Subject: Kristin Nelson’s documentary “Beauty and the Beast, aired on The Current, December 21, 2010
A regular radio listener, I value the CBC as a source of news and informed commentary. Yet, on the topic of wind energy development, CBC has not kept up to date: It continues to misrepresent the concerns mounting in Ontario and worldwide. An appalling example was broadcast December 21 on The Current.
Kristin Nelson’s documentary on Wolfe Island, “Beauty and the Beast,” is a seriously flawed piece of journalism. The bias is evident in the selection and omission of material, lack of context, lack of balance in the presentation, the narrator’s selective emphasis, ageism and gender stereotyping, use of repetition in the recordings, the background sound, and even the title.
Selection and Omission
The narrator states at the outset that the documentary is about the costs and benefits of wind development. It then cites facts about the amount of electricity produced, financial payments to hosting landowners, and an amenities agreement with the municipality. It cites no facts about the issues of noise and health, bird mortality, or property values.
Lack of Context
A number of statements are made as if they are accepted facts and not matters in dispute:
- Even if the wind project produces 594,000 MWH of electricity, how much of it is actually used?
- Even if there is sometimes enough electricity to provide for Kingston’s 100,000 residents, how often does the project meet Kingston’s needs?
- If the average wholesale cost of power is typically 4-5 cents per kwh, why is the province’s paying 13.5 cents for wind power described as “a little bit more”?
- Why is it not explained that due to the Green Energy Act communities can no longer negotiate an amenities agreement like Wolfe Island’s?
- Why are the World Health Organization’s guidelines for noise quoted selectively and nothing mentioned about the recommended residential setbacks?
- How does wind development meet Ontario’s need for power when it supplies most power (on a winter night) when least needed and little to no power (on an August day) when most needed?
- How does fluctuating wind power replace scalable power from coal plants and therefore enable closure of the latter?
- If the wind operator TransAlta acknowledges bird collisions, what is it doing about the number of deaths exceeding the predicted mortality, as reported when each turbine killed an average of 7 birds in July-December 2009?
- What was the wind speed and how far away from the turbines was the reporter standing when she said she could “hear a little bit of the sound”?
Lack of balance in the presentation
The documentary presents an equivalent number of pro and con speakers, but it seldom leads to a dialogue because each side focuses, except for bird mortality, on a different set of issues.
The pro side is preoccupied with economics and Ontario’s electrical supply:
- Baines: “We need energy to run our society”; wind is a “new and better way”; “Kingston needs the power”; the project evolved to 86 turbines because of the grid capacity and the Ontario government’s desire for a “reasonable size”; “What’s wrong with industry?”; the next generation will accept it.
- Pike: Wind turbines “help farmers”; turbines are beautiful; geese fly around the turbines, and “I have yet to see any birds on the ground”.
- Unnamed councillor: He liked “the economic benefits” for the island.
The con side deals with social disharmony and personal discontent, though the latter is rarely clarified:
- Gail Kenney: She objected to no community input into turbine sitings and numbers; the project destroys the environment through bird collisions; the turbines “feel like they are invading your home” (through shadow flicker); she reported “hard feelings in husband’s family” (because of two members participating in the project); it’s “hard to get past the anger”; “feeling it’s not fair”.
- Janet White: From a rural island it’s become “almost a factory of wind turbines”; she thought the project would provide energy for the island; she has lost “use and enjoyment of 110 acres”.
- Sarah McDermott: She stressed that the project was not about “community or sustainable energy”; she felt “shunned” and was “phobic about going out in public” because of her dissent; she now tries to get away from the island as much as possible.
The most important flaw, however, is that there is little balancing of opinions. Did the interviewees never express opinions about the other side’s views, or were they never asked?
Narrator’s Selective Emphasis
The reporter’s narration contains half-truths (as identified under Lack of Context), but it also gives emphasis to the opinions of the pro side. The narrator confirms twice the view that project opponents are “a small minority”. She interprets Jason Pike’s words, saying that “turbines are just part of his farm,” that turbines are “a thing of beauty,” and that she could see geese avoiding the turbines. But the narrator never makes any confirming statements of con speakers’ thoughts. The absence implies that she did not accept their views.
Gender and Age Bias
The documentary also contains two obvious instances of social bias. Gender bias is evident in the selection of speakers and the reported content. All the men are pro development; the women, con. Stereotypically, men talk about money, while women discuss their feelings.
Moreover, the program also has an age bias. On Wolfe Island perhaps it may be true that the majority of young people support the wind project while the opponents are 50 years or older. But it is simplistic to suggest that the difference is due to older people’s dislike of change. For one thing, the social marketing of wind energy has affected a whole generation. Yet the last words of the documentary reduce the dispute to generational conflict.
Repetition in Sound Recordings
Ageism carries over into the program’s sound mix. The documentary repeats statements by several speakers but only one is repeated probably half a dozen times: “Turbines don’t make good neighbours”. This tag might have been useful if it introduced a series of arguments. Instead, it becomes a pathetic refrain which demeans the principal con speaker, Gail Kenney, who is made to sound like a querulous old woman.
The choice of background sound is also inappropriate. Since the effect of wind turbine noise is much in dispute, a listener might have expected to hear a swooshing sound, not wind chimes, as a transitional device. The repeated chiming didn’t just trivialize the noise issue but made it a mockery.
The same trivialization can be seen in the title. “Beauty and the Beast” recalls a fairytale and implies that the Wolfe Island story is of similar importance. It also implicitly affirms the ending of the program, when wind developer Ian Baines opines that the next generation will accept wind turbines. Like the fairytale Beast, the wind turbine will be transformed into a good family member. What a preposterous and childish analogy!
The Current’s “Beauty and the Beast” is, indeed, a strange tale; however, it is not a clever and enduring a piece of work. It pretends to be a serious documentary exploring the divisions within a community, but it never delves beneath the surface. At the same time it serves up a collection of disputable “facts” and misleading information. Perhaps all of this is due to journalistic incompetence, but the damage to the public’s understanding of controversial matters is no less grave.
The CBC should act quickly to redress the harm by
(1) publicly admitting to the faults of the program,
(2) either deleting it from the CBC radio website or adding a preamble that lists all its deficiencies,
(3) broadcasting, in the near future, another documentary that examines the true costs and benefits of wind energy.
H. G. Garand