Watch Your Language

The complainant, Kamran Moghbel, thought a reporter should not have used the colloquial phrase “kick out” to describe an incident in which a student was told to leave an exam for refusing to remove her hijab. He said colloquialisms don’t belong in the news and in this case it distorted the facts. He also thought it culturally inappropriate. I disagreed and found the radio news story was clear and accurate.

COMPLAINT

You objected to the use of the phrase “kicked out” in a CBC Radio news story regarding a student at Collège de Maisonneuve who had been asked to leave an exam. The young woman was wearing a hijab and the professor asked her to remove it so he could check for earphones. The woman refused but invited the professor to feel her ears to determine whether she was hiding earphones. You thought starting the story with the phrase “kicked out” was inappropriate:

Replacing "asked to leave" with "being kicked out" is neither consistent with journalistic standards of factual reporting nor culturally appropriate.

You said that colloquialisms did not belong in news writing, and added that “kick” is not a synonym for “leave.”

You also cited the Broadcast Act to support your concern about the “cultural appropriateness of inserting kicked out in CBC News”:

Section 3 Of the Broadcasting Act, S.C. 1991, c. 11 reads:

“3(1) It is hereby declared as the broadcasting policy for Canada that:

(b) the Canadian broadcasting system, operating primarily in the English and French languages and comprising public, private and community elements, makes use of radio frequencies that are public property and provides, through its programming, a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty;

(d) the Canadian broadcasting system should

(i) serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada,”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC Quebec, Helen Evans, responded to your complaint.

She explained that the phrase “kicked out” was used in the introduction to a radio news report concerning an incident at Collège de Maisonneuve. She elaborated:

That lead sentence, in effect, is the story’s headline. In just a few words, it is intended to attract the listener’s attention with what is new or unusual and encourage the listener to stay with the story that follows to find out more.

She added that “kicked out” is a colloquial expression, and not be taken literally. It is a phrase that means expulsion, she said. She stated the use of the colloquialism did not create bias or inaccuracy, but was a “neutral conversational and fair way to refer to a figure telling someone to leave. She emphasized that the student was not invited to leave, but given an instruction.

She pointed out that the body of the story elaborated on the details of the incident, and mentioned that the student was asked to leave over a disagreement about removing her hijab so the professor could check she was not wearing earphones underneath while writing an exam. She thought that any uncertainty the use of the phrase may have created was quickly dispelled by the detail in the story.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy to guide the use of 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.

You may think colloquialisms do not belong in news, but there is nothing in policy that would prohibit their use. Especially in broadcast news as writers strive to be conversational and accessible. The question in this case is whether the use of “kicked out” distorted the meaning or created an inaccurate picture of what occurred.

I appreciate your sensitivity to the phrase, but in this situation a person in authority told a student she would have to leave an examination room, and would not be able to write the exam. I do not think the phrase is too strong or inappropriate. There was one more sentence in that introduction, which stated: “A spokesperson for the Cégep says it was a ‘misunderstanding’." That provided further context to understand what had happened, and as Ms. Evans pointed out to you, the body of the news report clearly laid out the events. This is what was broadcast:

Guy Gibeau is the Director of Studies for the Cégep.

He confirms the incident happened during a biology exam September 19th.

"Je pense que la professeur a tout simplement demandé a la jeune fille s'elle avait des écouteurs..."

Gibeau says a professor simply wanted to verify if a student wearing a hijab had headphones on underneath.

The Cégep has a rule requiring professors to check students with long hair or wearing toques to make sure they aren't using headphones to cheat on exams.

The rule makes no mention of hijabs.

Gibeau says the professor asked the student to remove her hijab temporarily so he could check for headphones.

She refused, but told the professor he could feel her ears over top of the hijab to verify there were no headphones.

He refused to do that, and the student was asked to leave.

She's filed a complaint.

Gibeau says he's spoken with the professor involved, and he thinks the matter can be settled amicably.

"Le professeur accept tres tres bien de refair l'examen pas de probleme."

Gibeau says the professor is prepared to let the student retake the exam with her hijab.

Gibeau says he'll meet with the student today to see if she'll withdraw her complaint.

I have spoken with Ms. Evans and she told me that she understands anything involving religious matters can be sensitive. She added she did not think the phrase was disrespectful and that the news team felt it was important to report this incident because it raised an issue of cultural awareness and misunderstanding. In that way, rather than being in violation of the Broadcast Act, it honors it by “strengthening the social fabric of Canada” by highlighting this issue. Using the phrase “kicked out” in this context is not inaccurate. When a person in authority tells a student to leave a location, it does not appear to be optional. And the stakes were high - the student missed an opportunity to write the test.

There is no violation of the policy on accuracy. You find the phrase troublesome because the issue was a woman wearing a religious symbol. I appreciate your perspective, but there is no negative connotation to the phrase, certainly none as it reflects on the woman who was told to leave the examination room. It is good to be reminded that different people understand the nuance of language in different ways, but there was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman