CFTO-TV re News Promo (“Deadbeat Dads”)

(CBSC Decision 97/98-0549)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), P. Fockler,M. Hogarth and M. Ziniak


On December 3, 1997, CFTO-TV (Toronto) aired a news report on the use
of the Internet to track down delinquent child support payers. The “promo” for
the item was framed as follows: “A new tool to target deadbeat dads – the
Internet”. The actual report, however, dealt with, and used the term, deadbeat parents.

On November 5, 1997, a viewer wrote directly to CFTO News. In his
letter, the complainant stated:

On Wednesday evening(November 3, 1997) at around 11:20 pm, while watching the news on CFTO, there was a brief”preview spot” featuring Ken Shaw highlighting a story which was to follow onNight Beat News. The story was about an Internet website which listed delinquent childsupport payers. Ken Shaw, however, did not call them delinquent child support payers.Neither did he call them deadbeat parents. He called them “deadbeat dads”.

I believe that such a hateful, gender-specific term to beirresponsible, inaccurate and unfair editorializing.

I checked out the website which was featured in this story, and thevery first delinquent parent (of the four listed) was, in fact, a female. The website, infact, referred to delinquent support payers as “deadbeat parents”.

The power which television, and particularly television news, has toshape societal values is immense. When Ken Shaw uttered that insidious phrase, my teenageson immediately looked in my direction. As a father who has paid over $70,000 in childsupport over the last 6 years, in addition to raising my children more than half the time,I am outraged that you can vilify a whole class of people on the basis of marital statusand sex.

I request that you provide me with:

  1. Copies of any departmental, station, network or industry standards orguidelines which address the issue of gender stereotyping.

  2. Assurance that you have taken positive steps which will ensure thatthe hateful sobriquet “deadbeat dads” will be henceforth used editorially byyour staff with the same frequency as the term “nigger”.

I faxed you lastmonth regarding a comment made by Ken Shaw made on the Nightbeat News newscast.

I have still not received any reply regarding my complaint, not evenany acknowledgement of it.

When I reviewed my original complaint and found [sic] that I hadmistakenly dated it November 5, rather than December 5.  If this is the cause of thedelay in responding, I apologize for the confusion.

To reply to your furtherletter with respect to the use of the term deadbeat dads, it’s self evident tome that many more men are in default of support payments than women.

It’s a truth that’s clear to me based on my life experience.If statistics prove me wrong, I will stand corrected. As I tried to say in my previousreply, the use of the term deadbeat dads in the context of both men and womenrepresents an error of omission with respect to women.

That’s no doubt why the editors of the program in question changedthe term to deadbeat parents. But the term deadbeat dads applies accuratelyby definition to men who improperly do not pay support payments. And this point arisesbecause I would not, to ensure that our right of freedom of expression in the news is notcarelessly or improperly abridged, ever give a guarantee that the term would never be usedagain. With respect to the CBSC and what it might entertain, I recommend that you contactthe Council and inquire, or make a complaint if you wish. If the Council accepts thematter, and finds that CFTO News has violated one of its codes, it will perforcehave written regulation with respect to broadcasters which voluntarily accept itsjurisdiction. I do however hope, with respect to your concerns about the timing of ourreply, that you will accept my assurance that we have answered and responded to yourconcerns in absolute good faith.

Enclosed please findmy completed Ruling Request with regard to this file.

I hope it is clear that my complaint is with regard to the promotionaltape aired during the CTV News at approximately 11:20 PM wherein Ken Shaw referred tosupport defaulters as “deadbeat dads”. I have no complaint with regard to thenews story itself, only with the promotional tape.

I do not believe further correspondence with [the broadcaster] willbring us any closer to resolution. I am having a great deal of difficulty with whatappears to me to be a great deal of equivocation and circumlocution on his part.

My position is that the use of “deadbeat dads” to describe agroup or a sub-group which contains both dads and moms is inaccurate, unfair anddiscriminatory reporting.

My position is that to describe such a group in gender-neutral termsdoes not abridge anyone’s freedom of expression as [the broadcaster] seems to implyin his January 28, 1998 letter.

[The broadcaster] and I seem to be in agreement that the term”deadbeat dads”:

Accurately implied, it defines men who have not paid support where theyshould have paid it. ([Broadcaster], January 9, 1998)

might be used in specific instances to describe specific supportdefaulters ([Complainant], January 27, 1998)

applies accurately by definition to men who improperly do not paysupport payments. ([Broadcaster], January 28, 1998)

although he seems loathe to admit the term was incorrectly used in thepromotional tape.

