CIII-TV re Newscast (Early Parole Hearing)

(CBSC Decision 96/97-0001)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), P. Fockler, M. Hogarth, M. Ziniak

The Facts

Among the many issues covered in the Global TV 6:30 p.m. newscast of August 12, 1996
was the story of the early parole hearing for Clifford Olson, the convicted murderer serving
a life sentence (with no eligibility for release for 25 years). The host introduced the report
on the hearing (which occurred as the result of the exceptional measure provided to
convicted murderers in the “faint hope clause” in the Criminal Code) in the following words:

It was exactly 15 years ago today that Clifford Olson was arrested for the murders of 11
children in British Columbia and that also means that, as of today, Olson becomes eligible
to apply for early parole. As his victims' families observe this very painful anniversary,
they're continuing to fight the section of the Criminal Code that makes it possible, as
Global's Robin Percival reports.

Robin Percival's introduction of the two-and-a-half-minute news story was done in the
following terms:

Clifford Olson is serving a life sentence for the sex slayings of 11 children. That means no
chance of parole for 25 years except under one circumstance. Under section 745 of the
Criminal Code, he can apply for a review of his parole eligibility after just 15 years which
makes him eligible to apply as of today.

Her report then moved to an interview with the parent of one of the victims who discussed
her concerns relating both to the idea of holding a hearing after fifteen years and to
Olson's alleged manipulation of the system. Robin Percival continued her report on the
so-called “faint hope clause” with statements by a representative of the Canadian Police
Association, Justice Minister Alan Rock and MP John Nunziata on the issue of amending
section 745. She finished with an interview of another parent of a victim who discussed
the ongoing pain of 15 years. Percival closed with the following words:

Although it's unlikely that Olson would actually get early parole, critics say the “faint hope
clause” gives criminals more opportunity to torment their victims. Still, any amendments
to the clause won't be made until the House resumes sitting in the fall at the earliest. Robin
Percival, Global News, Ottawa.

The Letter of Complaint

The complaint of August 12, which was written directly to Robin Percival and copied to the
CBSC, came from a victim of an assault. She was concerned with the media's, and this
reporter's, use of the word “sex” in connection with such violent crimes. [The boldface
emphasis is original.]

Over and over you hear these phrases, take your pick, you all use them. Sex crimes, sex
criminals, sex offenses, sex offenders, sex murders, sex murderers, or your favourite, sex slayings. Do you have some kind of secret rule in the media to see how many times
you can use the word 'sex' inappropriately, incorrectly and in a way that offends as
many people as possible?

That is how you and other newsreaders and reporters refer to these perverts and what they
have done. Even though no one but the tragically naive or the totally ignorant believe these
types of crimes are, in fact, motivated by sexual desire or primarily about sexual activity
at all. If all these people wanted was sex they'd go find a normal partner or hire a hooker
for god's sake. But they don't do they? Because sex is not the point. That's not why they
perpetrate these crimes. That is the superficial appearance of these crimes, it is the form
of acting out these criminals choose to use, but no, it has little if anything to do with sex.
That's the media's, and thus the public's, preoccupation and overly simplistic 'explanation'
for what these criminals do. If you look beyond the surface, you will see what all this is really
about, and that is violence—violence against victims invariably smaller and weaker than
themselves. It's about hatred and contempt for the innocence, the vulnerability and the right
of their victims to say 'no.' It's about having total power and control over their victims. It's
about using them as objects to act out their sick fantasies or to work out their grudges, with
their victims becoming scapegoats for those who have 'wronged' them in some way.

This is not about 'political correctness'. If for no other reason I would wish this abuse and
misuse of language changed because it isn't even grammatically correct. I challenge you
to find a dictionary that defines 'sex' as an adjective, which is how all of you seem to use
it. And if you have no standards when it comes to the use of the English language, I would
ask you to at least be accurate in your reporting of events. As far as I know, 'sex' and
'crime' are not synonymous, and combined, the words become an oxymoron. And as far
as I know, 'sex' is not listed in the Criminal Code as a crime. But harassment is, rape is,
molestation is, assault is, murder is. No, as far as I can tell, sex is considered an entirely
legal, voluntary activity between consenting individuals. And 'sex slaying'? I don't recall
'slaying' being used as a legal term, it's not even commonly used in everyday conversation,
so why do you use it? Because it's 'catchy'? Because it goes so well with 'sex'? I would
ask you to really think about the words you use, why and the impact they have on the people
who hear them. And please talk to your colleagues about this.

