Words are loaded; handle with care.

The complainant, John MacNeill, stated that saying Baltimore police shackled and tossed Freddie Gray into a police van was inflammatory and misleading. Mr. Gray was a black man who sustained a spinal injury in custody and later died. He raised an important issue about language - and I partly agreed there were better words.

COMPLAINT

You objected to the language used in a CBC radio news report about the acquittal of a Baltimore police officer in the Freddie Gray case. Mr. Gray was a young black man who died from a spinal cord injury sustained while in police custody. You thought the language used to describe what had happened to Mr. Gray was “blatantly false, misleading and inflammatory.” The phrase you objected to was “Gray was shackled and tossed into a police van without a seat belt.” You explained:

Firstly the term shackled is offensive and denotes an era of slavery, (this is a race related news story). Most would use the term handcuffed or restrained.

Secondly the term "tossed" is a blatant lie. In the video frequently presented by CBC TV news, the suspect is placed into the police van while upright and standing on his own two feet. There was never any evidence or suggestion in the trial reports that he was 'tossed".

You added that there had been a lot of attention, and tension around police relations with minority groups, and that this description exacerbated those tensions. You said this report would “fan the flames of hatred in our society” and that “a listener who has not followed the story closely would be understandably upset by the CBC characterization of events and the seeds of racist police brutality behaviour in this case was firmly planted.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, the Managing Editor of CBC Radio and Television News, replied to your complaint. He agreed with you that “tossed” and “shackled” were not the most accurate verbs to describe what happened in Freddie Gray’s arrest. However, he did not agree that “somehow the story is tainted and inflammatory.”

There is no question that Freddie Gray was handcuffed, and later his feet were also restrained as well in the van. I've actually seen "shackled" used in that context in other reports. That he was handcuffed in the original arrest (and it's clear to see he was handcuffed), supports your argument that "shackled" is perhaps an unnecessarily creative synonym. "Handcuffed" is the best choice, but again, I don't feel that shackled was inflammatory as you suggest.

He agreed that Mr. Gray was not tossed “as one might imagine it”. He added that the video of the arrest makes it clear that he was only upright and standing as he entered the van, because the police had lifted him into the van after dragging him along the ground. He suggested a better choice of words might have been “he was dragged and then put into the van.”

He also told you that he discussed the script with the editor who wrote the copy and that there was an acknowledgment of the impact language could have. He added that your email led to a good discussion about language in general, and that the points you raised were taken seriously.

REVIEW

Aside from the commitment to accuracy, which governs all news reporting, there is specific CBC journalistic policy on language that is relevant in this case:

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.

The need to be concise in a brief news report is the challenge and crux of the issue here. This is the entire copy story you heard on the hourly newscast:

A judge in Baltimore has acquitted police lieutenant Brian Rice of charges in the death of Freddie Gray.

The 25 year old black man died last year after police moved in to arrest him for what they say was possession of a switchblade.

Gray was shackled and tossed into the back of a police van without a seat belt.

He died after falling into a coma when he suffered a broken neck in police custody.

The officer acquitted today is the fourth of six officers charged. None have been convicted.

It is hard to convey nuance in a story so brief, and therefore even more important that it be precise. As you point out the story of Freddie Gray is an emotive one. In situations like that, it is important to ensure precise language. Roy Peter Clark is a writer, editor and teacher, and for many years associated with Poynter, an organization dedicated to journalistic excellence. He has written about language extensively. In his book “The Glamour of Grammar” he says:

"It is often a battle of connotations that fuels political and cultural wars. The fair choice of words is one of the most important and common challenges in American speech, writing, and politics."

It is in a Canadian and journalistic context as well. What he means by connotation is what associations are evoked by a particular word. He distinguishes that from detonation, its literal meaning. All of this is some context to examine your concerns with two specific words, and their use together. You object to shackle, and for you it connotes slavery and a form of restraint that did not reflect the reality of Mr. Gray’s situation. As it later emerged, about six minutes after Mr. Gray was placed in the police van, the officers stopped and shackled his legs. I have deliberately used the word in this context, because I, like Mr. Hambleton, think that it does reflect what happened. Even by the Oxford dictionary definition, it does not strike me as an overstatement. The first definition offered is “a fetter enclosing the ankle or the wrist.” It partly depends on your perspective - but I do not believe the use of this word was an editorial violation.

After viewing the video, I agree that tossed was not the best verb. On the other hand, Mr. Gray was dragged and then lifted into the van, after lying half in and half out of it. What the video can’t tell us is whether he was lying because he was passively resisting or because he really couldn’t get up on his own steam. He does seem to be in some distress. You can parse the words for precision, but to convey that this was not a calm, routine event, is not a complete distortion of the facts.

The flip side of being neutral and precise is that the language becomes so anodyne, it inadvertently downplays the impact of what happened. The lesson here is to think carefully about individual words, but perhaps even more importantly, to think carefully about what can be conveyed in 20 seconds. The writer was creating short copy, something valued in a brief newscast. The brevity should never undermine clarity. A few more sentences describing in more detail what had happened would have been better journalism. Mr. Hambleton seemed to acknowledge this to you. I hope he continues to reinforce that message to his staff.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman