"Tar baby"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Use of the phrase “tar baby”

You wrote initially in May, 2009, to complain about CBC's reporting on the use of the phrase “tar baby” by Conservative Member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre. The stories concerned the criticism of M. Poilievre by opposition members for using what they believe was a term with racist undertones.

You pointed out that columnist Larry Zolf, on CBC.ca, had used the same phrase twice over the last decade.

You wrote: “It seems unfair reporting to me that the CBC can on the one hand insinuate that a Conservative MP used a racial slur, while on the other hand allowing one of its own columnists to use the same term in a much more derogatory sense…”

Rachel Nixon, the Director of Digitial Media, CBC News, responded. She pointed out that the brief story recounted events that took place in the House of Commons and that similar stories were widely carried across the country.

As for Mr. Zolf's use of the term, she wrote: “It may be controversial, but that does not mean that writers, politicians and others over the years have refrained from using it.” She cited a few well-known journalists who have employed the term.

You rejected her explanation and asked for a review.


The story concerning the episode in the House of Commons was straightforward. It recounted M. Poilievre's comment, the reaction of the opposition members and M. Poilievre's counter. It added a sentence to explain the background to the phrase. The story did not make any “insinuation,” but reported in an even-handed way what had transpired.

The other half of your complaint, though, raises more pertinent issues. I will cite two sections of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices that are relevant.

Under Good Taste it states:

The audience for broadcast information is composed of differing groups, and notions of good taste vary substantially among them. The broadcaster therefore cannot expect to enjoy the same complete freedom of expression of vocabulary or of visual presentation as is enjoyed by the book publisher, in live theatre or in the movies, whose readers and viewers by and large make conscious choices about what they read and see. Where matters of taste are concerned, therefore, care must be taken not to cause gratuitous offense to the audience. (Emphasis added).

Further to this, under Language:

As a general rule, profanity or expressions which would give offense to a considerable number of the audience must not be used. (Emphasis added). It is not practicable to prescribe a list of words and phrases which could not be broadcast in any circumstances, as public acceptance in this area is always changing. However, shock value is not a permissible criterion.

A journalist's highest value is to report accurately and fairly. If a politician uses a phrase that might be in poor taste, or even offensive, the journalist should normally report that fact as accurately and fully as will make the story intelligible to the reader or viewer or listener.

However, in choosing language on his or her own, he or she should be guided by the provisions above. Mr. Zolf's opinions are certainly his own, but the CBC has the ultimate responsibility for what appears on its website. The phrase, while perhaps current 50 years ago in some communities, can now easily be viewed as archaic and offensive to many.

Conclusion

As I have written before in a similar context, language changes constantly and a responsible news organization must keep current with how meanings change without falling into a form of political correctness. While “tar baby” may have had its roots in folk tales that were commonly shared, our society has moved on. The phrase is offensive to many and its use should be avoided by CBC journalists.

At the same time, CBC journalists should not shrink from reporting statements by public figures.

There was no violation in reporting M. Poilievre's statements. However, editors should ensure that archaic and offensive phrases are not used on CBC platforms.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman