It was, as they say, deja vu all over again. Ten days after running a Canadian Press wire story on a controversial proposal calling for the slaughter of 143,000 grey seals to see if cod stocks recover in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald ran a second CP story reporting on scientific reaction to the plan.
Once again, it was “duelling banjos” journalism with one side claiming the slaughter was unjustified scientifically and another claiming it was worth a try. But where’s the truth? And when will the Herald or CP try to find it?
The Canadian Press story by Michael MacDonald quoted two Dalhousie University scientists who suggested the proposal for a mass seal slaughter to see if cod stocks recover is driven by politics not science. The most pointed quotes came from Dalhousie professor Hal Whitehead:
“In this part of the world…a substantial part of the population really dislikes seals,” Whitehead said. “Before humans started industrial fishing, there were large populations of seals and of cod. Clearly they can coexist perfectly well…It appears to me that politicians are playing into this largely irrational hatred of seals to make it look like they’re doing something.”
Further down in his story, MacDonald also quoted Wayne Stobo, identified as “a retired researcher with the federal Fisheries Department” who said his 13 years of tracking the rapid growth of the grey seal population on Sable Island “has led him to the conclusion that the proposed cull is worth a try.”
Ten days earlier, the Herald ran a Canadian Press story (also by MacDonald) outlining the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council’s original proposal for an “experiment” in which 70 per cent of the grey seals that feed in the southern Gulf would be killed over a four-year period to see if cod stocks recover.
That story included quotes from Sheryl Fink of the International Fund for Animal Welfare who also called the proposal political not scientific. She added: “From a scientific point of view, this isn’t going to tell us anything about the relationship between seals and cod. It’s dishonest to portray it as an experiment.”
MacDonald’s two stories on the proposed slaughter reflect the professional standards outlined in the The Canadian Press Stylebook. It tells CP reporters to make their stories “fair” by reporting “both sides” of controversial issues and playing them high in the story. MacDonald’s original story on September 16 followed that formula religiously:
An advisory panel is calling on Ottawa to approve a cull that would result in the killing of 70 per cent of the grey seals that feed in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence – a plan derided by one animal welfare group as reckless and irresponsible.
The CP Stylebook also urges reporters to strive for balance: “When an author trashes a celebrity in a book, get comment from the star or his representatives.” Or, in this case, when scientists criticize a proposal to slaughter seals to save cod, get comment from an expert who agrees that the experiment is worth a try.
Pitfalls of “fairness” and “balance”
The Canadian Press is not alone in urging its journalists to strive for “fairness” and “balance.” These standards are routinely taught in journalism school ethics courses and are widely followed throughout the industry. And yes, fairness and balance are desirable — up to a point. After all, who wants reporting that’s unfair and unbalanced?
Part of the rationale for adhering to these standards is that if stories fairly represent “both sides,” readers can decide for themselves which one is right, or at least, closer to the truth. Never mind that there are nearly always more than two sides to controversial questions and that it’s hard for most readers to judge the validity of competing claims.
At their worst, the standards of fairness and balance turn journalists into stenographers who faithfully copy and repeat what “both sides” say. When will the Canadian Press or the Herald investigate the competing claims about killing seals to save the cod stocks? The truth is out there.