This morning, CBC Ottawa posted a story about how mistletoe extract helped a woman with stage four colon cancer, backed up with quotes from a naturopath, with only the most perfunctorily added disclaimer from the American Cancer Society that such claims are unsupported. The story bothered me so much that I filed the following complaint with the CBC’s Ombudsman:
I believe that the story, “Ottawa woman says mistletoe helped with her cancer recovery,” posted to CBCNews.ca on 27 January 2015 at 5:30 AM, is in violation of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.
Those standards and practices say that “[i]n 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.”
The story is about a woman with stage four colon cancer who believes that mistletoe extract has helped her treatment and a naturopathic “doctor” who advocates it. The story does mention that “[m]istletoe is not recognized by North American medical associations and the American Cancer Society has said that ‘available evidence from well-designed clinical trials does not support claims that mistletoe can improve length or quality of life,’” but that’s also true of any number of unproven alternative treatments.
One could say the same about anything — “Thunder Bay man convinced that chiropractic has cured his eczema” is not sufficiently counterweighted by a disclaimer from, say, the National Eczema Association. Absent a real news angle — and as a former reporter I know something about that — a story like this should have been spiked. One simply does not expect the CBC to publish such stories.
More to the point, it’s CBC policy not to suggest benefits from unproven treatments. Mistletoe is unproven: the ACS says so. It’s CBC policy not to arouse “unfounded hopes … in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses.” It’s stage four colon cancer. Stage four cancer is metastatic cancer. It’s extremely bad news.
To be perfectly frank, one of the reasons for my writing, and for my being incensed with the story, is because I have just finished nursing my spouse through cancer treatment. I know full well how fraught cancer treatment can be. To publish a story like this is profoundly irresponsible, emotionally manipulative, a disservice to public health and the public interest, and [to] the CBC’s own reputation — at least what’s left of it. [links added]
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of response I get.