The term “hackers”

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the use of the term “hackers” in a CBC.ca story to describe those who had illegally penetrated a computer network. Although the term has different applications, I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On July 5, 2012, CBC.ca carried a story headlined: “6 new ways hackers are using malware.”

The story outlined the evolution of malware, the computer viruses and bugs designed to undermine functionality, invade privacy and at times manipulate or steal data in cybercrime.

The story discussed how malware now can break into mobile phones, invade social media profiles, hold computers technically hostage, direct people to money-making sites for others, engage in espionage and participate in so-named “hacktivism” that attaches political messages to the invasive technology.

Throughout the story, variations on the term “hackers” were used as pejoratives to describe criminal conduct.

The complainant, Brian Jones, wrote July 6 and argued that the pejorative use violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, specifically the passage that reads: "We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision."

Jones noted the technology-related origins of the term “hackers” date back to the 1960s to describe computer enthusiasts. He asserted the meaning was largely lost in the 1980s when media began to use the term to describe criminals. Lately, he noted, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had tried to revive its earlier meaning as a term to describe those seeking constant technological improvement.

He said CBC News should reevaluate its use of the word, given the renewed context.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back and agreed the word at times could be used to describe computer enthusiasts. But Enkin said the word was a contronym with contradictory meanings. Enkin said editors recognized that and were careful to associate the term.

In this instance, she said, the term was used in the same sentence as “malware” and that malware programs were used to “con and annoy.” This gave it sufficient support to be used as it was, she argued.

“I realize the word's use is the subject of heated controversy in some quarters. We cannot resolve that,” Enkin wrote. “However, we do have a responsibility to write accurately and clearly, as I believe this story is clear.”

Jones wrote again July 27 to say that when the term was used as a noun to describe a certain group of criminals, it had the effect of exposing a non-criminal group to “generalizations, stereotypes and prejudice.” He asked for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for “accurate, concise and accessible” language. “When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.”

It adds: “Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.”

As the complainant noted, the policy aims for respect and an absence of prejudice. “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.”

Conclusion

On the one hand, the policy has an overarching intent to minimize harm. On the other hand, it wants to stay abreast of language evolution. It wants to be accurate and concise, but it recognizes its language use has to grasp the fact there can be multiple interpretations and uses of words.

The term “hacker” is believed to date back to the description of those who made furniture with axes. Its first technology-related use was in describing the small club of early computer enthusiasts. But, much to their dismay, the term fell into the hands of media to describe criminals who exploited weaknesses in computers and their networks to steal or manipulate data.

The enthusiast hackers tend to use the term “crackers” to describe the criminals, but that isn't the case with most media. Even computer programmers tend to use the term in positive and negative ways. The positive use of the term may be experiencing a slight renaissance with Mark Zuckerberg's encouragement, but it appears early days to wipe the pejorative from the books.

There is no specific reference to the term in CBC's Language Guide, but CBC attempts to use the term only in association with an activity and not on its own—the latter could indeed give rise to generalizations and negative stereotypes. This associative use provides CBC some flexibility and provides the audience with the positive and pejorative uses in some context. I agree with the complainant that caution is advised, but I think in this instance CBC exercised that.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman