a Tribunal decision, the report of a verdict - albeit involving a controversial matter. In that context, it is important to ensure the judgment is accurately represented. It was essentially the report of a verdict. In this case, the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal was reported, as was the position of the family, along with the basis for their complaint. You would have preferred that the article go on to address some of the issues and refute the tribunal, but that was beyond its scope. The judgment itself did have some nuance. For example, that the Tribunal must balance the competing interests of other students and staff with special needs who require a sound amplification system that the family said affected the student with EHS. The reporter chose a very narrow focus. The story does reference the family’s case and their belief in the harm caused to the student referred to as “T.”

As Ms. Wood observed, the issue of the legitimacy of EHS remains contentious. There is certainly no scientific consensus on its causes, treatment or the overall dangers of various kinds of radio frequency and electromagnetic radiation. On the basis of the evidence available to it, the Tribunal rejected the family’s position. Had this story been an examination of any of these issues, you would be right to expect a much more thorough reference to the research and the evidence on either side. The story was not about the potential dangers of wireless technologies, so it is not reasonable to expect that the standing committee's recommendations would be mentioned. A single story does not carry the burden of balance and fairness for a complex and contentious issue. I note, for example, that the CBC radio programme Out in the Open featured a segment on people who had radically altered their lives because of their sensitivities. In 2017, Marketplace broadcast a programme on cell phone safety. A quick survey yields a range of stories across platforms on the impact of cellphones on the human body, a report on Alberta parents debating the safety of Wi-Fi, as well as coverage of the parliamentary committee’s recommendations which you referenced.

I appreciate your concern and passion about this issue, and your strong objection to the Tribunal decision. The story rendered that decision and left it at that level. Getting at the truth and presenting various views and perspectives is an iterative process. There are ample examples of CBC News and Current Affairs coverage on EHS and the concerns about wireless technologies to uphold CBC News’ journalistic policy to provide balance over a reasonable period of time.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman