Use of the word "hijacked"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Use of the word “hijacked” in a program about the Churchill Falls hydro-electric project on Land and Sea

You wrote initially last August to complain about an edition of the CBC Newfoundland program, Land and Sea. You objected to the use of the word “hijacked” in a documentary about the history of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. You said you thought you had heard it three or four times throughout the program, but, in any event, it was not attributed to anyone, but stated as a fact.

Diane Humber, at the time the Regional Director for Newfoundland and Labrador, responded that “our story took poetic license with the word ‘hijacked' in explaining the difficulties encountered by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the private company (BRINCO) to deliver Churchill Falls power across Quebec territory to markets in the United States.” She continued: “To this day in Newfoundland and Labrador, the legacy of Churchill Falls is one of disappointment and frustration with the fact that the province of Newfoundland owned the resource but was stymied in getting it to market. These points were made in the Land and Sea program.”

You rejected her explanation and reiterated your complaint about the use of the word.

I should begin with a statement of the CBC's basic Journalistic Principles:

JOURNALISTIC PRINCIPLES
Information programs must reflect established journalistic principles: Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

In addition, if we wish to consider Land and Sea's multi-part series as an “investigative” project, we find in that section of policy these words:

“Programs may lead the audience to conclusions on the subject being examined. These must be logical conclusions derived from the facts and not from expressions of editorial opinion or unfair methods of presentation. It is essential, therefore, that to conform with the principles of accuracy, integrity, fairness and comprehensiveness, the programs must be based on the most scrupulous and painstaking research. They should take into account all the relevant evidence available and should include recognition of the range of opinion on the matter in question.”

It is clear to me that any journalist or program may report a range of views on any subject and is not obliged to prove the truth or falsity of any specific claim. However, it is also clear from policy that anything asserted as a fact by a CBC journalist or program must be provable.

In this case, the program's narrator, Fred Greuning, was closing out one portion of the episode by talking about the hopes of Newfoundlanders at a time when “a struggling province tried to exploit its natural resources and was hijacked.”

Poetic license must be granted to, well…poets. Journalists should not be deterred from being artful in their use of language, but while asserting something meant to be taken as fact—not attributed to others—they should be rigorous in their choice of words.

The episode in question, overall, is a skillful recounting of the history of the town and project of Churchill Falls. In other sections it deals carefully and factually with the problems surrounding the building of the project and the marketing of the power. It can only be criticized for this one unfortunate usage.

Conclusion

In an otherwise fine documentary on the history of the beginnings of the Churchill Falls project, the program characterized the project as being “hijacked.” The word clearly carries the meaning of something unlawful or unethical, something done by subterfuge. That may be the view of many Newfoundlanders, but there are countervailing opinions of substance. I am afraid that I cannot issue a license for that bit of poetry. If the documentary is to be repeated, it should be edited to remove the word “hijacking” as a statement of fact.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman