CBC ombudsman: The fiction of race

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

The complainant, Chris Edwards, thought an Ideas exploration of the notions of race and identity violated CBC policy of balance and did not provide a wide enough range of views on an important issue. The panel was a follow up of the 2013 Massey Lectures delivered by Lawrence Hill. The panelists explored race and identity and accepted the scientific consensus that race has no biological diversity.

Mr. Edwards thought that this conclusion is a matter of opinion and a case for biologically determined race should have been made. But not all ideas are equal and balance is not about false equivalence. The scientific consensus renders other views marginal, and need not be mentioned, although the program effectively did review historical understanding of race and the scientific assumptions behind it.

COMPLAINT

As a follow up to the 2013 Massey Lectures, delivered by author Lawrence Hill, Ideas convened a panel to discuss notions of race and identity. The December 4, 2013 broadcast was entitled “Is Race a Fiction?” This built on Hill’s reflections on the significance of blood, in the course of the five lectures, entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life, in which he explored the “scientific and social history of blood” as it relates to issues of race and gender and identity.


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It was the latter the panelists were asked to pick up on. The discussion was based largely on their own experiences but it started with the premise that there is scientific consensus that there is no biological basis for a definition of race. You found this unacceptable. You believe that it is merely one opinion, and because other views were not represented the Ideas episode violated CBCJournalistic Standards and Practices:

“Rather than present a balanced argument showing support for and against the biological existence of race, the CBC demonstrated a clear editorial slant in support of one side only. Rather than ‘contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest’, the CBC provided a forum for one ideological side to proselytize a narrow view.”

You felt that the Ideas episode did not live up to its commitment to present a range of opinions on a matter of public interest. The only attempt at balance was the use of a clip of the late Philip Rushton, who speaks about IQ and race. But you felt this also failed because “this was not an attempt to be balanced. It was prefaced and given a disclaimer aimed at discrediting all scientific inquiry into racial uniqueness, past, present, and future.”

When you received an answer from the Ideas producers, you cited various studies and articles that back up your point of view that there are indeed racial differences. One example you cite is that “Medical research is finding susceptibility and immunity to certain maladies differs across races (melanoma cancer in whites, for example, or sickle cell in sub-Saharan blacks).”

You stated that there is a great deal of research and a “growing scientific and philosophic community dedicated to studying human biodiversity.” Because of this, you think it “a disservice to Canadians for the CBC to be an agent in a culture war which certain participants use censorship to squelch real diversity of opinion.” You cite traits associated with certain groups as proof of existence of race. “Race may be nebulous and definitions arguable, but its use cannot be denied. Furthermore, you think that CBC is “glaringly schizophrenic to glorify racial diversity…while denying its existence.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The producer of the segment “Is Race a Fiction?” responded to your complaint on behalf of Greg Kelly, the Executive Producer of Ideas. He said that there is scientific support for the notion that there is no such thing “identifiable as race”:

“However, the proposition that there is something identifiable as ‘race’ is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of science. This proposition, that race is a marker of human distinctiveness, is now provable, and it’s been proven to be wrong. Blumenbach's 18th century formulation of five distinct races has been thoroughly discredited by modern science. Specifically, recent DNA research reveals, as the programme pointed out, that human beings share 99.9% of the same DNA. We are all, in effect, a ‘soup’, with our genes inextricably blended together from millennia of miscegenation.

There seem to be distinct blood groups among humans, but that's about it: we humans are one species. Unlike most other species, there are no sub-species of modern Homo Sapiens. By extension, we are one race: all humans have a common ancestor originating from Africa, and any superficial differences are due to adaptation to the environment, not to race. On this point, there is general scientific consensus. Outside of certain genetic characteristics like skin colour, hair type, and so forth, there seem to be no fundamental physical differences across human groups.”

He concluded by saying that since there is overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, the program was not “obliged…to report on various arguments in support of what now are discredited notions of race.”

REVIEW

You correctly expected CBC news and current affairs to live up to its stated mission and goals laid out in its Journalistic Standards and Practices. You felt that this broadcast failed to “contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest,” and did not reflect the views of all Canadians because all the panelists supported the “opinion” that science has rejected a concept of race and racial difference.

The commitment to reflection of a wide range of views of all Canadians also must be understood within the context of the Journalistic Standards and Practices commitment to fairness, accuracy and impartiality. It is not a commitment to merely providing a platform for any and all thoughts. There is not an equivalence to every idea or opinion. In fact, frequently news organizations and journalists are criticized for a kind of mindless “he said, she said” approach when clearly the arguments or positions are not equally weighted.

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


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