Comedy in information programming

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This complaint was about a comedy sketch that followed a segment related to home schooling in Alberta. The complainant found it offensive and biased. The review considers the role of comedy in news and information programming.

On November 14, 2012, The Current devoted 29 minutes to a discussion of the impact of the removal of references to the Alberta Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms from the provincial education act. Advocates of home schooling in the province were strongly supportive of the exclusion. The program aired a panel discussion with the president of the Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada, the Alberta Liberal Party education critic, and the Executive Director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre. It was followed by another interview with the President of the Alberta School Boards Association and vice president of the national association of school boards.

This segment ran about 27 minutes. The final two minutes of the program was a satiric sketch that portrayed a mother attempting to home school a sarcastic and un-co-operative teenaged son.

While several people complained about the interviews, others complained about the sketch immediately following the discussion. One complainant, Joyce Carvalho, asked for a review. She felt the sketch violated CBC's standards of Accuracy, Fairness, Balance and Impartiality. “It was a despicable skit,” she wrote, “and I for one, am outraged for all mothers and fathers who lovingly make the choice, sacrifice and work hard to educate their children at home.”

The Executive Producer of The Current, Jennifer Moroz, wrote apologizing that the skit upset Ms Carvalho. She went on to say that the skit was a format the show sometimes uses to comment on the issues of the day, but does not represent the views of the show or host Anna Maria Tremonti. She added that the skit “played as much on the relationship between teenagers and their parents, as it did about home schooling per se.” She noted that the program might have been clearer in its introduction to the sketch and that it was not an extension of the home schooling segment as such.

Journalistic Standards and Practices has no specific reference to the use of comedy and satire in news and information programming. While it is virtually never used in a newscast, it is an element of current affairs programs, such as The Current.

It should be used carefully, and Ms Moroz acknowledged in her letter that “we always have vigorous conversations around what we air and how it is presented – and emails like yours are great reminders of why we need to continue to do so.”

Humour, and satire in particular, is very subjective. What offends one person is funny to another. And since satire does usually rely on exaggeration and irony, it is even trickier, especially in a news and information context. Ms Carvalho put it eloquently when she refers to finding the line in the sand between funny and mean-spirited. She clearly felt it crossed the line and made a mockery of those who home school their children. The sketch took a satiric look at the challenges of home schooling and teens – but it did not relate to the larger discussion which focused on the changes to the Alberta Education Act and its impact on home schoolers and why they wanted it excluded. It also explored, from others' perspectives, the impact this might have on human rights in Alberta in a broader way. The sketch itself did not impact the overall balance of the panel and interviews, which did represent a variety of views and perspectives. While it may not be to everyone's taste, it does not violate CBC policy.

Ms Tremonti closed off the final interview and indeed said her good-byes. This was presumably an attempt to distance the skit from the content of the program. However, she then went on to say: “That's it – we'll leave you with one last word on home schooling” and the sketch began. The executive producer says this last word goes to a variety of voices and does not represent Ms Tremonti's views. That may well be true, but the program is responsible for all the content.

Conclusion

While there is no violation of CBC policy in this instance, programmers might want to consider the appropriateness of running this kind of material around issues of controversy and CBC management might want to think about providing guidelines around the use of satire in information programming.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman