Flu "a little bit like terrorism"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Anchor's comment about the flu being “a little bit like terrorism”

You wrote initially to complain about a comment made by CBC anchor Carol MacNeil on the October 31, 2009, edition of CBC News Now. In the course of reporting on the on- going H1N1 story, Ms. MacNeil said of the flu “It is unpredictable. So in that way, it is a little bit like terrorism…”

You wrote that her comment was “so hyperbolic I don't even know what to say….I would highly recommend instructing your non-expert news anchors to avoid speculating and attempting to increase hysteria in the name of ratings.”

Cynthia Kinch, the Director of CBC News Network responded. She provided a fuller context of the story and acknowledged the terrorism analogy. Ms. Kinch wrote “Far from being hyperbolic or alarming, she intended her comment to be reassuring. Other flu epidemics have resulted in widespread mortality….In trying to convey the idea of the flu's apparently random, infrequent, but potentially serious effects, she suggested some similarity to a terrorist's attack.” She went on to say “I agree with you to the extent that it is not a particularly good simile. In retrospect, a fuller explanation or another simile—bolt from the blue, for example—might have better conveyed the idea.” She pointed out that Ms. MacNeil was speaking without benefit of a TelePrompTer or script.

You accepted her explanation, but, in effect, asked for a review and an on-air correction and apology.


Language is the basic tool of journalism, whether written or spoken. And precise language is the bedrock of excellent journalism.

Among the basic principles found in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices we find:

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.

The admonition on the disciplined use of language applies even to live, unscripted programs. In fact, one could argue that a journalist must be extremely cautious in live programming, especially when dealing with events that are occurring simultaneously and could potentially have a significant impact on the viewership.

It is also worth noting that what Ms. MacNeil said was not a simile, but an analogy, “a correspondence or partial similarity” between two things, as the dictionary has it. “Bolt from the blue”, as Ms. Kinch suggests, might have been an appropriate phrase—and it is a simile. However, it seems clear from the context, and the explanation, that Ms. MacNeil was saying that this flu was analogous to the randomness of terrorist acts.

As more and more live coverage is introduced on both television and radio broadcasts an even greater responsibility is placed on anchors to guide audiences—and their fellow journalists—through the potential shoals. There is no doubt that, since human beings are involved, there will be slips along the way. The correction should come almost instantly when the inappropriate formulation slips out. Either the anchor should correct, or editors and producers should backstop the anchor. Such checking would seem imperative in a live format and it is also easier to do since there is plenty of time available in the less rigid format of live news broadcasting.

I think you have already provided a good object lesson in the kind of care we should take of the language. At the same time, I do not feel that a correction at some remove from the event will make much sense to the audience. However, I am presuming that Ms. Kinch and other senior CBC journalists have noted the potential problem and are taking steps to help anchors as they find their way (if you will forgive the simile) through the difficult waters of live broadcasting.

Conclusion

The phrase used by Ms. MacNeil was not an example of disciplined language. Senior journalists should be bolstering support and feedback for the increasing number of journalists who are doing live reportage.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman