Weather presenter made fun of Sarah Palin

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

CBC News Morning weather presenter made fun of Sarah Palin

You wrote originally on October 31, 2008, to complain about the weather segment on CBC News: Morning. The weather presenter, Colleen Jones, wore a Sarah Palin “costume” that morning—Halloween. You said that Ms. Jones “(made) fun of….Sarah Palin. This was done in a variety of mean-spirited and tasteless ways: mocking her way of speaking, her intelligence and her manner of dress and appearance. While the segment could have been a lighthearted appearance by someone merely dressed as Mrs. Palin, the weather-woman proceeded to mock Mrs. Palin for 2-3 minutes in a mean-spirited and extremely biased way.”

Cynthia Kinch, the Director of CBC Newsworld, replied that the segment “was intended to be topical and playful,” that the host greeted Ms. Jones as Sarah, but that Ms. Jones said that she “wasn't ready to do Sarah.” Ms. Jones went on to add an “imitation” of Ms. Palin (“Gosh, good to be with you”); “Then, turning, she said, ‘I can see Russia right over there.' She also said seemingly almost to herself, ‘Smile a lot and use your hands because you don't know what you're talking about.'” Ms. Kinch went on to write that “it is not clear here whether she was referring to Ms. Palin—which could be seen as inappropriate—or in a self- deprecating way to her own lack of preparation to imitate her.”

Ms. Kinch concluded: “I do not believe that any fair viewing would conclude that Ms. Jones' efforts at dressing up for Halloween stemmed either from partisanship or animus toward the American politician. It was conceived and offered in good spirits and in the best tradition of Halloween. Viewers told us they understood that and enjoyed it.”

You rejected Ms. Kinch's explanation and asked for a review.

One of the clear injunctions of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices is that CBC journalists not take stands on matters of public controversy. While weather and sports segments are on the margin of pure journalism, by and large they fit within the ambit of policy.

From time to time, such segments are used to inject humour into a broadcast such as CBC News: Morning. As you pointed out in a second note, “Indeed on Halloween it is agreeable to have presenters dress up to amuse the readers…” But you are also correct that such segments should not be used to make unbalanced political commentary, even if inadvertent.

While Ms. Kinch raises the notion that Colleen Jones might have been speaking of herself when she said “Smile a lot and use your hands because you don't know what you are talking about,” even an uncommitted viewer would most likely have assumed that Ms. Jones was “doing” Sarah Palin. As we were in the final weeks of the U.S. election campaign, her presence on the ticket was clearly a matter of “public controversy.” CBC personnel, even in a light-hearted journalistic context, should not be making statements of that nature. I note that in the subsequent segments of the two-hour broadcast Ms. Jones refrained from similar comments.

Conclusion

There is nothing necessarily objectionable in having light-hearted segments in news programming—even comedy and satire—but front-line hosts should avoid pointed commentary such as we heard on Halloween.

In watching the sweep of CBC's coverage of the U.S. election I cannot find a basis for concluding that there has been an endemic bias, individual faults notwithstanding.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman