CBC ombudsman: Is it acceptable to focus on one side of a story?

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

The complainant, Michael Barnard, a blogger and advocate for wind energy, thought a documentary aired on Doc Zone about the problems some people were experiencing living near wind farms was anti-wind and biased. He questioned the choice of researchers interviewed and he thought the documentary makers ignored relevant information that proves wind farms do not cause health problems. The focus was on potential harm from wind farms but it also examined successful wind energy projects where the surrounding population was not reporting the same ill-effects. A documentary that builds on a thesis and focuses on one aspect of a controversy is an acceptable approach.

COMPLAINT

In December of last year, the CBC program Doc Zone aired a documentary entitled Wind Rush. It was a second airing for the piece, which had been originally shown in January of 2013. The documentary focuses on health concerns of some residents living near wind farms. The piece also looks at some of the other challenges, as well as some of the successes, that wind energy enterprises have experienced. Most of the documentary focuses on a community in southern Ontario, but uses wind farms in Alberta, Scotland and Denmark as comparisons to the Ontario experience.


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The documentary puts the case that in the rush to invest in this “green” power technology, government and regulatory agencies did not do sufficient research to first assess what, if any, impacts there could be from these turbines on the health of people living close to wind farms. The producers explain on the Doc Zone website:

WIND RUSH talks to people on either side of the turbine divide, and then turns to scientists to try and determine what has gone wrong. In the next several years the turbines will double in size again—bigger, louder and more powerful. But without sufficient research have the people who live among the wind farms been forgotten?

The documentary features several people in Canada and Denmark who say their health has been compromised by the presence of the wind farms, researchers who provide some explanation, wind farm entrepreneurs, as well as some examples of successful wind enterprises that have not generated much controversy. Its primary focus is exploring the reported health impacts and possible explanation for their occurrence.

You took great exception to this documentary. You went so far as to say that it is “dangerous” because there are studies that show the ill health experienced by people living near wind farms is spread by discussion of the symptoms, and that there are in fact no ill effects proven. You took issue with the experts who were interviewed. You thought that their credentials did not merit their inclusion and that their data and research were specious:

“The documentary suffers from substantive and deep flaws related to inclusion of poorly qualified witnesses, exclusion of qualified witnesses, exclusion of evidence, deceptive comparisons, factual flaws, unidentified bias and deceptive film practices.”

You questioned the validity of a study done by Dr. Michael Nissenbaum, who concluded that people living closest to the Mars Hill Wind Farm in Maine experienced the most ill effects from the turbines. You felt because he was a radiologist, he had no credibility doing noise-related research. You pointed out that other researchers have been critical of this work, and an Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal rejected it as a basis to halt the development of wind farms. You questioned the qualifications of some of the other researchers, and whether the studies they had performed had been peer reviewed.

You thought that there were many researchers who were much more qualified and who had concluded that there were no health effects and who had “deep knowledge of wind energy, transmission and grid management.” You saw their exclusion as evidence of bias. Furthermore, “only three wind farm developers were presented countering health claims, and viewers would be expected to assume that they were both less qualified and biased” than the experts presented. You considered this a deliberate stacking of the deck against wind energy. You thought a further proof of bias was the exclusion of evidence of studies that contradicted the findings of the research featured in the documentary. You thought it was a deliberate decision and further proof of the one-sided approach in this work.

You were also concerned that comparisons of setbacks, or the required distances that turbines must be placed from dwellings, were misrepresented. For example, you felt that the documentary compared the requirements in Alberta and Ontario inappropriately:

“Ontario’s setbacks are compared to Alberta’s setbacks with the claim made that wind farms in Alberta are much further from homes. In fact, required setbacks are much shorter in Alberta than in Ontario in most instances.”

You thought some of the techniques used in the production of the documentary were “deceptive” and designed to heighten the message that “wind farms make people sick.” You thought the documentary greatly exaggerated the number of people who complain of ill effects from living near wind farms.

You were also concerned that the documentary is being used by anti-wind groups. You want the documentary removed from the website and a new documentary that is “balanced” to be aired on Doc Zone.

