Presumptions and Polar Bears

The complainant, Keith Harrison, thought The National made presumptions about a link between climate change and the health of the polar bear population. He added that CBC has a biased approach to climate change more generally. Does the commitment to balanced coverage mean journalists should be questioning climate science more regularly?

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about two stories relating to polar bears which aired on The National on December 3rd, 2018.

In one, reporter Duncan McCue followed a biologist as he tracked the health of polar bears near Churchill, Manitoba. In the other, Jordan Konek reported from Arviat, Nunavut, on the challenges created by polar bears coming into their community.

You felt the pair of stories was misleading, in part because of the introduction to both stories by host Andrew Chang. You wrote:

“This viewer, given the opening presenter remarks. was left with the view these polar bears of the western Hudson's Bay were in dire straits due to a lack of food. Of course, filming was done when there was no ice with comments the bears had to come ashore and find food in human garbage dumps or attack and eat the locals. And of course, the hunger and lack of ice is due to global warming, if not said certainly implied.

They showed a reporter with a biologist where they checked on two bears one with good fat and one with less. There were comments that this group of Churchill bears has a lower population than some time ago. Nothing concrete on the cause of the decline, but remember the preface remarks which set the scene of global warming. Quite deceitful in my opinion.”

You noted that Mr. Konek’s story, which dwelled on the danger posed to residents of Arviat by polar bears, would suggest that the population of polar bears is thriving, not declining.

You provided a link to the website of a researcher who suggests that scientists have concealed the population growth of polar bears, and you argued that the presentation of these stories reflected a larger pattern of bias when it comes to coverage of climate change:

“They have many pieces on this subject but one never hears another view that may not support the opinion of the producers. Bias confirmation seems to reign.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Executive Producer Daniel Getz replied to your complaint.

He took issue with your critique that the coverage included “nothing concrete” on the cause of the decline in the polar bear population:

“...as Mr. McCue pointed out, the polar bears of Hudson Bay are spending longer on land than they did nearly four decades ago. Mr. McCue further noted that the Environment Canada biologist in his story, Nick Lunn, has correlated steady declines in polar bear weight and population numbers to rising global temperatures which have resulted in shorter periods of sea ice in Hudson Bay.”

He said the juxtaposition of the two stories gave viewers broader context, adding that the prevalence of bears in Arviat does not necessarily conflict with the biologist’s findings that the population is struggling:

As the biologist in Mr. McCue’s story pointed out, more and more bears are coming closer to humans when there is less sea ice because they are hungry.”

He acknowledged that Mr. McCue’s report had an error when the reporter said that scientists had not observed a polar bear giving birth to triplets since 1996. The reality is that there have been triplet births observed in the spring - but no females with triplets have been seen in the fall. “This suggests,” he wrote, “the cubs and/or the mothers do not have enough weight to help a full litter survive the summer.”

On the broader question you raised about balance and bias, Mr. Getz pointed to how CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices describes “balance” in its journalism:

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.

He suggested that there is such a strong scientific consensus on climate change that its existence as a problem is not an “issue of controversy”:

“Thus, CBC’s obligation to seek out balance in its climate change reporting may include exploring nuance on what findings mean or what should be done in the face of climate change and its effects. However, there is no requirement to include the perspectives of those who deny the existence of climate change.”

You wrote back that this section of Mr. Getz’ response “took you aback,” adding this:

“It would appear his views as expressed either from some written or unwritten CBC policy and attitude toward the fair balance of reporting climate science, the full science not just that which supports his take on the "mainstream scientific consensus." A policy or attitude as expressed could be construed as slanting the company's reporting on climate change issues.”

REVIEW

I agree with Mr. Getz that airing these two stories sequentially on the same edition of The National provided viewers with broader context than either report could have on its own. Mr. McCue’s story exposed us to the scientific approach, with a view of the health of the polar bear population. Mr. Konek’s story - broadcast in Inuktitut with English subtitles - highlighted the real threat polar bears pose to Canadians who live in their midst, and the very different perspective that residents of Arviat appear to have from the authorities who make decisions affecting their lives.

In that sense, this package lives up to Mr. Getz’ analysis of what “balance” means. It allows the audience to see that the issue is complicated, with real-world effects that are not easy to paint with one brush.

Your question, though, is essentially whether that analysis is sufficient. If you’ll allow me to re-frame your critique, you seem to be asking: shouldn’t real journalistic balance mean a refusal to accept conventional wisdom, and instead challenge any and all assumptions so that it is clear what is indisputably, factually true, versus what might still be up for debate? In other words, if there are scientists who challenge the majority view on polar bear populations or the impact of climate change, shouldn’t CBC be airing those views as well?

The answer is: not always, and likely not often. That may sound counterintuitive to you, so allow me to explain how I drew that conclusion.

Once again, here is the key sentence in the JSP’s description of balance:

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.

Why would journalists be concerned about “relevance”, or how widely-held certain viewpoints are? Because doing so helps to ensure their work is of use to the audience.

Consider this: whatever proposition you want to put forward, journalists can always find people who will argue the converse. There are times where that difference of opinion is a key part of the story. It is important to air multiple points of view so that people can judge the various arguments and decide for themselves which are most credible.

There are other times, though, where showcasing every possible viewpoint equally makes less sense, where rushing to include contrary views serves to obscure a story, rather than illuminate it. I am sure you are familiar with the expression “weighing the evidence” - not everything merits the same weight, and journalists need to keep that in mind. Otherwise, they draw up a false, or unjustified, equivalence between two points of view.

The broad consensus of people who have studied polar bears and have reason to know the subject well have concluded that populations are declining, or have observed correlations between that trend and a warming climate. Are these universal views? Based on your complaint, clearly not. However, there are so many credible scientists and scientific organizations that feel this way, that it was reasonable for Mr. McCue to include the view without inserting a converse argument. That is not bias on display. Rather, it is the reporter’s job to synthesize the information at hand and decide what is most relevant. In this case, his story was meant to let people see how the polar bear research happens, and on what basis the researchers draw their conclusions. In my view, the story accomplished this perfectly well.

Will there be other times where it could be relevant, or even critical, to include the voice of someone challenging the scientific consensus on climate change? Absolutely - and when such stories come along, CBC journalists are expected to engage respectfully and to put these views in the appropriate context. This, however, was not one of those times.

Nevertheless, I am disappointed by one aspect of CBC’s response. Mr. Getz acknowledged that Mr. McCue’s story included a mistake by reporting that no polar bears in the area had given birth to triplets since 1996. This is not the type of error which undermines the broader coverage, but it is an error of detail significant enough to affect how the viewer interprets the information they’ve heard.

In such cases, CBC policy is that there should be a correction. The JSP gives programmers some leeway in deciding where the appropriate place is to correct the record. I would note that Mr. McCue’s story still exists for viewing online here, and The National from that night can be found on YouTube. Issuing a correction in the appropriate place(s) would go far in living up to the values of accuracy and transparency.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson