CBC ombudsman: Can there be harm from the message?

By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The Sunday Edition featured a 30-minute interview with science journalist Robert Whitaker, who has written a book questioning the use of psychiatric drugs. He says there is evidence they often don’t work, they may even make some conditions worse and the whole notion that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain is just a theory. The complainant, Marvin Ross, was concerned that Mr. Whitaker went unchallenged and that his message would cause people who desperately need them to stop taking their medications. CBC policy calls for balance and fairness over time, and it is legitimate to explore one set of ideas. The caveat when vulnerable people might be affected, especially when dealing with health and medical stories, is an important one though.


You were concerned about an interview Sunday Edition host Michael Enright conducted with science journalist Robert Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker is the author of a controversial book entitled Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic bullets, psychiatric drugs and the Astonishing rise of Mental Illness in America. Mr. Whitaker argues that psychiatric drugs, particularly a category of drugs known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are not always the most effective way to treat people with mental illnesses, and that their long-term use may worsen the condition.

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You thought it was wrong to interview a journalist as if he was an expert because the consequences of his position are potentially so dangerous:

“… he is a journalist and not a scientist or medical practitioner and his critique of psychiatry unchallenged can have serious consequences.”

Your concern is that people listening to the interview would be encouraged to go off their medications, with potentially dire consequences. You pointed out that this would violate CBC’s Journalistic policy on health reporting which states:

In matters of human health we will take particular care to avoid arousing unfounded hopes or fears in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses. We will also avoid suggesting unproven benefits or risks to health related to changes in habits of consumption of food or pharmaceutical products.

You thought the interview also violated CBC journalistic policy because it did not provide a diversity of views. You quoted part of the policy that states single point of view content should be labelled as such. You also thought the segment, through Mr. Whitaker’s statements, misrepresented other points of view. As an example you mentioned that a psychiatrist quoted by the author left a comment on The Sunday Edition’s web page that he had been misquoted.


The executive producer of The Sunday Edition, Susan Mahoney, responded to your concerns. She pointed out that a diversity of perspectives does not have to be in one broadcast. She noted two interviews done in the past season that had a different view about the value and efficacy of psychiatric drugs. She added that Mr. Enright quoted one of them in the course of the conversation with Mr. Whitaker. He mentioned that Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon, said he could not “exist without drugs.” She told you that the program also featured a lengthy interview with Scott Stossel, who suffers from anxiety, about his reliance on a range of pharmaceuticals to cope with it. And she added that in this interview Mr. Enright mentioned the work of a psychiatrist who is an advocate for medication.

She also felt that it was clear that this was a single point of view by the very nature of the way Mr. Whitaker was introduced as someone who believes that many people prescribed SSRIs get no benefit from them, and in fact might be harmed.

She did not agree with your concern that a journalist was interviewed when it would be more appropriate to have this discussion with scientists:

“Mr. Whitaker was referring to and summarizing currents of research about the efficacy of psychiatric drugs. It does seem appropriate that as a journalist, his job is to present those findings to a general, lay audience. That is the role of journalists; to disseminate ideas, to initiate and participate in conversations that are in the public interest.”

She rejected your statement that Mr. Whitaker’s conclusions are unfounded statements of opinion, saying they were backed by citations from various scientific studies, or by conversations with individual psychiatrists. She pointed out that the interview did not advocate that people go off their medications, but rather examined Mr. Whitaker’s analysis that psychiatric drugs may not be the best long-term treatment for some conditions. She believed the message was that there should be more care in prescribing them.

She addressed the issue of the psychiatrist, Dr. Ronald Pies, who said he was misquoted. She said that he was accurately quoted as saying that the “chemical imbalance notion” of mental illness was a kind of “urban legend.” She explained that his actual concern was that listeners would think he endorsed people suspending their medication. She cited as an example of fairness and balance that a statement from Dr. Pies was read on the next edition of the program.


One of the issues you raise is that of balance and fairness, core CBC Journalistic values. The policy on balance states:

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.

While you are right that there is essentially only a single point of view in this interview, it does not automatically mean that it has violated the policy. 

To continue reading this review, please go to the CBC ombudsman's website where this was originally published.

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