Sunday, 13 June 2010

Discriminatory language on TV and radio

Ofcom, the televison, radio and communications regulator, has just released the results of a study into the use of offensive language (PDF, long) in television and radio programs, covering both general expletives and words that negatively stereotype or attack a particular group ("discriminatory language", in the report).

They asked both generalised groups of people, and regarding the discriminatory language, they also asked the targets of specific words.

Unsurprisingly, the targets of specific words were more likely to consider the language offensive and either unacceptable for broadcast or requiring extreme caution and consideration of appropriateness and context in its use, while people who were generally privileged in that respect were not only less likely to consider it offensive themselves but also less likely to expect that people from the target group would consider it offensive.

The groups sampled were relatively small - 94 in the general samples which were balanced for gender, race, employment status, political views, television usage, age and number of children (and almost certainly included some LGBT or disabled people, but this was not monitored or recorded), with a mix of group discussions and in-depth interviews.

There were then 35 people asked, in 5 group discussions and 7 in-depth interviews, specifically: group discussions for LGB people (split into LB and GB), a group discussion for trans women, and two group discussions for male and female travellers; in-depth interviews of one trans man, three people with disabilities (one mental health condition, one mobility-related disability, and one learning-related disability, those being the three groups for which most complaints had previously been received), and three carers for people with disabilities (same disability groupings).

The general sample size is probably large enough, but some of the sub-samples for particular groups were very small indeed: essentially the study's findings on the effect of certain forms of language on its target are informed by the opinions of one person. For disability-related language they asked three people with disabilities and three carers (who may also have had disabilities, of course, but this isn't recorded).

There's a common situation where people without a particular privilege are asked to speak on behalf of everyone in that group. This is a particularly official example.

Within those limitations, however, interpreting the study does give some useful hints for future complaints about broadcasts of discriminatory language:

  • That these words are particularly likely to be harmful to particular groups - and where the study supports this, that Ofcom's own research has found this - is usually the point of the complaint. However, the Broadcasting Code requires the use of "generally accepted standards", and so focusing on why this should centre the opinions of the targets rather than of the general population is also needed.
  • Specifying which the word was inappropriate in that context will almost certainly improve the chances of a successful complaint. This is going to be most difficult for "comedy", because discriminatory language is "funny" and "edgy" and so on.
  • Complaints regarding words not tested in the study or not regarded as offensive by the study will probably not be successful this time. However, it is still worth making them, as this will inform which words are tested in future studies.
  • Looking at the Broadcasting Code's section on "harm and offence", arguing that the problem is harm rather than offence might work.

There is also some indication (though it might, given the small samples, be statistical noise) that attempts to educate regarding the discriminatory effects of language are working. In the appendices is a summary of the results of the previous study. None of the discriminatory language covered in both studies is considered less offensive now, and a couple of items have moved up in seriousness in the general consideration. So that's hopeful, at least.

Ofcom also seems to be making more of an effort this time round - though not enough of a sample yet - to solicit opinions from unprivileged groups, which might be an indication of it taking the issue more seriously.

It's not actually good news yet, but things do seem to be moving slowly in the right direction.