Language concerning rally participants

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant objected to the use of the terms pro-choice and anti- abortion in describing opponents in the debate on abortion rights. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On May 10, 2012, the CBC News Network program, Power & Politics, reported on a rally on Parliament Hill that day.

Thomas Harbour wrote to complain that it was “off-putting to hear the host labeling the participants . . .as anti-abortion while calling those who support abortion as pro-choice.”

He said: “If one side calls themselves pro-life then it's not for the CBC to substitute a pejorative label.” Harbour said the intention “is to disparage the pro-life group by tagging them with the abortion label while simultaneously pumping for the opposing group by avoiding linking them with abortion.”

Harbour said he objected to the CBC's “advocacy” on the issue and wanted its policy on language use to be amended to reflect “impartial” terms preferred by each side in the debate.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back May 16 to say she did not share his view. The CBC's Language Guide counseled neutral language, she said.

“While it is preferable to describe people's positions rather than merely label them as being pro- or anti-something, it says, sometimes the shorthand form is the only solution. In that case, it is CBC News practice to use the terms “anti-abortion (not pro-life) and pro-choice.”

She explained that the guide “says that the term ‘pro-life' is too vague because it does not specifically address the issue of pregnancy (but could raise questions about views on capital punishment or euthanasia, for example). Moreover, it could also be seen as implying that everyone who is not ‘pro-life” is in the opposite camp, that is ‘pro-death.'”

She concluded: “'Pro-abortion' is not always accurate. Many of those who lobby in favour of a woman's right to choose abortion may feel that choice is a last resort. For that reason, we use the term ‘pro-choice.'”

Harbour wrote again June 3 and asked for a review of the complaint. He said he was “stunned at the sophomoric arguments put forward.” Specifically, he complained that CBC argues that “pro-life” is too vague because it doesn't address the issue of pregnancy, but that “pro-choice” is not too vague — even though, he said, there are many choices one can make that do not involve the issue of pregnancy.

He reiterated that the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” should be used.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for “simple, clear and concrete” use of language. “The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.” It recognizes that language use evolves.

Although it is not embedded as policy, CBC's internal Language Guide suggests: “It's best to describe people's positions rather than merely label them as being pro- or anti- something (e.g., ‘Anderson wants to limit abortions to cases involving minors who've been sexually assaulted.').”

Conclusion

It is fair to say the delicate balances sought in CBC journalistic policy — between “fact” and “nuance,” and between “faithful” and “easy to understand” — pose an enormous challenge in using language to portray the moral and legal debate on this issue.

CBC avoids “pro-life” and chooses “anti-abortion,” but accepts “pro-choice” and doesn't term anyone “pro-abortion” or “pro-abortion rights.” In doing so it is accepting one movement's term and not another's as sufficiently precise for its purposes.

The day-to-day mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman is to indicate whether content upholds CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, not necessarily to indicate if the policy is inadequate.

It would have been more reflective of CBC's Language Guide to more extensively describe the participants in the rally, given that the references came in the course of an on-air discussion with presumably more opportunity to employ nuance.

But, given its policy in this instance does not have provisions for specific language, I concluded it did not violate its Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman