As always, context is queen.

The complainant, William Heavenor, was concerned about the qualifying phrase “even so” in a paragraph about the makeup of the federal firearms advisory committee. Its placement made him suspicious that the writer was implying that the presence of white people on the committee was somehow wrong. In fact, the context of the entire article was the desire to make the committee more representative of the population on various measures. The phrase had no hidden meaning or implication.

COMPLAINT

You thought there might be racism at work in the phrasing of a sentence in an online story concerning the makeup of the federal firearms advisory committee. The news piece entitled Public safety minister to unveil ‘substantially different’ firearms advisory committee noted that Ralph Goodale had announced he was about to name a new head of this body, as well as new members because there was a need to make the committee more representative. It explained some of the criticism of its previous makeup. You objected to this paragraph:

That comment led to the government dumping three gun enthusiasts from the committee and replacing them with police officers. Even so, the remaining members were all white, and only one of them was a woman.

You questioned the phrase “even so” in this context. You thought this was not a balanced way to convey the information:

It reminds me of racial profiling. Is this statement a suggestion that it's wrong that Caucasian folk held spots on the committee? This smacks of race baiting. 'Even so' is loaded, or nuanced, language.

You thought that the phrase “even so” could have a pejorative slant. You added that even if the reporter was referring to statements from the minister earlier in the piece, the context and meaning were not clear enough and you wondered about her intent:

Reporters work with words and phrases. I can only assume they should have been aware of the need for clarity and the risks associated with descriptive adjectives which are not documented quotations. Given this I cannot help but wonder if the reporter's phrasing, regardless of intent, may have done more to shape public opinion than it did to simply share information in a clear way.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the Senior Producer of Politics, replied to your concern. He explained that it is generally CBC News’ practice, guided by its journalistic policies, to leave out gender, race, and religion in describing individuals. In this case, it was relevant information, he said, because it could be considered “central or pertinent to the understanding of the story”, and that is when the guidelines say it is good practice to include it. He explained why it was important in this article. He said it was not to suggest that white people should not be part of the panel but “rather to note that the committee membership was largely homogeneous: mostly white men.” He told you that earlier in the story the Public Safety Minister had raised the issue about the diversity and representation of the population. He explained the use of the phrase “even so.”

The use of the phrase “even so” was simply a transition from the previous sentence that pointed out the previous government had attempted to address part of the committee’s makeup by appointing police officers.

In fact, the current minister does not feel those changes went far enough. To that point, earlier in the story, we report that the minister said he would be appointing two women as vice-chairs.

REVIEW

Mr. Carter explained the CBC News approach to using descriptors of race, gender or religion. Here is the actual policy in Journalistic Standards and Practices. The relevant section is italicized:

Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights.

Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome.

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

The headline of the story indicated that the committee would be “substantially different”. As Mr. Carter pointed out to you, the paragraphs preceding the one you objected to provided important context:

The body that provides advice and expertise to the government on firearms issues has been vacant since the Liberals came to office in 2015.

Although reluctant to name the new committee members before they've all received their security clearances, Goodale said the two vice-chairs are women.

"In addition to representatives of agriculture, hunting and the sporting community, (we made) sure that women, law enforcement, the public health sector were all properly represented in the mix, so that the committee can offer very strong, very qualified advice to the government," Goodale told CBC News.

The reporter, Alison Crawford, provided more historical context. She pointed out that the Liberals had talked about the composition of this body during the election campaign, noting Ralph Goodale, the Safety Minister, said “it needed to be a more balanced, more representative group going forward.”

Ms. Crawford also mentioned that the former prime minister had said the group needed “reexamination”, and that the government of the day dropped three “gun enthusiasts” from the committee. It is in that context that the “even so” phrase is used.

Since the entire article is devoted to the concern about the members of the committee, and that at least two of the new participants would be women, the phrase does not appear problematic. It is not a value judgment, but a reflection of the reality in the context of the issue at hand as laid out by a government minister. You are absolutely correct that reporters must be rigorous in their use of words and phrases. You were concerned that the phrase was too far removed from the facts about the committee, but the bulk of the article actually addressed the issue. It is not a “loaded phrase” or inappropriately used in this context.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman