The complainant, Jack Locke, thought that a story on the World at Six took sides in a running controversy over adding fluoride to drinking water. As a long-time opponent of fluoridation, he found that hard to swallow.
You found fault with a radio story which ran on the January 23rd edition of The World at Six.
The story, by CBC health reporter Vik Adophia, concerned a recent decision by Windsor, Ontario to reintroduce fluoride to its water supply. The city had stopped fluoridation five years earlier, but reversed course after experiencing a spike in the rate of tooth decay among local children. You called the World at Six coverage biased and inaccurate, raising two specific objections.
First was the way the program introduced the report, in particular a sentence reading “Fluoridation is backed by scientific consensus, and public health agencies.”
You said that was untrue:
The second objection was to remarks in the story made by McGill University chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz. Dr. Schwarcz stated there is “overwhelming evidence” that fluoridation reduces cavities, and suggested that opposition to the practice often reflects a lack of scientific literacy.
You argued that Dr. Schwarcz is not an expert on water fluoridation, and he should have known that there are credible voices on the other side:
Mark Harrison, Executive Producer of CBC’s Health, Science and Technology Unit, responded to your complaint and defended the coverage.
He felt that it was fair to assert that there is a consensus on the benefit and safety of fluoridating water, considering all the reliable studies and reviews published on the matter:
The first, and most recent, is from the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health (CADTH), which is an arms-length agency funded by provincial governments to evaluate the evidence behind drugs, technology and other health interventions. Its 400 page review of community water fluoridation research supports our statements in the story.
The Cochrane Library, which does not accept commercial or conflicted funding, is considered the gold standard of systematic reviews. In examining what effect added fluoride had on preventing tooth decay and dental fluorosis, the reviewers concluded it was effective at reducing tooth decay in children. The risk of moderate fluorosis was present in children, albeit slight, where fluoride levels were higher than current levels of most municipal fluoridated water. This is not a factor in Canada.
We also examined research and recommendations by the Health Canada Fluoride Expert Panel , the World Health Organisation, US Centres for Disease Control, and the Canadian Dental Association, the federal and provincial dental directors, which all recommend municipal water fluoridation at particular levels.
Mr. Harrison defended the use of Dr. Schwarcz in the story, saying he addressed “the broader context of attitudes towards the chemicals that are part of our lives.” He also pointed out that the story included remarks from the mayor of Windsor, who has been an opponent of fluoridation.
More broadly, Mr. Harrison disagreed that the story’s emphasis on the existence of a scientific consensus meant it was biased:
Your complaint called to mind several of CBC’s key journalistic principles.
The first is accuracy. Here is how that is defined in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:
Another principle is that coverage should be balanced. Mr. Harrison quotes briefly from that section of the JSP in his response. Here is a fuller excerpt:
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.
A third core principle is impartiality, as there is no disputing that adding fluoride to the water supply continues to be a matter of public controversy.
Now, let’s consider the sentence in the introduction that concerned you: “Fluoridation is backed by scientific consensus, and public health agencies.”
Mr. Harrison’s response laid out an extensive set of studies and health agencies which support the idea that fluoridation is beneficial. You assert, correctly, that there remain scientists who have another point of view, and so you believe it is inaccurate to say there is a “consensus.”
I do not agree that “consensus” presumes unanimity in this context. If unanimity were the test, I suspect the phrase “scientific consensus” would have to be thrown out altogether. There will always be people to challenge the scientific status quo, which is a good thing – because at some point, with enough evidence, the consensus may change. However, all CBC News did here was acknowledge a reality that the current collective understanding of the science around fluoridation is that it is a net benefit. To say otherwise would be untrue. In my judgment, therefore, the statement in the introduction is accurate.
To an extent, the judgment on accuracy helps inform the second principle of balance. Mr. Harrison said that giving equal airtime to the argument against fluoridation would have created a false balance for the audience. I take his point to heart; if there is indeed a scientific consensus, treating the two points of view as equal could be misleading – at least in the context of this particular story. I say that because this was a story from CBC’s Health Unit, looking at the issue of fluoridation through a particular prism. Other stories have different purposes, and require a different approach to balance. I would expect, for instance, that CBC Windsor’s coverage of the debate over fluoridation at city council would reflect the various points of view more methodically. I went back to look at the coverage done the day of Windsor’s vote and found that such balance existed – there was roughly equivalent amount of space devoted to both opponents and proponents of fluoridation, and it was important to have done so.
That two different stories on ostensibly the same subject could have different requirements for achieving balance is something that may not be obvious to the general public, but it is a core reason why the JSP speaks about balance “over a reasonable period of time”. In a single story or program it is not always possible – or reasonable – to include every voice and every perspective on an issue, so assessing whether CBC is living up to its obligations requires taking a broader look. It’s important to note that this is not a “get out of jail free” card for journalists; they have to consider what context, and which voices, are necessary for each individual story.
One of the voices in the World at Six story was Joe Schwarcz. You felt his inclusion was inappropriate because he was not an expert on fluoridation. I found his perspective to be an interesting one. Schwarcz is Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society, which according to its website “answers queries from the public and the media on scientific matters with a view towards separating fact from fiction.” There was no violation of journalistic policy in using him as a commentator on the state of the public debate, and it did not distort the balance of the story.
While I believe unequivocally that this story adheres to the JSP’s notions of accuracy and balance, I have one minor concern as it applies to the third principle, impartiality.
Recall the final sentence of the JSP’s description: “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” Then consider this passage within the radio story:
“After decades of debate and research..the science on fluoride should be settled.
Even a recent Canadian review of dozens of major studies concluded water fluoridation is safe at the current recommended levels.
There are no serious health risks – and low-income children have the most to benefit.”
There is a difference between saying there’s a scientific consensus on fluoridation and declaring that one side is correct. The wording used here leaves it unclear which of those two points Mr. Adhopia is making. That ambiguity is unfortunate.
What’s noteworthy to me is that Mr. Adhopia did a version of this same story for television, and it aired on The National. It is approximately 20 minutes into the video at that link.
Here the language is more precise and, to my eyes, unassailable in terms of journalistic policy. I’ll cite one passage as an example:
In the above passage it is crystal clear that Mr. Adhopia was attributing views to the scientists who analysed dozens of studies, so there was no reason to question whether he had adopted a point of view on the debate over fluoridation.
Given that this was the same story told by the same reporter on the same day, I’m prepared to accept that there was no intent to take sides on the matter in the World at Six story. As a result, I conclude that – despite the instance of ambiguous language – there was no violation of policy. However, I remind CBC programmers how rigorous their system of editorial checks and balances must be, because just one errant word here or there can undermine a lot of good work.
*Original online at https://cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/ombudsman/reviews/fuss-over-fluoride