Language used to describe parliamentarians

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

I am writing with regard to your request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning the reporting on The World at Six last June of a matter at a House of Commons committee involving federal Transport Minister John Baird. You corresponded with this Office June 2 and July 7 and 8, 2010.

As it relates to CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, your principal concern was that the report by CBC News Ottawa reporter James Fitz-Morris was “unbalanced.” You cited two main examples you felt were not in keeping with competent journalism: that the minister was referred to as “bombastic” and that he brought a “gang” with him to challenge the committee's effort to compel ministerial aides to testify before it.

You raise an important question about descriptive language and how it can leave impressions, positive and negative, that frame the perceptions of those in public life. The two matters in question were dealt with by Jane Anido, the Director of Radio Programming, in her July 12 correspondence to you.

On the first issue, she noted that the report didn't indicate the minister himself was “bombastic.” Rather, the report said the minister “led the bombastic charge” to personally testify (uninvitedly, as you might recall) in place of the aides. The CBC journalism handbook permits reporters “to offer some context to news events. To do this, they may present an explanation of the background to the event based on careful research. They must not, however, express or reflect their personal opinion or bias. In other words, they must keep their personal views separate from their reporting.”

In the context of the significant disruption of an anticipated orderly committee hearing, I cannot find evidence that the reporter did anything more than apply his understanding of the issue to make a judgment call on how to describe the event.

On the second issue, though, Anido acknowledged that CBC's principles demand “a disciplined use of language” that includes the most accurate words. In this instance, while the minister brought others with him to challenge the committee's scheduled agenda, Anido agreed the use of the term “gang” falls short of that standard. Anido went on to say she has drawn the reporter's attention to your concerns.

I share the view that it was valuable for you to raise the matter and believe that the attention to this report contributed to an improvement in CBC practices. But in reviewing the report, I could find no further grounds for a review on the wider issues of bias or competence. The report provided a contextual, informed understanding of the parliamentary issues that conformed with reality.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman