No diatribes here please

The complainant, Nigel Jackman, took exception to the use of the word “diatribe” in an introduction to a piece about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s (then) upcoming address to the United States Congress. The managing editor of CBC News Network agreed it was an inappropriate use of the word. Mr. Jackman asked me to review the matter because he felt there should have been strict discipline of those who were responsible. I agreed there was an error. Discipline is a different matter.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to express your dismay about an introduction to an item you heard on CBC News Network. You said you heard one of your “favorite CBC news presenters in the person of Heather Hiscox” say the following on CBC News Network the morning of March 3, 2015: “Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver his diatribe on Iran before the U.S. Congress at 11:00 a.m.” You added:

Such hubris on her part is nauseating. If she was merely reading pre-written lines, she should have had the common sense to substitute or drop that scurrilous language.

After you received a reply from the managing editor of CBC News Network agreeing with you that the word was inappropriate, you wrote again to inquire what the consequences of this error would be. You characterized this as a “serious lapse” and inquired about discipline against the staff:

Were they admonished orally? Was a reprimand placed in their personnel file by management? Were they removed from their positions or were their payable hours reduced? Will they incur a pay cut? Will they be placed on probation? Will they be transferred to a less high-profile position in radio, for example? Will they be next on the list of personnel cuts by CBC’s Board of Directors?

Ms. Harwood let you know that they had all been spoken with and that appropriate steps had been taken. You found this response unsatisfactory and asked me to “remediate” the matter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

In her first response to you, the managing editor of CBC News Network, Jennifer Harwood, told you she agreed that “‘diatribe’ was not an appropriate description of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address.” She explained:

The intention was to describe the speech as a strong denunciation of Iran, and was certainly not meant in a pejorative sense. However, we could have and should have chosen a better word in our scripting.

She said she regretted you were disappointed and went on to point out that the coverage of the speech and its fallout reflected a range of views and perspectives throughout the day:

. . . I hope you were able to watch some of our continuing coverage of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech today, which included reporting from the CBC’s Lyndsay Duncombe in our Washington Bureau, as well as interviews with the Israeli Consul-General to Toronto and Western Canada D J Schneeweiss; former Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor; as well as analysis from Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and former CBC News Senior Correspondent Brian Stewart.

In response to your query about disciplinary action, she replied:

It must suffice to say that since then we have taken what we believe to be the appropriate steps. Our labour agreements prohibit me from discussing disciplinary measures taken, if any, and their nature. I can tell you, however, that I expect those involved now have a much keener understanding of the word’s meaning.

She agreed with you that standards are important and assured you that CBC news staff is committed to upholding them.

REVIEW

We are all in agreement that the word diatribe in this context was inappropriate. CBC journalistic policy states that the use of language must reflect “quality and precision” and notes that it is an essential part of accuracy. It also cautions against using “charged” language:

CBC is a language model for its audiences. Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism. Our language should be simple, clear and concrete.

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.

Clarity is also essential when numbers and statistics are involved. It is essential to avoid confusion and to take care to properly grasp the numbers used.

The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. 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.

For the record, this is what Ms. Hiscox said that morning:

“In Washington congressional Republicans are looking forward to a morning speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S. President Barak Obama is not. Netanyahu is expected to deliver a diatribe against any possible nuclear deal with Iran. He fears any deal would hasten a nuclear attack against Israel. Lindsay Duncombe now on how Obama is trying to get out in front of any political blowback.”

The use of the word in this context is clearly wrong, and loaded. But I note the introduction also explains, however briefly, Mr. Netanyahu’s concerns. I think it is reasonable to take Ms. Harwood at her word that this was a bad choice and a failure of the editing process.

I hope management will take this opportunity to review how copy is edited so errors are minimized. The reality of live television and hundreds of hours of broadcasting is that errors will be made, the same way copy gets by web and newspaper editors. That is not to minimize the error, it is to provide a sense of proportion.

Questions of discipline are entirely outside my mandate. CBC managers and staff are bound by a collective agreement that lays out a process for discipline and remediation if there is a pattern of error or failure to meet standards. There are also privacy constraints around how much of that is shared publicly.

Ms. Harwood has assured me that, as in all cases where errors are made, there is follow up with the individual and the team. There is a clear understanding of why it was an error, an assessment of how it might have happened, and what action, if any is required.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman