3. Graphic content and broadcast policy

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CBC and Global are both subject to the Broadcasting Act, which makes no direct mention of airing images of violence. Instead, it defers to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which has established criteria that calls for graphic content advisories, restricts gratuitous or glamorized violence, and states when graphic content can be aired [1]. The only reference to violence is buried in the CRTC’s Television Broadcasting Regulations, which states that broadcasters aren’t allowed to broadcast “any obscene or profane” content [2].

Global is a member of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), which nearly every private television and radio station in Canada is a member of. The council writes policy, registers complaints, and arbitrates disputes between viewers and broadcasters. On violence, the CBSC states, “Programming containing gratuitous violence not be telecast” [3]. Like obscenity, gratuity is a moving target, defined as any content that isn’t integral to advancing the story. In effect, the policy is identical to the CBC’s.

Obscenity isn’t readily identifiable, though. In Media Law for Canadian Journalists, Jobb notes that “what is obscene or profane is a matter of individual taste and the test is what the audience as a whole considers appropriate” [4]. In short, obscenity is only loosely defined, so even where there is a standard or rule to refer to, the decision to broadcast violence is nevertheless a matter of discretion.

The CBC’s editorial policy is spelled out in its Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP), which Burgess says is referred to on a daily basis by CBC journalists. On depicting violence, these guidelines state:

  • We respect our audience by assessing the impact of our images according to time of day and the context of the program where such material is appearing.
  • Scenes of violence and suffering are part of our coverage of wars, disaster, crime and conflict.
  • We respect our audience by assessing the impact of our images according to time of day and the context of the program where such material is appearing.
  • Programmers and journalists must be familiar with CRTC regulations about the depiction of violence and adhere to those guidelines.
  • If it is necessary to use graphic images, we will put a warning ahead of their use [7].

In another section, the Standards and Practices also states:

  • When images or audio clips could upset part of the audience, we choose them carefully. We limit their use to what is necessary for an understanding of the subject and we provide an audience advisory before use on any of our platforms [8].

The guidelines reflect both the vague notion of CRTC-defined obscenity, and the on-the-ground decision-making that editors face in deciding what’s necessary to use during a broadcast. When weighing any difficult decision, Burgess says she actively consults the JSP to check its language.

Listen to Burgess here:



But not all policies are codified. Burgess and Bulgutch say there is an unwritten rule that the CBC abides by about not broadcasting the moment of an individual’s death, which the JSP doesn’t explicitly prohibit. If the video showed the last moments of the girl’s life, “There would be no way, we would want to publish [the video] on any of our broadcasts or online media, or social media,” Burgess says. News directors are given more latitude when it comes to broadcasting the lead-up and aftermath of a fatal event than with broadcasting the actual death itself.

Bulgutch says producers also operate on an internalized value system that is somewhat abstracted from policy. Recalling a video from the Iraq War, Bulgutch explains:



NEXT: 4. The way it played out: When graphic content was aired

[1] Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987, SOR/87-49, s. 5(1)(c).

[2] Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987, SOR/87-49, s. 5(2)

[3] Canadian Association of Broadcasters Violence Code, 1993. S. 2(1.2.1.).

[4] Jobb, 168.

[5]  Journalistic Standards and Practice, Depiction of Violence. http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/reporting-to-canadians/acts-and-policies/programming/journalism/crime-and-police-reporting/. Accessed December 2, 2016.

[6] Journalistic Standards and Practice, Respect for the suffering of victims and their family. http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/reporting-to-canadians/acts-and-policies/programming/journalism/crime-and-police-reporting/. Accessed December 2, 2016.

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