Graphic content

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The complainant asserted that two CBC Radio reports did not adequately deal with sensitive and graphic content. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On September 26, 2012, CBC Radio's World At Six program presented a report from Nova Scotia about an incident in which a young man, shackled and wearing little clothing, knocked on a rural home's door and frantically asked a woman to be let in.

The report said the woman described the boy as wearing a jacket and hat “but little else.” When she offered to phone police for help, he ran away. The report noted police found the boy later. Two men were being sought in connection with the boy's forcible confinement and assault.

On September 27, CBC Radio's World Report carried revelations in three murder cases in British Columbia dating back four decades. The report quoted a police report of 17 years earlier that said a man — since deceased — also attacked a woman and threatened to throw her in the ocean. He was convicted in 1995. The newest revelations linked the serial killings to the attack.

The complainant, Cindy Brenneis, wrote September 27 and asserted that insufficient care was taken involving the graphic nature of the reports. She said there had been “overt sexually explicit language” that had disrespected victims and been unsuitable for children.

Brenneis wrote: “The CBC is a public broadcaster. Children, adults who are not desensitized to violence, and a number of other decent people [who] do not want to hear graphic details describing the victimization of people are ‘the public' and should not be required to either turn off the CBC (I do) or be ‘on guard' when the news comes on to turn it off to avoid harming their kids.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Brenneis on November 8 and apologized for the time it had taken to respond. Enkin wrote that the information in the reports was “germane, even important, to the theme and integrity of both stories.”

She explained: “The Nova Scotia woman was alerted by the teenager's unusual appearance and as a result called police. To understand the story it was helpful to know what that appearance was. The court testimony included in the second story was part of the chain of evidence police believe links the U.S. man to a series of murders in Canada. The context provided was significant to understanding both stories.”

Enkin said CBC policy expects that programs be in good taste but that there were times when leaving out certain information might impair the story. “That was the case here,” she said.

Enkin added: “I should point out that in such instances, if we think listeners might be offended, we add a prominent warning to that effect so they have an opportunity to turn off their radio or tune to a different station. In these instances, the senior editors responsible for the news programs reviewed the stories and felt that while they involved adult themes, a warning was not required.”

She concluded: “I should emphasize here that news by its nature is often about adult themes and disturbing subjects. It is not intended for children.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices recognize that certain content might not be suitable for young audiences. “We will broadcast an audience advisory before the program, segments or other material is shown or appears on the website.”

The policy adds: “We are aware that the audiences we address do not all have the same definition of good taste. 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.”


Taste and tolerance are subjective qualities challenging for media to satisfy in everyone. The public broadcaster's journalistic policy aims to be highly sensitive and respectful of audiences. I agreed with CBC News that, in these instances, it was not necessary to alert the audience to the nature of the content. While there was challenging subject matter, there was neither graphic description nor offensive language that would have merited a notice to the audience.

I concluded that CBC handled the information with restraint and consideration and was, in effect, mindful of the audience. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman