Coarse Language in Live Journalistic Context Occasionally Excusable, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, April 6, 2011 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning CP24’s broadcast of the 30th Annual Gay Pride Parade held in Toronto on July 4, 2010.  As a part of the 2010 festival, CP24 provided a live 3-hour broadcast of the week-long finale at 2:00 pm.  The coverage was rebroadcast at 8:00 pm.  CP24 broadcast the following viewer advisory at the beginning of the both the 2:00 and 8:00 pm coverage and following every commercial break: “The following is a live event and may contain scenes of nudity.  Viewer discretion is advised.”  On the day of the broadcast, a complainant, acknowledging that the program was preceded by a warning of nudity, complained “that it was an inappropriate program to be broadcast live at 14:00 on Sunday” and that even “the rebroadcast at 20:00 was too early in the TV schedule for this type of programming.”

The National Specialty Services Panel carefully reviewed the coverage and found “that the challenged broadcast did not display any nudity or discuss any sexual activity.”  In the circumstances, the Panel found the coverage not in breach of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics in terms of any visual content.

During the live broadcast at 2:00 pm, there were, however, three occasions when bystanders being interviewed by one or another of the reporters used the adjective “fucking” or a variant of the f-word to enthusiastically describe some aspect of the parade, the people in attendance or the weather.  Regarding the use of the f-word, the Panel took no issue with “the long-applied principle of ensuring a ‘safe haven’ for audiences uncomfortable with the use of coarse or offensive language on broadcasts outside of later evening hours.”  It added the following perspective on that policy:

It considers that the policy relating to the broadcast of such language applied by the CBSC strikes an appropriate equilibrium between freedom of expression and respect for the values of those viewers (or listeners) concerned by such content.  The securing of a pre-9:00 pm safe haven for the more conservative sector of society is nicely balanced against a more liberal post-9:00 pm policy, which imposes virtually no limitations on the use of coarse or offensive language.

The Panel did, however, state its “concerns regarding the application of such sweeping limitations on the use of coarse language in a journalistic context” but it began its analysis with its appreciation of the fact that

“there are viewers (and listeners) who are genuinely disturbed or offended by such language on the airwaves.”  For that reason, the Panel believes that, wherever it is reasonable to do so and the context for the inclusion of the language is not compelling, broadcasters should employ the inexpensive techniques that exist to filter out such language.

The Panel concluded, though, that, in the limited case of a “live news broadcast” and in circumstances like those encountered in the 2:00 pm live coverage, the use of such coarse language could be excusable.  As the Panel explained, it

appreciates that the interviewers alerted their interviewees not to use extremely coarse language and responded appropriately, that is to say, disapprovingly, to the inclusion of the f-word in the dialogue.  While the broadcaster did not incorporate a tape delay in its coverage, the Panel considers that the innocent enthusiasm of the reactions, the infrequent inclusion of the f-word in an unaggressive way in the lengthy event coverage, the contextual basis for the usage, the journalistic nature of the program, and the reaction of the reporters serve as a fair explanation for the use of the f-word during this live broadcast.  The Panel finds no breach of Clause 10(a) of the CAB Code of Ethics on this occasion.  Moreover, the Panel considers that the inclusion of such language in a similar set of journalistically-contextual circumstances could be reasonably understood as justifiable, and thus excusable, on future occasions.

The Panel also concluded that the broadcaster’s failure to edit out one of the three uses of the f-word in the later, 8:00 pm, rebroadcast which was by definition not live constituted a breach of the coarse language standard of the CAB Code of Ethics.  It also concluded that the failure to include a warning to the audience about the coarse language in the viewer advisories accompanying both the 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm broadcasts of the Pride Parade constituted a breach of the Code requirement for such warnings.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  Nearly 760 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab