Graphic language and telling the story

The complainant, Paula Waddell, was disturbed by a description of the sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers in the Central African Republic. I agreed it was disturbing, but did not think it was gratuitous. Finding the balance between reflecting the reality and respecting sensibilities is always a challenge.

COMPLAINT

You were shocked at a description of the sexual abuse of women in a news report on the 8:00 a.m. (PDT) edition of World Report on April 1st. You said you happened to hear the item as you walked into your kitchen, where your husband was having breakfast.

The news story was an account of the United Nations response to reports of peacekeepers in the Central African Republic raping and sexually abusing young girls and women. The reporter included the detail that soldiers had tied three women to a tree and forced them to have sex with a dog. You thought this was “shock news tactics” and that “this type of grotesque reporting on our national radio station is disgraceful.” You said this practice should be changed:

…[I] hope changes will be made to the News that does not consider sensitive ears such as children & the elderly that should not be subject to such trash!

You added that you are concerned about the impact of the use of such vivid and graphic language and that the story could have been told without the detail:

Our disappointment is that the fabric of society is being diminished by the presentation of such graphic detail which tends to desensitize listeners, which is very sad.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, the Managing Editor of Radio and Television News, replied to your complaint.

He told you that you had “identified a challenge that our programmers face every day.” He explained that there are two competing needs in reporting violent or otherwise disturbing news. He said programmers must weigh the amount of detail needed to convey the true “nature of the story” against the need to ensure programming stays within the bounds of good taste, and does not turn audience members away by being offensive. He told you that one of the considerations is what is suitable to be heard or seen at a particular time of day.

He explained that programmers must also not sanitize a violent and dire situation to the point where it has no impact, and ceases to be a reflection of the reality victims experience. He elaborated on the editorial thinking:

Unfortunately, stories of this kind of abuse are not uncommon in the C.A.R. Sometimes the circumstances of these situations become almost routine. The reporter chose this detail precisely to draw attention to the alleged abuse at the hands of these soldiers. As you can attest, those details punched through the story-telling to focus the listener’s mind on what was happening in this far-away country. That is important. The danger of euphemising, or being too vague about the details, is that you can end up obscuring the focus of the story. That does listeners a disservice. I do not believe that the reporter or producers were guilty of sensationalizing the story. Nor do I believe they included these details gratuitously, or with the purpose of shocking the audience.

He agreed that the detail you mentioned was difficult to hear. He said that “to an extent” he agreed that “parts of the report would have been even more effective had they been somewhat less explicit.” He did not agree that it was in poor taste or grotesque, as you had characterized it. He also said the World Report team had acted responsibly by providing a warning so that listeners had the choice to turn off their radios.

REVIEW

Mr. Hambleton touched on the ethical principles that collide in making decisions about what to leave in and what to exclude from disturbing stories. Journalists want to tell what they know, and they have a duty to do so. There is also a responsibility to respect the audience. As a list of Guiding principles for the journalist compiled by ethicist and Professor Robert Steele and published by the Poynter Institute states:

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm and discomfort, but balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximize your goal of truth telling.

This would apply both to the people being reported about, as well as those who will see, hear or read about it. Journalism will often cause discomfort, and that is acceptable and even necessary to honor truth telling.

Finding the right balance will always be a judgment call. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices provides some guidance:

To describe certain realities or report adequately on certain situations, it is sometimes necessary to use expressions or quotations that may be shocking to part of the audience. In these circumstances, we limit ourselves to what is necessary for understanding, we attribute the statements where applicable and we take care to present them in proper context.

We ensure that, taking into account the context in which the words are published, they are not likely to expose anyone to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or physical or mental disability. We refer to senior editorial management in case of doubt.

We respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.

When we find it necessary to use words that could shock part of the public, we give a clear audience advisory.

Further, the policy about depiction of violence, in this case sexual violence, states:

We reflect the reality of the situations we report. We also respect the sensibilities of our viewers, listeners and readers.

Scenes of violence and suffering are part of our coverage of wars, disaster, crime and conflict.

We respect our audience by assessing the impact of our images according to time of day and the context of the program where such material is appearing.

Programmers and journalists must be familiar with CRTC regulations about the depiction of violence and adhere to those guidelines.

If it is necessary to use graphic images, we will put a warning ahead of their use.

This policy sums up the dilemma most effectively – the need to reflect reality and the need to respect the sensibilities of readers, viewers and listeners. In this case you strongly felt it crossed a line. I agree that it was not critical information in the telling of the story. The time of day, early in the morning, would also point to a more subdued approach. You took issue, in later correspondence, with the efficacy and value of the warning. You pointed out that it came too late for you. I am sorry that happened, and there is no perfect solution, but I am glad that CBC policy includes the need for alerting members of the audience. It at least gives a significant number of people an opportunity to turn away.

Having said this, I don’t consider this a violation of policy, in part because the warning was included. The details provided are not gratuitous or entirely without editorial value – although they are ugly. I also take into consideration that the tone and tenor of the piece was quite low key. You called it “grotesque reporting.” What happened to those women is what is grotesque, and that may be what you meant, but that doesn’t make it trash: it makes it a difficult and demanding thing to hear.

I can understand the decision to include the detail about the type of abuse because it illustrates how depraved and difficult life is for girls and women in this conflict zone. For you it crossed a line and it is important that programmers know that, as a constant reminder of the impact of what is being said.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman