Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Labouring over language

Categories: Journalism


In May 1943, we told our journalists to stop calling fights between workers and companies labour disputes. The wording lacked objectivity, an internal CBC memo said, because the expression emphasized labour over management.

Earlier this month, we sent out a similar note about labour disputes, pointing out that neutral alternatives such as contract disputes are just as conversational. The email included a refresher on distinguishing between lockouts and strikes, and to reserve the label wildcat strikes for sudden walkouts that are unauthorized by the union itself.

Does the fact we've been reminding our news service about the pitfalls of terms such as "labour dispute" for at least 70 years illustrate the futility of guidelines? No. To us, it reflects the reality of daily journalism.

Like most large media organizations, the CBC has standards established over the decades. These standards reflect key principles, including accuracy, clarity, impartiality, fairness and respect.

To help our journalists produce an endless stream of TV, radio and online stories, we have an electronic Language Guide -- an internal style and usage resource founded on these principles.
Examples of accuracy and clarity: Differentiating between deficits (deficiencies) and debts (accumulated deficits), as well as between meteors (a meteoroid in the Earth's atmosphere) and meteorites (what's left of a meteoroid that actually hits the planet).

Examples of impartiality and fairness: Avoiding labels like denier for critics or skeptics of climate change research, liberation therapy for the controversial medical treatment MS vein therapy, and either security fence or apartheid wall for what's more neutrally called the West Bank barrier.

Examples of respect: Avoiding racist, sexist or other offensive terms, including gyp (linked to Gypsy), and go postal for uncontrollable rage that singles out one occupation. Respect also covers wording that is gratuitously graphic or profane (e.g., unnecessary details about a violent crime that provides no editorial benefit, but which may aggravate the grief of victims or their families).

Sometimes, a language distinction is minor because the intended meaning is widely understood. Cement, for instance, is a binding agent while concrete is a solid substance that includes sand and crushed rock. At other times, the difference is crucial (e.g., inflammable actually means easily flammable, while non-flammable means incombustible). And while some aspects of English are as stable as concrete (e.g., it's versus its), others are highly incendiary, capable of igniting fierce debate even when handled with care.

When there's confusion or disagreement over language, a few veteran CBC journalists are delegated to make decisions, consulting various internal and external resources first. Potentially contentious rulings need to be approved by the director of journalistic standards and practices. In certain cases, a policy committee is asked for input. When required, the editor-in-chief's office makes the final call.

Many language rulings are fraught with difficulty because they involve weighing pros and cons. But having in-house style based on thoughtful deliberations is far better than a vacuum, filled by whoever happens to be writing or editing a story during a given shift. And no matter how subjective some decisions must be, our judgments remain guided by core values.

Picking between oilsands and tarsands is a good example. The most neutral description is bitumen. We sometimes use it, but the word is not as conversational or as widely understood. At one point we considered just switching back and forth between oilsands and tarsands, but that can introduce its own problems, starting with confusion and inconsistency.

Instead, CBC News chose oilsands as our preference in 2009 based in large part on the principles of clarity and accuracy. The first step was to consider arguments from both sides. Opponents of bitumen development in Alberta prefer "tar" because it sounds dirtier. But while bitumen is tar-like, it's not actually tar. Furthermore, the goal of extraction is oil production.

The decision to go with oilsands doesn't mean we favour one side over the other. We strive to keep our reporting balanced. It also doesn't mean that we don't quote people who say tarsands. We never impose our internal style rulings on those we cover.

Our Language Guide is constantly expanded and updated. Gone are the old days of paper memos and printed booklets. An electronic resource is now at the fingertips of all CBC staff. Rulings are revisited and revised as needed to reflect shifts in common usage, changes in editorial policies and practices, etc. This includes considering feedback from staff as well as our audience.

Will internal reminders about "labour dispute" still be sent out 70 years from now? Impossible to say. It's a good bet, however, we'll continue to find ourselves labouring over language disputes, drawing on our journalistic principles to draft the most reasoned and practical guidelines we can.


Blair Shewchuk is standards editor for CBC News.

Tags: How We Work, Policy

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