The Broadcaster's Response

In his letter of September 5, the Executive Producer of News and Information Programming
for Global News apologized for any distress this story may have caused the complainant
and explained that:

I am writing in reply to your letter of concern relating to our most recent “Clifford Olson”
news story. First I want to apologize for any distress Ms. Percival's story may have caused
you and assure you that the offending terminology was not used for the sake of
sensationalism. While the term “sex crime” may be arguable [sic] grammatically incorrect,
it has become accepted jargon in today's society. It is a broad designation commonly used
to indicate crimes where sexual violation or assault is involved. I believe as you do that
most people understand that crimes of this type are not motivated by sexual desire. I hope
Global News and other media are partially responsible for enlightening the general public
in this regard. As journalists we regularly deal with sensitive and controversial issues and
we are very aware of the impact our stories have on viewers. We are also cautious of given
[sic] unnecessary news coverage to certain publicity seeking individuals. In the case of Ms.
Percival's story it related to legislation I am sure, especially from your perspective, needed
further examination. Secondly the press conference at the centre of her story was arranged
by the families of Clifford Olson's victims. They want to see the law effecting [sic] early
parole changed. I again apologize for anything you may have found offensive but I hope you
accept the positive aspects of our report as well. It provided an opportunity for victims to get
their concerns before the public and the legislators who can effect change.

The complainant was unsatisfied with this response and requested, on September 19, that
the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Regional Council for adjudication.

The CBSCs Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under Clause 6 of the
CAB Code of Ethics, which reads as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 (News)

It shall be the responsibility of member stations to ensure that news shall be represented
with accuracy and without bias. The member station shall satisfy itself that the
arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result. It shall also ensure that news
broadcasts are not editorial. News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or
hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be designed by the beliefs
or opinions or desires of the station management, the editor or others engaged in its
preparation or delivery. The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy
is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may
form their own conclusions.

Therefore, nothing in the foregoing shall be understood as preventing news broadcasters
from analysing and elucidating news so long as such analysis or comment is clearly labelled
as such and kept distinct from regular news presentations. Member stations will, insofar as
practical, endeavour to provide editorial opinion which shall be clearly labelled as such and
kept entirely distinct from regular broadcasts of news or analysis and opinion.

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and
editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question and reviewed
all of the correspondence. While the Council considers that the program in question does
not violate the CAB Code of Ethics, it does sympathize with an important point made by
the complainant. Both the conclusion regarding the Code and the discussion of the non-Code related point of the complainant are dealt with below.

The Content of the Program

In the news report in question, the term “sex slayings” was used only once, namely, in the
introduction to the two-and-a-half-minute report, which, in the view of the Council, was
entirely focussed on the issue of the “faint hope clause” and the appropriateness of early
parole eligibility for the perpetrators of heinous crimes. In general, the Council considers
that the news report in question was sober and responsible and, more to the point, was
“full, fair and proper” as required by the Code of Ethics. In the circumstances, the Council
has no hesitation in concluding the Global Television was not in breach of the news
provision of the Code of Ethics.

The Use of the Term “Sex” in Reporting Physical Crimes

Despite this conclusion, the Council considers that there is an important message in the
complaint which rises above the simple technical concern of Code breaches and which
was obviously the paramount issue for the complainant. Her concern was related, in a
broad sense, to the use of the word “sex” in reports concerning crimes involving rape,
murder and other forms of violence against women (which could be extended, presumably,
to cover men and children of either gender). The Council members agree with the
complainant that there may be a tendency in the media to readily use the word “sex”
adjectivally in relation to the reporting of crimes whose nature is not essentially sexual, but
which rather involve an abuse of power. The issue for the Council is not a grammatical
one; it relates rather to a willingness, even if generally unintentional, to link “sex”, a
generally permissible social activity, with physical crimes extending from assault through
murder, which are not. The Council considers that broadcasters should be more cautious
in their linking of the two.

The Broadcasters Response

The CBSC always recognizes the broadcaster's obligation, as a CBSC member, to be
responsive to complainants. In this case, the Regional Council considers that the
response from the broadcaster dealt fairly and sensitively with the issues raised by the
complainant. Nothing more could have been expected of Global. Consequently, the
station did not breach the Council's standard of responsiveness.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards
Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint
had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is
under no obligation to announce the result.