[The broadcaster] and I also seem to be in agreement regarding the term”deadbeat parents”:

… is accurate, given thepresence of some, although not many relatively speaking, of [sic] women ([Broadcaster],January 9, 1998)

the story aired on Nightbeat News which (correctly, in my view) alludedto defaulting support payers as “deadbeat parents” ([Complainant], January 27,1998)

That’s no doubt why the editors of the program in question changedthe term to deadbeat parents ([Broadcaster], January 28, 1998)

Given that we are in suchaccord regarding the usage of the respective terms, it is difficult to comprehend whythere is so much difficulty on [the broadcaster] part in acknowledging the impropriety ofdescribing a mixed-gender group (which by definition has a single, unmistakably negativeattribute) in terms of one gender. Although he comes close to acknowledging theimpropriety of the term in his January 28, 1998 letter:

… the use of the term deadbeat dads in the context of both men andwomen represents an error of omission with respect to women.

He declines to undertake any remedial steps, fearing that his”right of expression in the news” might be “carelessly or improperlyabridged”. I do not see that the use of the term “parents” to describe agroup containing mothers and fathers to be an abridgment of any right of expression.

I believe, on the contrary, that such careless misuse of”dads” to be in contravention of Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics:

broadcasters shallendeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their programming contains noabusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race,national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status or physical ormental handicap.

I also believe it to be incontravention of Clause 6:

… ensure that news shallbe represented with accuracy and without bias.

I further believe it tocontravene Clause 15:

stereotypingimages can and do cause negative influences, it shall be the responsibility ofbroadcasters to exhibit, to the best of their ability, a conscious sensitivity to theproblems related to sex-role stereotyping, by refraining from exploitation and by thereflection of the intellectual and emotional equality of both sexes in programming.

I further believe it tocontravene Article 4 of the Sex Role Portrayal Code (Exploitation):

Negative or degradingcomments on the role and nature of women, men or children in society shall beavoided.

I further believe it tocontravene Article 5 of the Sex Role Portrayal Code (Non-sexist Language):

Broadcasters shall employlanguage of a non-sexist nature in their programming, by avoiding, wheneverpossible, expressions which relate to only one gender.

It is evident in thereplies of [the broadcaster], that his gender bias is referentially transparent and that,in the argot of feminism, “he just doesn’t get it”. Having read some of hisjustifications

… it’s self evidentto me ..

It’s a truth that’s evident to me based on my lifeexperience.

it becomes clear that he isunwilling to consider the reality that such broad-brush generalizations are inaccurate,unfair and demeaning. Under the “Guidance” section of Article 5 of the Sex rolePortrayal Code (Non-sexist Language) it explains:

Such language may perpetuate attitudes or representations of personswhich tend to attribute particular roles and characteristics on the basis of their gender,without taking them into consideration as individuals.

I would add that not only does such language perpetuate such attitudes,it can also serve to generate and propagate such attitudes.

I would also register my complaint with regard to the time taken toaddress my concern. My original complaint (December 5, 1997, although it was mis-dated asNovember 5), a second missive on January 6, 1998, and a further retransmission of bothletters on January 19, 1998 all preceded the receipt of [the broadcaster] first response.That response was dated January 9, 1998, but was not received until January 23, 1998. Thedate on the postage meter mark on that envelope was January 14, 1998. The second responsewas eminently timely.

I am also resentful of his (mis)attributing to me “racialepithets”. There was a single epithet which I feel (and which [the broadcaster]evidently does not feel) to be equally hateful and degrading as the term used by Ken Shawand which I used to try to convey in terms that CFTO might appreciate, the extent of myindignation.

The Canadian BroadcastStandards Council has been good enough to send me a copy of your letter dated February 8,1998.

I would like to say that the issue for us in not whether some women, ormany women, have defaulted on or refused to pay support payments. It is whether theexpression Deadbeat Dads has any place in news coverage at all, or whether it oughtto be banned from the air in Canada.

I have taken it from your letter to [the CFTO News representative] thatyou believe that it should be banned. You called it a “hateful sobriquet” andyou compared it to the term “nigger.”

In your later letters you take the position that my acknowledgment thatthis usage was an error of omission is not satisfactory to you. I can assure you that Iregret this error of omission as I regret all errors occurring in the news.

But I cannot agree with your statement that this is a hateful sobriquetand I will not guarantee, as you have clearly asked, that it be banned forever. It appearsto me to be a widely-used journalistic expression, broadly accepted in the community.

I do not find it discriminatory (except on moral grounds) nor does itstereotype men as a whole, nor does it comment negatively on the role of all men, nor isit sexist anymore than an expression such as “cad” or “womanizer”which describes generally unacceptable conduct as committed by a man, or men.

I recognized that this is a very sensitive matter for you. But I wouldask you to reflect on the importance of our ability to speak freely without being censoredby state-of-mind objections, in matters where no individual or group is being criticizedunfairly.

[b] Television and radioprogramming shall portray all persons as supporting participants in family, homemanagement and household tasks. Women and men should participate on an equitable basis inorganizing such family activities as health care and financial matters, encompassing awide range of responsibilities and decision-making roles.

Guidance: The interpretation of this provision depends to a largeextent on individual experience and beliefs, and is therefore open to discussion. Forexample, in one family, the sharing in all chores and responsibilities related to familyand home may be on a 50:50 basis, while in another, it may mean that one partnercontributes as the wage-earner while the other offers an equitable contribution as homemanager, performer of domestic tasks and/or caregiver to spouse and children.

[c] Television and radio programming shall respect the principles ofintellectual and emotional equality of both sexes and the dignity of all individuals.Television and radio programming should portray women and men as equal beneficiaries ofthe positive attributes of family or single-person life. Women and men should perform in arange of occupations and function as intellectual and emotional equals in all types ofthematic circumstances. This should be the case for both work and leisure activitiesrequiring varying degrees of intellectual competence.

Guidance: Women and men should be portrayed as working toward acomfortable existence through mutual support, both economically and emotionally, and inboth public and private spheres. Despite the problems of societal systemic discrimination,television and radio programming should reflect an awareness of the need to avoid andovercome discrimination on the basis of gender.

Equality of the sexes mustbe recognized and reinforced through the proper use of language and terminology.Broadcasters shall employ language of a non-sexist nature in their programming, byavoiding, whenever possible, expressions which relate to only one gender.

Guidance: Sexist language is language that unnecessarilyexcludes one sex or gives unequal treatment to women and men. Such language may perpetuateattitudes or representations of persons which tend to attribute particular roles andcharacteristics on the basis of their gender, without taking them into consideration asindividuals. Examples of non-sexist language are the use of occupational titles such as”fire fighter” instead of “fireman” and avoiding the exclusive use ofmasculine words in making general references, e.g. “synthetic” instead of”man-made”. Broadcasters should refer to the CAB Guidelines for Non-SexistLanguage for further assistance.

Early on, the Councilrecognized that Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics requires a weighing of competingvalues. In CHTZ-FM re the Morning Show (CBSC Decision 92/93-0148, October 26, 1993)the Council noted that “it must balance the right of audiences to receive programmingwhich is free of abusive or discriminatory material … with the fundamental right of freespeech in Canadian society.” The application of this balancing act in various CBSCdecisions evolved into an “abusiveness criteria”; i.e. the establishment of a”test” whereby a comment must not merely be discriminatory to constitutea breach of Clause 2, it must be abusively so.

The Council does not consider the phrase “deadbeat dads” used in this context to be abusively discriminatory per se, so as to be contrary to Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

The Council does agree that the phrase conveys a stereotypical image of defaulting male child support payers. Moreover, it believes that the term is probably used both for profound and shallow reasons. While the Council is not a fact-finding or research-oriented body, its representative members are entitled, indeed, expected, to be able to make certain judgments which appear reasonable on their face. In this case, they do believe that, on the profound level, the media (print and broadcast) use the term because they have come to expect that most, but surely not all, defaulters are men. On the shallow level, they believe that the term used to describe this state of anticipated reality is also attractive to broadcasters because of its alliterative nature. Even if one assumes that the statistical basis for the phrase “deadbeat dads” is correct, it does not mean that it should be used indiscriminately. Indeed, it is the view of the Regional Council that the term should be used with discernment and only when the term appropriately describes the group in question (see the section below on the use of the phrase in this case). The implication in this view of the Council is, of course, that there are circumstances in which the term may be used with impunity.

The complainant referred to many provisions of the various Codes administered by the Council in his complaint. One of these was Clause 5 of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code which refers to Non-sexist Language. While the Council does not dispute that the phrase is “sexist” in the purest sense of the word, it does not consider that it is one that is targeted by Clause 5. In the Council’s view, Clause 5 deals with inadvertent/historical references to gender in language whereas Clause 2 of the Code of Ethics is the more appropriate choice to deal with a complaint concerning a word or phrase which has an intended discriminatory component. The Council notes that Clause 5 states that “Broadcasters shall employ language of a non-sexist nature in their programming, by avoiding, whenever possible, expressions which relate to only one gender.” [Emphasis added.] Arguably, when the gender reference is intended, i.e. the commentary is meant to be discriminatory, it is not possible to avoid the use of the sexist language and therefore Clause 5 cannot apply.

