Strong Language - Warning Required.

The complainant, Bob Found, considered the repetition of a blasphemous phrase in quoting a witness in a murder trial sensationalistic and done for shock value. The warning on the report was not clear enough, but the editorial decision did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a blasphemous phrase used in the course of a news report on the CBC Halifax supper hour TV newscast. You considered it completely gratuitous and repeated only for its shock value: “Not only was I shocked by the language but also that it was even NECESSARY (sic) for the story.” Reporter Blair Rhodes was quoting the testimony of one of the witnesses in a murder trial. The words were in a message he had received from the murder victim shortly before she died. He quoted the phrase “Jesus f-ing Christ.” You said this was insulting to Christians and wondered if the reporter would have used the phrase if, instead of Jesus, the deity invoked was Allah or Buddha. You noted that the reporter could have conveyed the frustration of the person who said it by paraphrasing what was said. There was no need or value in saying it at all.

We news watchers are pretty intelligent bunch. We could have figured out the guy’s displeasure if Rhodes had indicated a religious slur had been yelled out.

You asked that CBC apologize.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Ken MacIntosh, the Executive Producer of Nova Scotia news and current affairs, replied to your concerns. He explained the reasoning and the consideration that went into the decision to quote the phrase. Journalists must balance the importance of reporting a particular piece of evidence against the potential to offend some members of the audience in doing so and this case he considered it appropriate. He reminded you of the context of the use. Blair Rhodes was reporting the words of the victim, Kristin Johnston, as conveyed by the man who had received the message from her and testified that day in court.

He said they decided to use the language in part because of another policy dealing with court coverage, something he saw as a priority. The policy he quoted stated:

Citizens have the right to know how the State is discharging its responsibility to enforce the law and help suppress crime….Our mission to serve the public interest includes rigorous scrutiny of the work of police and courts. In doing so we help ensure the openness on which the legitimacy of these institutions rests.

He elaborated why he thought this was applicable in this instance:

In this case one person is dead and the future of another person hangs in the balance. We believe it’s important that the community understand the evidence upon which decisions are made.

He explained that the JSP also provides guidance on strong language, which advises against its gratuitous use. If they decide to include it in a report, there is an obligation to provide a warning. He acknowledged that was not done in this case and should have been.

REVIEW

There are two aspects of the JSP on language that are relevant:

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.

The second reference specifically addresses coarse or profane language:

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 respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.

When we find it necessary to use words that could shock part of the public, we give a clear audience advisory.

The phrase in question came at the end of a brief report from Blair Rhodes, the reporter who was covering the trial. The report centred around the last hours of Kristin Johnston’s life, based on the testimony of her friends who had been with her until she went off with the accused. Mr. Rhodes reviewed what the witness said and ended by quoting the witness, Mike Belyea’s repetition of his very last communication with his friend via Facebook messenger. This is what Mr. Rhodes repeated:

He says at 5:30, he got a Facebook message from Kristin Johnston in which he got a strongly worded apology . It said "Jesus F--king Christ. I'm sorry." That was the last he heard from her. The crown has already told the jury around 7:45 that morning Butcher himself called 911.

Belyea says the next thing he heard, was a phone call later that same morning saying Johnston was dead.

The decision to repeat offensive language is a judgment call - a judgment about the editorial value of including it, and a judgment call about how likely it would be to cause offense or distress. In this case, this was the last correspondence the victim had - it is in the context of a tumultuous evening involving the witness, Ms. Johnston and the accused. You are right, Mr. Rhodes could have said she used an obscenity when she apologized. It would not have had the same impact, and that is a judgment call. It was a valid one. There is no one right answer in these situations, but an assessment of competing values and needs. When you examine the way Mr. Rhodes phrased his live report, there is no evidence his intent was to shock. He took some measures to try and soften the impact by leading into it by saying it was a “strongly worded” apology and by abbreviating and not saying the f-word, which, in fact, is in line with CBC practice. The producers of the programme violated policy, however, by not providing a warning at the outset. You dismissed this as a remedy, asking whether mothers and fathers must send their children from the room when a warning is issued. That is entirely their choice. News is not for children, it is for adults, and very often its content is disturbing. In the case of this trial, for instance, I would hope warnings were issued if there was any graphic reporting on the physical scene and the nature of the injuries to the victim and the convicted killer.

This report did not live up to CBC standards because it failed to provide a warning at the outset. The reporter attempted to mitigate that, and his decision to use the full phrase is a valid journalistic choice.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman