Use of “scab” in broadcast problematic: CBSC

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has responded to a listener complaint that CFMJ (AM640 Toronto) suggested a man who died in an elevator accident might be a “scab” worker.

At least two reports broadcast during June 24,2009 about the death of a maintenance worker said that the deceased “may have” or “could have” been a scab worker, as the maintenance union for the building had been locked out in a labour dispute. The listener complained that the man was, in fact, a contract employee for the company and wasn’t represented by the union.

Broadcaster Magazine writes:

“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”.”

Broadcaster reports that “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.”

Here is the panel’s ruling:

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 panel adjudicators disagreed, writing 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 an apparently reliable source and the information was hedged with the term “may””, adding “in the 21st century, scab is a common equivalent of ‘strike-breaker’ or ‘replacement worker’, one that is no more negatively value-laden than the latter terms.”