Use of the Phrase in the Promo in Question

Having concluded that an outright ban of the phrase is neither required nor desirable, the Council now turns its attention to the question of whether the phrase “deadbeat dads” was used appropriately in this case. The Council easily concludes that it was not. This conclusion has been facilitated by the broadcaster’s early recognition that “the use of the deadbeat dads in the context of both men and women represents an error of omission with respect to women.” The Council notes that these were not just words used by the broadcaster in its correspondence. The principle was put into action right away; CFTO-TV corrected its mistake by using the phrase “deadbeat parents” in the actual news report, as acknowledged by the complainant himself.

In the circumstances, while the Council agrees with the broadcaster that an “error of omission” has occurred, it does not consider that a finding of a breach of Clause 6 of the Code of Ethics is warranted in the circumstances. Where an honest error occurs which is not of major proportion and is corrected quickly, the CBSC will not, in the absence of other material considerations, find a Code breach. Examples can be found in the following cases. In CFRA-AM re the Mark Sutcliffe and Lowell Green Shows (CBSC Decisions 9697-0083, 0084 and 0085, May 7, 1997), the Ontario Regional Council said:

Of the principal issues raised by the complaint, the first relates to the identification of Mr. Nicholls as “Jamaican”. This occurred to a much less significant extent than has been suggested in the letter of complaint. The characterization of Mr. Nicholls as “Jamaican” did not last for more than 30 minutes of the first of the three programs being reviewed here. It appears to have been an honest error and one which, in any event, was corrected by Mr. Sutcliffe himself as quickly as the information [that Mr. Nicholls was St. Lucian] became available to him. It does not constitute a breach of either the CAB or the RTNDA Codes of Ethics.

The Council interpreted the meaning of “errors will be quickly acknowledged and publicly corrected” in CITY-TV re CityPulse (Neighbourhood Drug Bust) (CBSC Decision 96/97-0216, February 20, 1998). In that case, the broadcaster acknowledged that it had made a “sloppy generalization” in reporting that a drug bust had occurred in Parkdale, when in fact it had occurred elsewhere in the West End of Toronto. The Council found that the statement was made inadvertently and that the inaccuracy was not so significant as to constitute a breach of the Code. It further stated:

The complainant argued that “the error should be corrected publicly in accordance with Article 2 of the RTNDA Code of Ethics.” The Council’s interpretation of the Article 2 terminology “quickly acknowledged and publicly corrected” does not match that of the complainant who appears to be seeking an “on bended knee” solution by the broadcaster. This is not, in the view of the CBSC, the goal of this RTNDA provision. The broadcast medium does not favour the use of retractions given its fast pace and constant evolution of the news in multiple daily newscasts. While an error in the print media has a long lasting effect, the impact of an error in the broadcast media is far more ephemeral. After all, television newscasts are regularly repeated throughout the day and, except for the 28-day logger tape retention required by the CRTC and the CBSC, are not generally publicly archived by anyone. The Council does not believe that it would be unfair to observe that, whether for space storage or other reasons, broadcast reports are not considered to have the archival value of the print media, which all “live” forever in original or microfilmed formats in the National Library and many other libraries in Canada and around the world. It is that permanence which in part results in the need for an equally permanent retraction process.

Retractions are, as one might expect, of a very different nature and serve a different purpose in the electronic arena. They are less frequently required than in the print media for the reasons given above. In the view of the Council, acknowledgment would probably only be required in the event of a matter of great moment and widespread effect. The more important goal of Article 2 is the “publicly corrected”; this was accomplished. Nor was there any need to repeat the previous mistake in making the correction; the broadcaster’s job is just to present the information correctly. Moreover, the textual revision was done “quickly”, as envisaged by the other adverb in the sentence. Accordingly, the Council is of the view that CITY-TV’s actions vis-à-vis the inaccuracy noted by the complainant were entirely appropriate and sufficient.

The Council does not consider that the broadcaster could have moved more rapidly than it did to put the matter right in this case; the finding of a breach is not warranted in the circumstances.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint. In this case, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s commitment to resolving the issue was reflected in the voluminous correspondence which it had with the complainant to try to explain its point of view and to deal with the issues raised by the complainant, even though they did not see eye to eye on the resolution of those matters. The responses addressed fully and fairly the issues raised by the complainant, despite their differing conclusions. Nothing more is required.