Define your terms.

The complainant, Shoel Silver, noted that a reporter labelled demonstrators against an anti-Islamophobia resolution as “far-right” but supplied no characterization of those who supported it. He thought that was unbalanced and challenged the basis for the characterization. CBC policy frowns on the use of such broad descriptions. The complainant had a good point.

COMPLAINT

You questioned the use of the term “far-right” to characterize a group of demonstrators taking part in a protest against Motion M-103, a motion to condemn Islamophobia, which was before the Federal Parliament at the time. You pointed out that there was no adjective or qualifier used to describe those who were demonstrating in support of the motion.

What was the basis on which she determined the political leanings of the anti-Motion demonstrators? I am certain they did not describe themselves as far right. And the views she described them as having did not appear extreme, even if their opponents characterized them as racist and anti-Islam.

You concluded the reporter used the term to “disparage” one side, creating unbalanced and unfair coverage.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Helen Evans, the Senior Manager of Journalism Programming in Quebec, replied to your complaint. She agreed you made a valid point that it was incorrect to label one group of demonstrators and not the other. She said she has brought this to the attention of senior journalists in the newsroom:

We have asked our senior editorial leaders to review how we are characterizing different groups representing different points of view on the political spectrum to try to make sure we are not simply falling into over-generalizations and stereotypes.

She shared with you that the editorial team responsible for covering the weekend demonstrations did some research into the sponsoring groups which would be participating. She told you that the people in the Montreal newsroom were familiar with the aims and positions of one of the Quebec-based group, La Meute, which is against the resolution. She said they were comfortable with a “far right” characterization but reporters and editors were told the better practice was to let those demonstrating explain their own positions and reasons for being there. She explained that it is not always possible to do so in spot news and live reporting.

REVIEW

It has long been CBC News’ practice to discourage the use of right and left as descriptions or a shorthand positioning of organizations. Ms. Evans mentioned to you that there was a discussion to that effect before the weekend of coverage of the demonstrations. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices cautions of the need to avoid “generalizations and stereotypes”. Language policy emphasizes the need for precision in language, for clarity and accuracy. You said you reviewed the positions of one of the organizations, and based on material on their Facebook page you would not characterize them as “far right.” Others might - but in this context that is not the point. The terms “left” and “right” are imprecise. Is it socially conservative but fiscally more moderate? Do certain positions align with what is associated with right-wing causes? That is why the terms are not always useful. It is always preferable to report specific positions or statements, or actions, than to reach for broad generalizations. In this context, saying what the demonstrators believe about Islam or why they opposed the motion before the House of Commons is more precise and accurate. It is also the most relevant. If one of the organizations was known for specific racist or other activities that might be worth mentioning for context. It gives relevant information. I understand that is difficult in a live news report, as this one is. It can, however, be captured in a brief phrase or omitted entirely. There are times, in longer analysis pieces, where a reporter can build the case for the characterization where it might be appropriate to identify something as far-right or racist. There is not a blanket ban on the terms. As in much else in good journalism, context is important. The report you heard was on an hourly newscast and was not scripted, but rather the reporter was talking to the presenter live from the scene. It was brief:

Race, religion and immigration, they are all themes at rallies across Canada today. A group called The Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens is protesting the House of Commons Anti-Islamophobia motion, it says the rallies are defending freedom but opponents say they represent bigotry and they’ve organized counter-demonstrations. The CBC’s Emily Brass has been watching the rival rallies in Montreal.

There were two groups facing off, they’ve been facing off all day as they’ve marched through the streets of Montreal. There was quite a dramatic stand-off right here in front of City Hall. Now, we had on one side a group of far right protesters and they were saying that this motion that is being debated in Ottawa, the Anti-Islamophobia motion, actually represents an impediment to freedom of speech. They are saying that if they see a problem with a certain religion, they should have the right to criticize that religion, and that it would protect Islam from having any kind of public critique.

Now, on the other side, we have several hundred protesters who are chanting things like “racists out, immigrants in”. They say they are worried about the tone these days, the political climate with the election of Donald Trump and some of the ideas he’s introducing down there. They say that racists are feeling emboldened to come out with their opinions and they believe that’s what the far right protesters were doing here today.

The reporter, Emily Brass, used the term twice in this short presentation. It did not materially increase a listener’s understanding of the organizations represented. It did not live up to CBC News best practices.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman