Earlier this month I read an article on CBCNews.ca called, “6 new ways hackers are using malware." Immediately, I was appalled by yet another story referring to hackers as criminals. Most of us can probably relate to being extremely cautious to consider the context you are in when you describe yourself as a hacker—will this person immediately assume I’m some kind of criminal and not hire me? How resistant will my principal be if I ask him to let us host a hackathon at our school—will he think we’re having a competition to see who will be the first to hack the school’s report card system?
I did a bit of research and learned that in the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, there is a section for language, and a subsection that reads:
We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.
Feeling, that this standard of practice was not followed in the story, I decided to write a letter to CBC’s Ombudsmen. Here is the letter I wrote:
I recently read the article on CBCNews.ca entitled, “6 new ways hackers are using malware.” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/07/05/f-malware-hackers.html)
I feel this article violates the “Respect and absence of prejudice,” subsection of the Language portion of the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices. In particular I feel it violates this paragraph:
"We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision."
Traditionally, the term hacker was coined in the 1960s to describe computer enthusiasts, or people who “delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers, and computer networks in particular.” In the 1970s, the term began to describe those in the home computing community, among them are Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates who went on to create the personal computing industry.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the media began to refer to computer criminals as hackers—those who would break into computer systems and cause harm to the public. The term “hacker” as used to describe a criminal became so prevalent that the general public forgot its original meaning as used to describe enthusiasts.
Flash forward to 2011, and now a company called Facebook has rejuvenated the original meaning of the term hacker. The company uses the term “hacker” to describe all of their employees and engineering processes. In Facebook’s IPO Mark Zuckerberg described hacking as:
"The word ‘hacker’ has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.
"The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it often in the face of people who say it impossible or are content with the status quo."
When the CBC uses the term hacker to refer to criminals, such as in the article “6 new ways hackers are using malware,” this is a generalization and stereotyping of all people who call themselves hackers, the vast majority of whom do not engage in criminal activities. In essence, the CBC is suggesting that all employees of Facebook are using malware to engage in criminal activities.
Personally, let me describe how this generalization has exposed me to prejudice and contempt. Myself and a group of friends recently started a local “hackerspace,” a place for computer enthusiasts (not criminals), to meet, share equipment and ideas. We recently tried to approach our local college for support, but once the department manager heard the word “hacker” he immediately wanted nothing to do with us, assuming that we were criminals engaging in illegal activities. In another example, should I choose to brand myself, a computer programmer, as a hacker—as defined by Facebook—when I attempt to apply for jobs to employers who read articles such as those found on your website, they will immediately associate me with criminals. In other words, because of the CBC’s use of the word hacker, I cannot describe myself as a hacker and expect to receive employment.
I hope my letter has made it clear why the CBC should re-evaluate its use of the term “hacker” to describe criminals, and generalizing, associating, and stereotyping hackers with criminal activities. As the ombudsman, I would also ask you to determine if the article, “6 new ways hackers are using malware,” violated this policy in your Journalistic Stands and Practices:
"We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision." (Respect and absence of prejudice, Language)
Thank you for listening to my complaint.
Today, I received a response from Esther Enkin, Executive Director of CBC News:
Dear Mr. Jones:
Thank you for your e-mail of July 6 addressed to Kirk LaPointe, CBC Ombudsman, drawing our attention to a CBCNews.ca story posted on July 5 under the headline, “6 new ways hackers are using malware”. Specifically, you wrote that the story “generalizes and stereotypes hackers as criminals”, when the vast majority of hackers are law-abiding computer enthusiasts. You suggested CBC should “re-evaluate” its use of the word.
I fully appreciate that there are those in the computer industry that take some pride in calling themselves hackers – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg among them. You wrote that the word has long been used by computer enthusiasts to describe themselves and a playful, innovative way of solving problems. And of course it still is.
But, as you will know, “hacker” is one of many words in English (known as contronyms) that enjoy several contradictory meanings. “Hacker” is also commonly understood to mean a computer criminal, someone who is skilled at breaking into or subverting computer systems. Certainly, it is that pejorative meaning that is almost exclusively found these days in the news media.
That is the way it was used in this CBC story. But our editors are aware of the word’s contradictory meanings. To ensure readers understand how it is used, they put the word in a context that makes its meaning immediately clear; for example, the headline says hackers are “using malware”, the story’s first sentence says “hackers” are using these programs to “con and annoy”.
I realize the word’s use is the subject of heated controversy in some quarters. We cannot resolve that. However, we do have a responsibility to write accurately and clearly, as I believe this story is clear
Thank you again for your e-mail. I hope my reply has reassured you of the continuing integrity of our news service.
Finally, it is my responsibility to tell you that if you are not satisfied with this response, you may wish to submit the matter for review by the CBC Ombudsman. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body reporting directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance with the CBC’s journalistic policies. The Ombudsman may be reached by mail at Box 500, Terminal A, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6, or by fax at (416) 205-2825, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executive Editor, CBC News
While I understand that traditionally in the media has used the word hacker to refer to criminal activities related to computer crime, the majority, as Mark Zuckerberg described “tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.” Just because a word may have a double meaning in the media, does not mean that its use to describe criminal activities does not harm a group of innocent people who call themselves hackers. We would never say something like, “plumbers are using wrenches to hurt individuals who do not flush.” If someone is committing a crime, it’s always better to say “criminals are shooting people on the street.”
I am posting my thoughts on this issue, and these two letters because I want your feedback before I ask the Ombudsmen to review the issue (the journalists have a chance to respond before the Ombudsmen reviews the complaint). What do you think? What reasons should I give the Ombudsmen justifying the mis-use of the word hacker? How has the media’s use of the word hacker harmed you?