How to Name a Naturopath

The complainant, Edward Melcher, thought an opinion column regarding naturopaths was out of line. I disagreed, but it sparked an interesting conversation about future coverage.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a perceived conflict of interest by the author of a column published November 5, 2018 in CBC’s online Opinion section. The article, headlined: Why can naturopaths mislead the public about their credentials? Because no one bothers to stop them, was written by family physician Michelle Cohen. In it, Dr. Cohen expressed the view that it’s wrong for some naturopaths to refer to themselves as “physicians” or “medical practitioners.” She argued that these terms might mislead patients and compromise their safety. She also suggested that provincial regulators and health ministries are not taking the issue seriously enough.

You acknowledge that the author of an opinion column can express their own views. However, you said that as a medical doctor, Michelle Cohen stands to gain financially from this argument, which makes it “morally and unethical to promote this on a news website.” You also wrote, “This op ed is borderline slander,” and suggested that CBC News has published many articles that are unfair to naturopaths.

In follow-up correspondence you added the column neglected to include that there are several provinces in which it is legally allowed to be called a “Naturopathic Doctor”. In addition, you criticized the fact that there was no counter-argument that included the view of naturopaths. “Naturopathic doctors are very good at what they do and are a value to citizens of Canada,” you wrote.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, replied on behalf of CBC. He described Dr. Cohen’s credentials as both a family physician and a teacher in the faculty of medicine at Queen’s University. He noted that she has often published her views on health care.

He also defended the value of Dr. Cohen’s column, saying the question of whether naturopaths could advertise themselves as “medically trained” was before the courts in New Brunswick at that moment in time. He disputed your assertion that the article was dismissive of naturopathy, arguing it was much narrower in scope:

“What she says is that naturopaths spend years studying and should stand on their own as health practitioners and not imply that they are medical doctors. “’Dentistry’ and ‘nursing’ are clear and unambiguous ways to describe one’s background”, she wrote at one point in the column, “so too should ’naturopathy’ be a sufficient descriptor.” “Patients need straightforward information about their providers,” she added, which pretty much sums up her point.”

Mr. Hambleton disagreed that there has been any bias in CBC’s coverage of naturopathic practitioners. However, he concluded by saying, “it is accurate to say that many Canadians have great faith in the advice and treatments they offer…that’s something we might better acknowledge in our stories going forward.”

REVIEW

I can dispense rather quickly with the question of Dr. Cohen being in a position of conflict. She is not a journalist, but rather a member of the public. There is no reason why she cannot present her opinion, provided that it is labelled and identified as such.

The obligation on CBC in such circumstances is to give the audience the information it needs to judge the credibility of the writer’s argument. The Journalistic Standards and Practices says:

It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person’s perspective.

Sure enough, there is a short biography at the bottom of the column that describes her in this way:

Dr. Michelle Cohen is a family physician in Brighton, Ont., and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen's University. She typically blogs about health care and medical politics at Huffington Post.

You drew a conclusion that her point of view had less merit in this instance precisely because she is a medical doctor. Others are free to draw their own conclusions, as well. I have no issue with how CBC presented this column.

I agree with Mr. Hambleton’s description of the column’s content. It does not disparage the practice of naturopathic care other than in how it is described to the public. My own takeaway after reading it was that her main critiques were aimed more at governments and regulators than at naturopaths or their patients.

Your point that there are several provinces in which it is legal to refer to yourself as a “Naturopathic Doctor” is a very valid one - its inclusion would have made the column stronger and more comprehensive. Its absence, however, does not negate the column’s central theme. There was no violation of CBC policy here.

I was intrigued by Mr. Hambleton’s understated remark that CBC “might better acknowledge” how many Canadians find value in naturopathic care. So I asked him what he meant. He told me it’s his sense that CBC could do a better job of explaining what naturopaths do, and acknowledging their role in the field of health care. In other words, to do something beyond mentioning them only when there is a controversy of some kind. I have little doubt that this would be welcome in many quarters, and encourage CBC to follow through.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson