Coverage of gays and lesbians

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved coverage of an attack on a student and criticism of the Edmonton Pride Festival. There was room for improvement in content about the attack and a policy violation in the festival coverage.

On June 6, 2012, CBC Radio Edmonton discussed the decision by Alberta Premier Alison Redford to attend the Edmonton Pride Festival. Other politicians had attended the event in previous years, but Redford was the first premier to do so.

The Edmonton AM program said Redford's decision was considered a “major victory” for the gay and lesbian community. Host Rick Harp discussed the matter with Michael Phair, a former city council member described by the program as the first openly gay politician to be elected in Alberta and the program read some online comments supporting the decision.

The program later featured a mix of positive and negative comments in reading and hearing about 90 seconds of its listeners' comments.

One statement came from someone who was not identified. He called Redford's decision “further proof that she has lost her moral compass.” He added: “After all, this supports the culture of death. And that's what this Pride thing is: about the culture of death and lack of morals.”

On July 23, CBC Edmonton reported on television, radio and online about a witnessed attack on a University of Alberta student in recent days.

The student, Chevi Rabbit, is openly gay and police are investigating whether his attack was a hate crime. Rabbit said three men in a passing car shouted slurs. He said one man got out of the car and tackled him while Rabbit was walking near his campus dormitory in the evening. Other students intervened, the man fled in the car, and Rabbit's phone was taken in the incident.

Rabbit was interviewed on the Edmonton AM radio show. He told Harp that the attack was “very open” and “very public” on the streets of Edmonton and that it left him “stunned” because he had never encountered anything like that in the city.

“I don't feel safe,” he said, describing the incident as an attack on his identity. Rabbit expressed gratitude for the students who intervened — they drove the attackers away and got the car's licence plate — but said he would take measures to protect himself.

An online and television report further chronicled the incident.

In the television report a witness identified only as Matthew described the attack and what followed.

The online report said of Rabbit: “Despite the incident, he is not discouraged from being openly gay and says he hopes his story inspires people to talk about homophobia.”

The radio program asked its listeners to comment on a question it posed: “Do you think gay or lesbian Edmontonians should feel safe in our city?” Harp also posed the question on Twitter.

The complainant, Brian Stearns, wrote August 20 and said he was concerned about the coverage of gays and lesbians by CBC Edmonton. He had specific complaints about the journalism.

He felt the radio program's question for listeners was, at the very least, “carelessly worded” and, less generously, raised doubts on whether gays and lesbians had a right to safety. He said “blithe anti-gay bigotry” coursed through the work.

Stearns said he didn't hear the program because he had earlier been offended and had stopped listening to the show. He cited the June 6 program that featured the listener's comments about the “culture of death” following Redford's decision to attend the Edmonton Pride Festival.

Gary Cunliffe, the news director for CBC Edmonton, wrote back September 26 and apologized for the delay. He said CBC took the story of the attack on Rabbit “very seriously” and that Rabbit was treated “with the same respect we accord all our guests.” On the issue of whether CBC was disputing Rabbit's right to be openly gay by noting he was not “discouraged from being openly gay,” Cunliffe said it was “not a slight or attack” but phrased as an answer to how the incident affected Rabbit. Similarly, Cunliffe said, the listener question on safety was “fair” in light of the experience.

As for the June 6 listener comment, Cunliffe said it reflected the hard-line views of Pope John Paul II as leader of the Catholic Church. “You may think the comment vile, as would many others, but it is an opinion that the caller holds.”

Cunliffe said it is CBC's mandate to carry different points of view on controversial matters to permit listeners to make up their own minds. “Of course, not everyone will agree with the views expressed, as clearly you do not in this instance. Fair enough.”

Stearns wrote October 9 to request a review. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for respectful, even-handed treatment of individuals and for journalism that avoids “generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

On its use of language, the policy states: “We choose a tone that will not gratuitously offend audience sensitivities. In particular we avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.”

Conclusion

CBC sensitively and fairly covered the campus incident. It interviewed the attacked student, supported his story in its television report with an eyewitness account, and provided the audience with a broader understanding of questions about safety in the city. There was substantial public interest and newsworthiness in this matter and I concluded CBC reported it with sophistication.

I did not agree with the complainant's concern about the online report's reference to how the attack victim was “not discouraged from being openly gay.” I did not conclude, as had the complainant, that this statement challenged anyone's right to live as he pleased or to be treated fairly. Indeed, the victim discussed this issue in the story.

I agreed with the complainant that the radio listener question — “Do you think gay or lesbian Edmontonians should feel safe in our city?” — carried the potential to be interpreted variously.

It is possible some would have interpreted they were being asked whether gays and lesbians were entitled to feel safe in Edmonton — presumably this is beyond questioning — rather than whether they were able to feel safe in Edmonton. The phrasing might have been better, but it did not violate policy.

In its June 6 coverage on the premier's attendance at the Edmonton Pride Festival, CBC Radio included a listener comment about the festival promoting a “culture of death.”

Pope John Paul II popularized the “culture of death” phrase in his 1995 encyclical. The reference was principally a criticism of those who supported abortion or euthanasia. Others have extended its application to advance a criticism of homosexuality.

CBC News acknowledged in correspondence with the complainant that many would have found the comment “vile,” which suggests it understood at some point along the way that the comment might feed contempt or prejudice.

Given these remarks were recorded by an answering machine, CBC had the technical opportunity to keep the unidentified commenter off its broadcast. It already had a range of comments to fulfill its policy of balanced treatment.

I concluded the inclusion of these remarks was not within an acceptable, tolerant boundary of criticism about a community event or its activities. Rather, the comments were personally and generally hostile and hurtful and a violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman