The “f” word. A threshold for its use in news.

The complainant, Curtis Hopkins, thought swearing on an online video of an eyewitness recording of a bus billowing smoke was in violation of policy. The video was a powerful account of a breaking news story, although the swearing was not critical to the understanding of the story. Since the crew could not edit it when they found it on Twitter, they published it with a prominent warning. That saved it from violating policy.

COMPLAINT

The staff of CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador published video captured by a witness during a breaking news event at around 9:30 on the morning of May 25, 2017. The video involved a school bus engulfed in smoke which had pulled over to the side of the road. High school students had been on board. The start of that video included language you considered “profane.”

You thought the use of the language was gratuitous and did not meet the standards of CBC journalistic policy because leaving it out would not have altered the “nature and meaning of the information reported.”

In my opinion, “breaking news” does not give news agencies permission to throw raw unedited garbage out to the public just to be the first with the story. Further, as the audio did not fit the parameters of your Policy quote I feel CBC owes an apology to its viewers.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC Atlantic replied to your complaint. She told you that the team decided to post the video after it was verified because this was a breaking news story. She pointed out that the headline on the online article contained a warning of course language on the video. The video came to them via Twitter, and in the initial posting they were not able to edit it. Rather, they embedded the Tweet along with the footage in the report.

She also told you that as more information about the incident became available, the article and the video were edited to include a comment from a fire official. In the current version, the questionable language is edited out. Once the team was able to process the video, they were able to edit it.

REVIEW

There are two policies in the Journalistic Standards and Practices that govern the use of potentially offensive language. One is “Language level and good taste”. This refers, as you noted, to avoiding “swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language, except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.” There is a second policy - “Words that shock: Usage and audience advisories” - which lays out the need to provide warning if the decision to use the language is made. It also says:

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.

The video in question was a minute long, and the audio is mostly the voices of the eyewitnesses who recorded it. On two occasions, as they comment on what is unfolding, they use the “f” word. The video is fairly dramatic, showing a yellow school bus enveloped in billowing smoke, students leaving the bus and fire trucks arriving. This event occurred as students were going to school during the morning commute. In the initial phases there was no way of knowing how serious it was, so the decision to get the images on quickly were guided by the desire to get it out there. You are right, the words themselves were not necessary. However, since there was no reporter on the scene, conveying the images was judged the best way to tell the story. The one editor on duty at the time made the decision to post the video with the explicit warning. He and the team decided not to post it on Facebook or re tweet it because then they could not flag the language. There is a news value - although one that shouldn’t ever override values of accuracy - and that is to get a story first. The news team made a judgment call that it was important to upload the video, and having done so, they abided by the policy by putting a prominent warning that it contained shocking language. The headline was “Students evacuated from smoking school bus in St. John’s.” The sub-headline said: “No students injured leaving bus during morning rush hour. Warning: video contains explicit language.”

As soon as they were able, they provided more information about what happened and took the profanity out of the recording. While this was not a life or death situation, faced with a breaking news situation the team published the story while taking into account the sensibilities of some audience members. This was not broadcast on radio, where even if there is a warning one may not have heard it - it was posted online with a warning. It required a click on the video to hear the swear words. I do not consider this a violation of the policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman