Watch your Language!

The complainant, Ronald Mostrey, was offended when a reporter quoted a viewer’s reaction which included the phrase “goddamn”. He thought it gratuitous, unnecessary and a violation of CBC’s language policies. Those policies allow for the use of profanity or swearing if there is an editorial justification, considering social norms. It’s all a judgment call.

COMPLAINT

You were offended by the language used by a reporter in repeating an oath used by a commenter on a story. Reporter Rosa Marchitelli was being interviewed by News Network host Andrew Nichols about a story involving a Vancouver couple and why they were denied access to a co-op apartment in that city. Apparently the co-op’s rules precluded children of different genders sharing a room. This couple had a little boy and a newborn girl. In the course of the discussion, Mr. Nichols asked the reporter about public reaction to the story the CBC Go Public team had broken. She said there was a range of views, including one she quoted “Give them the goddamn two-bedroom now.” You objected to that language:

No matter how one personally views God, to use such language at that time of day, is offensive to everyone in the faith community. Many Canadians have a reverence for God, and this language is particularly offensive for millions of Canadians from diverse backgrounds and faiths.

You added that not only was it offensive to those with a reverence of God, using such language at 3 o’clock in the afternoon could expose young children to the profanity. You were particularly disturbed because the use of this language was “premeditated.” You pointed out it was not a live news event where producers would have no control, but a deliberate choice to repeat the words. There was also no warning before the quote:

I cite the "premeditated" use of this language to be particularly troublesome. I fail to comprehend how any producer would agree that this language was required. I think we all fully got the story and appropriately formed our opinions - we did not need to be shocked by this language.

You pointed out after she said it, Ms. Marchitelli asked if she was permitted to use the phrase on air.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He agreed with you that CBC News is required to “make responsible choices” regarding the language used in its reports. He told you that CBC Journalistic policy requires news staff to be mindful of the generally accepted values of society and to not use swear words or vulgar language gratuitously. He added that while there is no easy way to discern societal values, it was his judgment that the phrase “goddamn” is no longer considered offensive by many Canadians. He also pointed out that there was an editorial justification for using it in this context:

Because “Go Public” stories look at issues that can affect many Canadians, we often include public feedback about the subjects in our reporting, and that was the situation with this report. Ms. Marchitelli said there was significant reaction – some people supported the board’s decision, noting that rules are rules and that the board’s behaviour “wasn’t a big deal” while others were, in Ms. Marchitelli’s words “outraged” at how the family had been treated. In order to relay that sense of injustice, she quoted one observer: “Give them the goddamn two-bedroom now.”

Our producers felt that in the context of this story, use of the word in question was justified. I accept that you feel differently, and I have shared that belief with the News Network leadership. We genuinely appreciate you holding us to account when you are unhappy with our choices. It helps us make better-informed choices in the future.

REVIEW

As Mr. Nagler mentioned, CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy regarding language usage:

We use the language of accessible, articulate everyday speech.

We respect and reflect the generally accepted values of society. We are aware that the audiences we address do not all have the same definition of good taste. We choose a tone that will not gratuitously offend audience sensitivities. In particular we avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.

Another related policy states “it is sometimes necessary to use expressions or quotations that may be shocking to part of the audience.” There are always competing values and considerations in journalistic choices. I appreciate you find the phrase used highly offensive - and others might as well. There is no rigorous, scientific way to judge where the preponderance of opinion lies - but given our highly secular society, I think the judgment that this would fall within accepted values is not an unreasonable one. The other, more important consideration, is the editorial necessity. Ms. Marchitelli told me while the discussion with Mr. Nichols was live, you are right that she had deliberately chosen the reaction of this commenter. In her judgment this best represented the disbelief and strength of the reaction to the co-op decision to deny a family an apartment because of the gender of their children. Is there much to be gained between having said ‘“Give them the two-bedroom apartment now” and using the full phrase? It is more emphatic and expresses the outrage of the commenter. Accuracy is another important journalistic value - and capturing the emotion as expressed is a valid editorial choice.

You pointed out that she commented, after repeating the phrase: “I hope I can say that on TV, by the way.” She said she was reacting to the expression on Mr. Nichols’ face. They both are aware that language is to be used sparingly. Having said that, there is no journalistic obligation to ensure that no one is ever offended by anything; that would make accurate reporting impossible. It is to be avoided, when possible. Your complaint is an important reminder that in addition, when possible, it would be good to let people know they may hear something they might find offensive. While repeating the phrase was editorially defensible, it wasn’t imperative. It is good to remember there is a segment of the audience that might take offence.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman