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Members' Update: Autumn 2020

Note from our Executive Chair

Like everyone in the news business, the National NewsMedia Council has been living through a strange and altered existence. Like many, there are almost cosmic and seemingly impenetrable concerns about the future; also, like many, there has been remarkable innovation and a will to transcend those concerns.

The structure of both the national NNC board and our small but effective administrative team has been very fortunate in that we were able to move to virtual meetings with hardly a blink.
Michener Foundation honours John Fraser
Our diverse and engaged board members are stretched out between British Columbia and Newfoundland and easily adapted to Zoom meetings. In my role as executive chair, I inhabit a territory a bit in the administrative background with a gifted and hard-working team comprised of Pat Perkel, the executive director; Brent Jolly, the director of community management; and Cara Sabatini, director of dispute resolution. We miss the camaraderie of working in an office, but on the other hand we have been awesomely efficient working at home. Together, we have seen the NNC explore new territory thanks to the creative use of technology (like the creation of webinars on news media ethics), gain new members (including a soon-to-be welcomed cohort of non-Quebec francophone news platforms), and greatly expand our relationship with international media council organizations.

And important groundwork that the NNC was ahead of the game on — like briefing members on the “Right To Be Forgotten” issue (and its less disputatious companion, “de-indexing”) a couple of years ago — has put us in a good position to keep our members posted on a fast-changing media universe, in Canada and around the world. And our innovative academic programme was tailor-made for webinars.

Like all newspapers, digital news platforms, academic programmes associated with the NNC, and other press councils, the NNC lives with the constant reality of a disruptive, fast-changing universe and the possibility not just of great changes but of total reconstruction. But our cause is straightforward and compelling: in a time of enormous controversy over the nature of news reports and news commentary, we offer a useful and necessary service to both consumers and purveyors of responsible journalism. Actually, that’s what keeps us going at full tilt.

- John Fraser
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Journalism ethics at the heart of debates over
direction of industry

As this most extraordinary year lurches through autumn, the pandemic continues to unveil ethics questions that have implications for journalism and the news media.

Concerns about privacy, racism and inequality were on the radar as we entered 2020, but various conditions that came with the lock down – economic upheaval, social isolation, more time watching media and social media - have focused public attention in a way that has exposed these social issues and put them in headlines.

In turn, that’s raised questions about how the news media covers protests; how to balance right to privacy and the public interest; the bias inherent in ‘objective’ reporting; diversity in the newsroom; and the systemic interplay between health and economic status.

These are complicated questions that affect how journalists do their job. The questions are not just about the practice, but also about the ethics of journalism.

For example, the NNC has heard concerns about the practice and ethics of naming – or not naming – businesses with positive COVID cases, and about reporting violation of quarantine orders.

Black and Indigenous communities are asking how the news media can tell a story with accuracy and context without incorporating Black and Indigenous journalists and sources.

The need for journalists literate in science and math, with the ability to convey that information in an accessible way, has been heavily underscored as the public seeks clear, comprehensible information on COVID statistics and what they mean.

As always, journalistic practices and any shifts in them must still pass the ethical test in order to hold public trust and support a democratic society.

To that end, the NNC has established a working group to review current best practices in reporting on racism. The intent is to compile the best guidelines and offer support to member newsrooms. And in recognition of the complexity of issues and need for diversity, the NNC is also working on a policy that will allow wider consultation with experts, academic institutions, and the public on an as-needed basis when it is reviewing best practices or specific issues. More information about that will be provided in the coming weeks.

A contradiction inherent in the pandemic lockdown has been the opportunity to connect more with fellow organizations by way of webinars. To that end, we know the Finnish Mass Media Council has developed a framework for consultation on policy statements that is very similar to our proposal. We have also had unique opportunity to hear first-hand about racism, diversity, and how the media can do an accurate, trustworthy job of reporting on these vital issues. We’re committed to taking what we hear and incorporating it into the ongoing review of best practices that we recommend to members and explain to the public.

- Pat Perkel, Executive Director
Retro Grunge Complaints Dept Door

The Complaints Desk: By the numbers

The NewsMedia Council opened files on 26 new complaints since the beginning of June.

The most commonly-cited reason for complaints to date continues to be accuracy in reporting, followed closely by sensitive issues, including privacy. A handful of complaints related to coverage of COVID-19, highlighting the intersection of reporting information in the public interest and concerns about privacy or private business. Accurate representation of identifiable groups, and use of language in reference to identifiable groups have also been subject to complaint.

Of the complaints dealt with between June and mid-October, ten complaints were dismissed, and seven were considered resolved with corrective action taken. One complaint was withdrawn.

In 11 cases, complainants were first instructed to contact the news media organization and/or give the news organization reasonable time to respond.

The NNC also reviewed and rejected 45 complaints. Among those were 12 complaints about broadcast news organizations, and an array of complaints about foreign media, delivery or advertising issues, and puzzles.

Some of our recent decisions

The NNC reviewed a complaint and considers corrective action has been taken by the Vernon Morning Star regarding a September 3, 2020 article under the headline “Small dog attacked by pit bull at Salmon Arm beach”.
The NNC reviewed and dismissed a two-part complaint about a March 4, 2019 news article “Driver found asleep at the wheel after vehicle veers into field,” published by Newmarket Today. The first part of the complaint focused on specific details included in the story. The second part of the complaint expressed concern that the article’s headline was not appropriate.
The NNC reviewed and found that corrective action has been taken to address a complaint about accuracy and the opportunity to respond to harmful allegations in a September 10 news story, “Goodwood concerts spark ire and accusations,” published in the Uxbridge Cosmos.

To subscribe to our distribution list for new decisions, please click here.
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37 Front Street File: We need to talk

As Canada enters into a period of what many experts have deemed the ‘second wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of accurate information has been thrust into the public spotlight. At the same time, in a year defined by disease, the Canadian news industry has been confronted with many uncomfortable, albeit necessary, questions about its foundations, both philosophical and operational.

At the National NewsMedia Council, editorial standards and journalistic ethics are our cornerstones. But, in a world where much of journalism’s operational playbook is anchored by conceptual traditions of ‘objectivity’, how do our member news organizations reflect the calls for reframing editorial coverage recommended by movements, such as Black Lives Matter?

Over the past several months, the NNC has heard many criticisms from advocates about journalism’s ‘blind spots’. In examining the groundswell of opinion and calls for change, the NNC finds itself in an interesting position. We know that healthy democracies talk together about issues. Similarly, the NNC wants to talk about how to bridge journalism’s core principles while also soliciting public feedback about new issues and journalism standards.

To that end, we’re proposing a series of conversations we’ve dubbed as the NNC’s “Civic Dialogues”. The intent is to invite comment from journalists, NNC members, civil society actors, academics, and others about specific emerging issues. Those insights will be incorporated into a staff report on best practices in journalistic standards and provided to our member news organizations as information and guidance. This broad-based outreach plan will ensure the NNC and its members can reflect and act on the ongoing concerns about current events and how journalists go about reporting on contentious issues.

Over the coming months, the NNC will convene Civic Dialogues on ‘reporting and racism’. We look forward to reporting to you about that in the next few weeks.

- Brent Jolly, Director, Communication, Research, and Community Management
Bookshelves and laptops are placed on the library desk.E-learning class and e-book digital technology

The NNC's Academic Initiative continues to grow

All Points Bulletin
: Our Academic Initiative is growing.

It's true. We are now at more than a dozen post-secondary members who are supporting this first-of-its-kind program in Canada that links institutions of higher learning with trusted news organizations to promote a news literate public.

We are thrilled to see the success of the program begin to take off. In a time of political and social polarization, the need to champion the importance of accurate, peer-reviewed information is more important than ever before.

Since launching the program, NNC staff have developed seminars on journalism standards, ethical news practices, and news literacy, in partnership with several of our members. To accommodate the pandemic age, these seminars are being translated into webinars.

The Academic Initiative has also a research component. So far, we've been part of research projects that examine issues within our mandate and share journalistic best practices from researchers with a wider audience.

Quality information is a foundation for a strong and cohesive society. The NNC shares that view, and we are excited by the prospect of fostering important conversations about journalism standards and bringing different knowledge together.

Lafond (right) pictured with his three daughters, Isobel, Alphonsine, and Portia, in Saskatchewan on the reserve where he grew up.

Meet George Lafond, NNC public director

George E. Lafond had three goals in life. His first goal was to become a teacher. His second, to be a coach. His third goal was to make a positive impact on the socio-political landscape in Canada.

He accomplished the first goal in his early twenties when he became the only Indigenous high school teacher at Bedford Road Collegiate in Saskatoon. The following year, he coached the school’s volleyball team, achieving goal number two.

Lafond would spend the majority of his career focusing on his third goal through a series of prominent positions in government and advisory roles, including serving as the Special Assistant to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in the mid-80s and early 90s, and becoming Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous Treaty Commissioner.

Being “the first” is complex, said Lafond. It speaks to the achievement of the individual in the face of an unjust system—the same system that would herald “the first” as an achievement of its own.

“It [also] means making sure you’re holding the door open for the people to come after you.”

As a public director for the National NewsMedia Council, Lafond brings important perspective to deliberations about public complaints and editorial standards.

Throughout his career in public service, Lafond experienced firsthand the impact that journalism has had on the issues he cares about, sometimes with mixed results. While he set out to establish partnerships and coalitions in his work, he was often asked by reporters to “pick a side” on an issue, he said.

"It made me hesitant to speak to journalists,” said Lafond.

Generally, Lafond said he believes journalists are “trying their best to play an informative role,” in spite of the time and resource constraints that make it difficult to “unpack the discussion” on complex issues, particularly when reporting Indigenous stories.

As a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Lafond grew up on a reserve just north of Blaine Lake, SK, surrounded by farmland and family. The support he received and legacy inherited through his community instilled in him the importance of having, and achieving, professional goals. In fact, the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation is no stranger to “firsts,” having created the first commercial urban reserve in Canada. In 1960, his mother, Alpha Lafond, was elected the first female chief in Saskatchewan.

It was thanks to the support of Muskeg Lake Chief and Council that a young Lafond attended Glen Sather’s hockey school in Banff, AB. From then on, he would sit in his school library and wait for the newest edition of The Hockey News to arrive so he could catch up on the latest news about the players.

Lafond continued to form a close relationship with the news. He recalls his household had three subscriptions growing up: the now-defunct Prairie Messenger—a Catholic publication run by Benedictines out of St. Peter’s Abbey, east of Saskatoon; The Western Producer—the longstanding agricultural weekly in the region; and the nearby community newspaper, the Shellbrook Chronicle.

Taken together, these publications represented the intersection of the rural Saskatchewan community he grew up in, minus one key aspect: They didn’t cover much news about Indigenous people.

Fortunately, his school librarian subscribed to the Kainai News, a leading Indigenous newspaper that became a well-known voice on Indigenous issues throughout Canada, helping spawn careers of the likes of cartoonist and writer Everett Soop.

"I was able to read stories that were relevant to my world,” said Lafond.

Lafond credits the Kainai News with familiarizing him with stories about the activism and suicide of Nelson Small Legs. The publication would also introduce him to others he grew to admire and would eventually meet.

One of those people was world-renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, responsible for designing the Canadian Museum of History, and the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre, which opened its doors in 2016 at the University of Saskatchewan. Lafond chaired the initial stages of the project on campus, saying his “greatest encounter” was working with Cardinal on the plans for the centre.

"The blessing I was granted was that these were people that were in the world that I was in, and existed in my time,” said Lafond about reading stories from the Kainai News and magazines like the Saskatchewan Indian and Tawow."

"The journalist that wrote about them, and the newspapers that published their stories made them real to me.”

The Kainai News was one of more than a dozen publications that received funding from the 1970s-era Native Communications Program until the initiative’s end in 1990. While some publications developed financial independence after the budget cuts, others didn’t. The Kainai News ceased publication in 1991.

“Many if not all Indian/Indigenous newspapers that I grew up with in the 70s were publicly-funded, and they brought forward a world that I knew existed but had little access to,” said Lafond.

The issue of government funding for news publications—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—has long been the subject of debate. Lafond said he laments the toll that the financial cuts took on Indigenous publications and the communities they served. He doesn’t consider decades-old funding cuts the culprit for the continued marginalization of Indigenous voices in Canadian media, but believes that the end of an era of publicly-supported Indigenous news organizations only served to compound the more pernicious problems that have left Indigenous stories on the margins.

"I understand [there’s] structural racism—I’ve seen it, I’ve confronted it,” said Lafond. “I’m not sugar-coating it.”

That said, Lafond believes that the stories he read in his youth of role models and resilient communities are lacking among today’s news reports. He worries that there are too many “stories without hope” that risk overshadowing the positive stories in Indigenous communities.

At the same time, Lafond hopes to see more historical context, nuanced coverage, and a deeper examination of the larger issues. Indeed, these are issues many news organizations are confronting: how does one tell stories of resilience without digging deeper into the roots of marginalization?

A recent example Lafond points to is the conflict that took place earlier this year in British Columbia, and throughout Canada, when some members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, and their supporters, demonstrated their opposition to the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. The coverage underscored the importance of historical context and understanding Indigenous governance systems when reporting on Indigenous communities.

As news organizations increasingly work to improve Indigenous representation—both in the newsroom and in their reporting—Lafond hopes that the NNC can help news organizations take larger strides, in part, with the help of a recently launched working group.

Lafond is a member of the newly-formed NNC working group on reporting and racism, which seeks to hear from news media organizations and community stakeholders about best practices on a series of issues, including coverage of protests and reporting on race.

“It’s important we get this right,” said Lafond about the work of the NNC.

Lafond’s experience with education has also informed his role on the NNC’s Academic Committee. He envisions university programs playing a major role in improving Indigenous representation in the news media.

Among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, number 86 explicitly addresses the role that journalism programs can play in reconciliation, stating:

“We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations.”

A number of journalism schools have directly sought to address this call to action through their course content and the faculty they hire, but there’s still a long road ahead.

Lafond understands the utter frustration people have with the way that Indigenous stories are represented and underrepresented. “The new generation is saying ‘we can’t wait another forty years.’ Their patience has worn out.”

But Lafond would like to see more understanding from all sides as journalism works to address gaps in reporting. “The real world is not very kind to journalists right now,” he said.

“Mistakes will be made,” said Lafond about reporting Indigenous stories. At the same time, however, Lafond said that learning from past mistakes is an important way to prevent making the same mistakes, again, in the future. And that’s something Lafond wants to do with the NNC.

- Cara Sabatini is the NNC's Director of Dispute Resolution

We hope to see you there!

JITTOC Twitter Post art
On Oct. 22-23, the NNC will be participating at an international symposium to be hosted online by the journalism program at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. The conference will engage with a global network of experts to examine the nexus between journalism and the COVID-19 pandemic to find lessons for journalism practice and study in the future.The NNC will be participating in a discussing on the topics of evolving journalism ethics, standards, and editorial practices.
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How can the NNC help you?

Did you know that in addition to handling editorial complaints from readers, the National NewsMedia Council also offers all of our member news organizations pre-publication support services?

At the NNC, we believe that these offerings are just another way we work towards our objectives of promoting an accountable Canadian news media and educating Canadians about the important role journalism plays in our society.

How do we do that? There are two ways.

First, we are always on the look-out for helpful materials that we can add to our growing library of reporting guides and resources.

Second, we encourage members to make use of our ethics 'helpline'. Give us a call and we'll provide you with a free 1:1 consultation on any issue involving ethics, standards, or best practices.

We are always looking for new ways to support our members. If you'd like additional help, feel free to send an email to Brent Jolly, our director of community management at:
Brain made out of fruits and vegetables isolated on white background

'Food for Thought'

From the importance of public education about journalism standards, to news literacy, and discussions about emerging standards and practices, your NNC staff reads - A LOT.

In our new feature, 'Food for Thought', we'll bring you a sampling of some of the pieces that got our minds moving and, we hope, whets your appetite for more discussion.

Follow Us!

We are hard at work and we are eager to share with you what we are doing! Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to keep up to date on our most recent activities, and to stay informed about important discussions related to journalism in Canada.
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