CBC ombudsman: The ethics of interviews

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

Ideas broadcast a documentary which explores the impact of internet pornography on young men. Gary Wilson is one of the experts featured in it. His wife, Marnia Robinson, who works with him, wrote to complain that she and her husband had been misled about the areas to be used from the interview.

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

Ideas broadcast a documentary which explores the impact of internet pornography on young men. Gary Wilson is one of the experts featured in it. His wife, Marnia Robinson, who works with him, wrote to complain that she and her husband had been misled about the areas to be used from the interview.

CBC has clear policy about establishing ground rules, and for the use of interviews. After reviewing transcripts and emails I concluded that there was no attempt to mislead and no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You made a complaint on behalf of your husband, Gary Wilson, who was interviewed for an Ideas production entitled “Generation Porn.” You said that the producer of the program misrepresented the purpose of the interview, and what he would ask him. Mr. Wilson has a website called “Your Brain on Porn” which the Ideas program described as a “science based information website that helps young men overcome the effects of excessive porn use.”


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The site also provides information and links to studies that consider internet pornography use as an addiction. This is how the site explains its purpose:

This site will help you understand exactly how today’s extreme Internet porn can alter the brain. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll realize that some primitive circuitry in your brain is just trying to do its job when it pushes you toward porn. And you’ll see how to outsmart it and restore your balance.

This site grew out of a decade of research analysis on the effects of sex on the brain, and six years of listening to recovering porn addicts. There’s a vacuum of critically important information about porn's effects on the brain. It is lost in the gulf that exists between the folks who see porn use as immoral, and the mainstream who sees Internet porn as no different from Dad’s Playboy magazines.

In our view, porn use isn’t a moral issue. Yet, to the human brain, Internet porn is as different from erotic magazines as “World of Warcraft” is from checkers. This has major implications for users' neurochemical balance.

You said Mr. Wilson was clear with the program producer, Hassan Santur, that he did not have the “’right’ credentials to speak on national public radio about addiction, even though his knowledge of it is quite deep because he has been studying it for so many years.” You provided the names of researchers who could speak more authoritatively on porn addiction.

You said Mr. Wilson finally agreed to the interview because Mr. Santur told you and your husband he would “stick to inquiring about what young men today are reporting in terms of porn-related symptoms and their recovery experiences after giving up porn.” You felt it was a betrayal to ask questions about addiction in the course of the hour long interview. And in the representation on air, you felt he was deliberately set up to undermine his credibility:

“When the program aired, the sole segment featuring my husband was my husband's brief comments explaining addiction, in direct contravention of Mr. Santur's promise. Not only that, Mr. Santur went out of his way to point out that we don't have the right credentials to be speaking about such subjects.”

You also felt the documentary lacked balance in its presentation of porn addiction and was “biased reporting.”

The documentary was an examination of the impact of internet pornography and featured the views of a variety of researchers and experts, as well as the experiences of a young man who was a heavy user.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Greg Kelly, the Executive Producer of Ideas, responded to your concerns on behalf of the researcher and presenter of the documentary, Hassan Santur, and the producer, Mary O’Connell. Mr. Kelly had just assumed the leadership of Ideas and was not involved in its production.

Both Ms. O’Connell and Mr. Santur categorically deny there was any sort of deal or understanding about what would be discussed. Ms. O’Connell points out that Mr. Hassan, whom she has worked with many times before, would have shared with her that there were off-limits topics for the interview. She stated that “at no time did Hassan ever come to me and say that there was a guest who wanted to participate in an interview but certain areas would have to be off the record.” Mr. Santur is equally clear:

“I didn’t ‘press’ Gary to be interviewed. He was a willing participant. And there were no rules, boundaries, agreements, hand-shakes about what would be in the interview.”

He understood that Mr. Wilson wanted him to talk to the various neuroscientists and brain researchers he suggested, and in fact he did talk to some of them. But in his editorial judgment for the documentary he had in mind, he decided not to include them. He decided that Mr. Wilson, with his knowledge and experience, could provide the kind of interview he needed, based on their discussions before the formal interview:

“I asked if he believed porn was addictive and his response was an unequivocal yes. Then and only then did I ask him if he would consider doing a one hour-long interview in which he can say that he believes porn to be addictive and give an explanation for why he believes that. He said yes, he can do that…I wanted to know how he got into this debate considering he’s not a researcher or a doctor. I wanted him to share with me a few of the many stories he hears of young men whose lives are ruined because of porn addiction. In short, we agreed to a wide-ranging interview on all aspects of his work onyourbrainonporn.com. I also specifically asked him about his opinion regarding porn’s capacity to be addictive since that was going be the most important aspect of our interview. At no point did I press him or cajole him. And at no point in the hour long pre-interview on the phone did the subject of anything being off the record even come up. I never promised implicitly or explicitly that I was not going ask Gary about porn addiction.”

Ms. O’Connell also notes that the documentary was not actually about porn addiction, but a broader look at porn from a variety of perspectives, and Mr. Wilson’s was one of them.

Finally, as the person responsible for the content of the program and the conduct of its staff, Mr. Kelly offered his assessment. He said he could understand if Mr. Wilson wished his arguments had been more fully represented because “he's passionate about the subject and wants the empirical basis of his arguments, which at times don't find favour with certain scientists, to be taken seriously.” He said he had reviewed the correspondence between Mr. Santur and Mr. Wilson and the transcript of the interview, that he did not think there was any bad faith in Mr. Santur’s approach, and that Mr. Wilson’s views were not “misrepresented.”

REVIEW

The Ideas documentary “Generation Porn” was a one hour examination of the impact of internet pornography on young men. It addresses issues about its ubiquity, and accessibility to younger and younger boys, and its explicit nature. The web site describes the program this way:

“Thirty years ago, a peek at a Playboy or Hustler centrefold was a rite of passage for teenage boys. Today children as young as ten are viewing hard core pornography on smart phones. The ramifications for young men and women are both complex and disturbing. Hassan Ghedi Santur explores the long-term consequences of this burgeoning exposure to pornography.”

The documentary approaches the subject from a variety of perspectives: there are interviews with sociologists, psychologists and sex educators. One participant has started a site for videos of “real life sex” as a healthier alternative to porn sites. Another voice is of a young man reflecting on his conflicted relationship to pornography and the impact it has had on his sexuality and relationships. Mr. Wilson’s role is described on the documentary’s website as “The host ofYourbrainonporn.com, a science-based information website that helps young men overcome the negative effects of excessive porn use.”

CBC journalistic values of balance and fairness call for a variety of perspectives or points of view on matters of controversy. The goal is to present information so that citizens can inform themselves on issues of importance and form their own opinions and conclusions. The value of fairness calls for “even-handed” treatment. 

To continue reading this column, please visit ombudsman.cbc.radio-canada.ca, where it was originally published.


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