You are a proponent of wind energy and have a blog called “Barnard on Wind” but your website states that it is a “fully independent site not funded by any organization, whether associated with wind energy or not.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Michael Claydon, the Executive Producer of Doc Zone, replied to your concerns. He said “we stand fully behind the science and journalism in this documentary.” He added that Wind Rush has been nominated in the best science documentary category of the Canadian Screen Awards. He explained that the documentary was not “intended to be the definitive word on wind technologies, nor does it take a stand pro or con regarding wind generated power.” He said that with the growth of wind turbines in suburban and urban areas, health concerns are being raised, and it is appropriate and in the public interest to examine those concerns. He added:

“I understand that you and others who promote wind power have every right to make your views known, and indeed to criticize views that may not correspond to your own.”

He explained that the people the documentary maker chose to speak to were working on “current research” in the field. Although you rejected Dr. Nissenbaum’s qualifications because he is a radiologist, Mr. Claydon pointed out that the study he conducted on a small community in Maine was peer reviewed and published in the journal “Noise and Health.” It was also the most current research available at the time of the production of the documentary. And while it did not halt the development of wind farms in Ontario, as you pointed out, he said it is because of this study and others that both the federal and Ontario provincial government have launched their own studies on the impacts of wind farms.

He defended the credentials of the other experts featured and said that several of the alternative experts you suggested were involved in studies commissioned by wind energy advocacy groups. He also felt that it was not necessary to mention that Dr. Nissenbaum, and Wayne Mabee, another researcher featured in the documentary, were members of the Society for Wind Vigilance, because they are advisory members, “not on the pay roll and the SWV did not fund their research.”

Mr. Claydon responded to your concerns about false comparisons on setbacks. He replied that different regions of Alberta have different requirements, and that it is “largely a moot point in Alberta because there is no need to situate them close to homes.”

He assured you there were no deceptive production techniques used in the making of the feature: “Video treatments were in no way used to misrepresent the operation of wind turbines. For aesthetic reasons, video is often sped up and slowed down, as was the case in this documentary. Furthermore, we were very careful not to alter the sound of any of the wind turbines.”

Finally, he explained that it is difficult to monitor the unauthorized use of material posted on the internet, and it is up to 90th Parallel Productions to monitor and control unauthorized distribution.

REVIEW

Certain issues seem to elicit extremely strong reactions, with little inclination to hear opposing positions. The development of wind energy seems to be one of them. There are deeply held views and passions on either side of the wind energy debate. According to an industry group, the Candian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), wind energy accounts for about 3% of energy output in Canada. There are wind farms in every province and territory, representing a capacity of 7,803 megawatts. It has become a highly divisive issue in communities in southwestern Ontario, and in some maritime provinces as well.

Both sides of the divide invoke evidence, whether anecdotal or more science based. Both the Ontario and federal governments have commissioned in-depth studies. In the meantime, proponents and opponents invoke duelling experts. It no doubt adds to public confusion, and to the challenge in creating sound public policy, that there is disagreement about what is good science. Opponents of whatever conclusion a study reaches question who the peers in the peer-reviewed study were. In the case of the noise created by wind turbines, there can be arguments about how the sound was measured.

The Office of the Ombudsman does not have a mandate to determine what is strong science, and what may not be. It is the job of the Ombudsman to determine if this documentary conformed to CBC’s journalistic standards and practices, and generally accepted practices for good journalism. For example, using peer-reviewed science, even though that system may have its challenges, is generally accepted practice. The documentary makers followed this protocol.

The documentary Wind Rush explores one aspect of the wind debate. It looks at the opposition, particularly in Ontario, based on the complaint of ill health by residents who live near the turbines. It develops a thesis and explores it. This is a valid endeavour. The evidence examined was based on peer-reviewed scientific studies. It raises questions about the way wind farms were introduced into Ontario and points out that there are gaps in research about what is causing some people to experience unpleasant effects. The Health Canada study under way, as well as the Ontario Medical Officer of Health, both cite some of those research gaps.

You may not agree with the conclusions or think there was enough emphasis on opposing views, but the documentary did present evidence that refuted the assertions of scientists and residents who believe there are medically induced health hazards involved in living near turbines. You refer to the scientists and researchers who are featured in the documentary as “witnesses.” This is a piece of journalism that does not necessarily have to reach the bar that a witness in a tribunal or a court of law might have to meet.

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


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