The word "gunman"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Use of the word “gunman”

You wrote initially in May, 2010, to complain about the use of the phrase “gunman” or “gunmen” to refer to people involved in violent activities. You suggested that the words “shooter” or “gunner” would be more appropriate to a non-sexist language regime.

Esther Enkin, the Executive Editor of CBC News, responded. She said:

“While it is long standing CBC News policy generally to avoid using words that reflect gender - we use ‘firefighter' rather than ‘fireman', for example - we are also mindful of our obligation to convey events and ideas clearly to Canadians.

Words that sound awkward or contrived or are inconsistent with the language used by Canadians draw attention away from the story they are conveying. (‘Fisher' rather ‘fisherman' is an example.) For that reason we try to avoid them.”

She also pointed out that “gunner” might be confused with the military term used to describe those in the artillery.

You wrote back and suggested that “shooters” would be preferable and that there was some inconsistency in the policy since you had heard someone use the term “fishers” on CBC Radio recently.

You asked me to conduct a review.


I have had a lifelong interest in the proper use of the language. More recently we have seen laudable efforts, spearheaded by the CBC, to ensure that, in the words of a Corporate Policy that is not directly part of Journalistic Policy, “language respects the principle of equality between women and men.”

CBC and its journalists have had a substantial impact on this effort. However, in broadcast journalism, it is, as Ms. Enkin pointed out, necessary to keep in mind the goal of transmitting information clearly and understandably.

In the example you have chosen, it does not appear to me that useful alternatives present themselves. To use “shooters” could be, in many cases, inaccurate. That word means someone who has actually fired a weapon. “Gunmen” clearly means people who are carrying weapons who may or may not have used them. I note Ms. Enkin's point that “gunner” is a military designation that may also be confusing.

“Fishers” is actually an example of good intentions that appear not to have met with acceptance and understanding at large. While you may find occasional use of the term, it has largely vanished from use, even after being suggested by CBC language guidelines more than a decade ago. I have seen the reaction from both women and men who found the term awkward or contrived, despite its lovely New Testament origin. While “firefighter” and “police officer” have moved easily into wide acceptance, it appears that “fishers” and “gunners” will not.

In the spirit of full disclosure, when I became CBC Ombudsman and attended my first meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, I asked whether the title should be changed. With very few exceptions the women and men of the Organization expressed the wish to keep the title since it was adopted from the original Swedish word. Personally, I would have no objection to a relabelling.

Conclusion

While not strictly a part of Journalistic Policy and Standards, CBC journalists continue to make great effort to use language unburdened by gender bias. However, in the instant case, no effective alternate presents itself.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman