The complainant, Terry Brockway, was unhappy about “unnecessary sexual language” on CBC Nova Scotia’s supper hour newscast. His complaint illustrates questions the public can have about the type of care journalists should use when describing stories that some people will find disturbing.
On Friday, December 7th, you were watching CBC Nova Scotia News, the supper-hour television newscast produced in Halifax.
The program included a report by Angela MacIvor updating the case of a school teacher on trial for sex-related offences involving a former student. This was not the first time the case had been covered. This report was an update based on court documents obtained by CBC News. The documents outlined circumstances that prompted the former student to approach police, and included some details of their relationship, including text messages allegedly written by the teacher.
You were bothered by the way these details were described on the program, describing them as “unnecessary sexual language”:
She (the reporter) said, "he touched her vagina." My grandchildren, ages 9 and 12 years, were present with me listening to the news when the reporter made that comment. My grandchildren then queried as to what was meant by that phrase. Is it really necessary for the CBC to report in such vivid language so early in the evening when children are likely viewing?
Nancy Waugh, Managing Editor for CBC Atlantic, replied to your complaint.
She shared with you the transcript of the relevant portion of the report, which reads as follows:
“She told police they spent time together, held hands, touched intimately and kissed.
It was when Harrison allegedly touched her vagina that the young woman became uncomfortable.”
Ms. Waugh said that programmers felt it was important to report this detail so that it would help the public better understand the case.
She acknowledged that CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP) includes guidelines that call for pre-emptive warnings before a program uses words that could potentially shock part of the public. She then explained the rationale of the programmers for not doing so in this instance:
Our producers wouldn’t normally expect young children to be watching television news. In their judgement the brevity of the script and the potentially critical nature of that final fact necessitated the quote but did not warrant a full “warning advisory.” That said, I believe the nature of the content could have been signalled more strongly in the host introduction to Ms. MacIvor’s report.
I want to begin by making something clear: the word “vagina” is not a word that should be considered offensive or distasteful. It is a body part possessed by half the world’s population, and there is no reason to dismiss the term as profane. There are times where it is absolutely appropriate for CBC journalists to use it.
There are issues of taste and judgment worth exploring here, but it is because of the lurid nature of the story, not because of “the v-word”.
So, with that in mind, there are two questions to consider - did CBC journalists make appropriate choices around language - and what, if any, obligation was there to provide an advisory warning.
The JSP has language to address the first question in a section called “Language Level and Good Taste” that reads as follows:
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.
Now let’s look again at the transcript of the key portion of this report:
“She told police they spent time together, held hands, touched intimately and kissed. It was when Harrison allegedly touched her vagina that the woman became uncomfortable.”
Those words are not direct quotes from the court documents. The reporter, Ms. MacIvor, was paraphrasing. It is instructive that she did not choose her words without consultation. She told me that she had a conversation with a senior producer in the newsroom about what information was necessary to include so that the public would understand the true nature of the case.
You may disagree with that choice, but the process involved to get there was professional and appropriate. There are stories in the news that involve unpleasant details, and CBC editors and producers necessarily have discretion to make judgment calls about what to include, even if those calls are not met with universal agreement.
To exercise this discretion, however, we presume that CBC journalists will also exercise humility and awareness of community sensitivities. That is why there should have been an advisory warning. It would account for the likelihood that some viewers (be they adults or children) could be uncomfortable with the level of detail included in the report, and give them the opportunity to turn away. I believe that Ms. Waugh’s reply acknowledges implicitly that this should have happened.
I have no sympathy at all for the argument put forward by producers that they “wouldn’t normally expect young children to be watching television news.” This program was on at 6 PM, when it’s entirely conceivable that families would have a television on and tuned to a newscast. I would expect producers to be aware of that when deciding how to handle and portray stories involving delicate matters such as this one.
The JSP includes a section on “Respect for Young Audiences”
Our obligations as a broadcast licensee include a commitment to refrain from broadcasting programs containing adult situations, scenes of violence or those that are sexually explicit before the “watershed” hour of 9 p.m.
There are times some programs, newscasts or online content not reserved for adult consumption contain material unsuitable for young children. We will broadcast an audience advisory before the program, segments or other material is shown or appears on the website.
There was no violation of policy in Ms. MacIvor’s report - the choice to report on and include detail of these criminal proceedings is acceptable within a newscast. However, neglecting to include an advisory warning is a violation of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices. I would encourage CBC management to ensure that producers and journalists recognize their own sensitivities around language, sounds, and imagery are not universally shared.