Erroneous Use of the Term “Scab Worker” Is Problematic, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, August 31, 2010 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning news reports about an elevator accident broadcast on CFMJ (AM640, Toronto) on June 24, 2009.  The report referred to an accident that had occurred earlier that morning at an office building in downtown Toronto resulting in the death of an elevator maintenance worker.  A listener complained that the report had suggested the man might be a “scab” worker when that was not in fact the case.  The majority of the CBSC’s Ontario Regional Panel upheld the complaint, but two Adjudicators dissented from the majority’s finding.

Multiple reports broadcast during the day informed listeners about the accident and the ongoing situation at the office tower.  At least two reports stated that the deceased “may have” or “could have” been a scab worker because the union representing maintenance workers for the building had been locked out in a labour dispute.  The listener’s complaint explained that the deceased man was an employee of a company working on contract at the building and not part of the unionized group in the labour dispute.  The listener wrote that it was “callous” and “unacceptable” for the station to call the man a “scab” and that this was insensitive to the man’s family.  AM640 explained that this was a breaking news story with updates occurring quickly, that its reliable sources had informed it that maintenance workers at the building were locked out, and that, for this reason, the reports used the words “may have been”.

The majority of the Ontario Regional Panel concluded that these were not sufficient justifications for the erroneous use of the term “scab” in the reports under the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and the Radio Television News Directors Association’s (RTNDA) Code of Ethics.  The majority noted that the dictionary defines “scab” as a pejorative term when used in a labour context.  It went on to say:

This does not, of course, mean that the term “scab” cannot be used to describe a strike-breaker; however, its very negative connotations mean that any broadcaster must be particularly careful before casting such aspersions.

In the matter at hand, the majority considers that such care was not taken.  The individual, regrettably deceased, was identified as a scab although the evidence of that appears, on the basis of the broadcaster’s own letter, to have been tenuous.  […]

[…]

The majority puts no stock in the broadcaster’s use of the word “may” in their incorrect conclusion that the deceased “may have been a scab.”  Such a sentence would likely have been determined by many, if not most, listeners to have been as close as imaginable to an identification of the deceased as a scab.  In other words, the majority is not at all convinced that the insertion of the apparent hedging word “may” brought the broadcaster far enough away from the edge of a crumbling terminological cliff to be safe.  The sentence seems far more an identification of the deceased as a scab than not as a scab.  And what the majority finds particularly reprehensible in that usage is that the identification of the deceased in that way was utterly irrelevant to the news item. It was not germane to the story being told and it was inaccurate.

Two Adjudicators, however, wrote a dissenting opinion.  They considered that “the speculative use of the term ‘scab’ was not unreasonable based on the information available to the broadcaster at the time of the two challenged news reports” because the information came from its regular, normally reliable source and the information was hedged with the term “may”.  They also stated that, “in the 21st century, scab is a common equivalent of ‘strike-breaker’ or ‘replacement worker’.

All of the Panel Adjudicators were in agreement that no correction of the error was required in subsequent broadcasts because confirmation about the worker’s employment situation was not necessarily available soon after the original reports.

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.  More than 735 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