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Members' Update: Winter 2021

Note from our Executive Chair

Well, here we are in 2021, some of us in the news business to our own amazement, others to the amazement of outsiders who keep predicting our demise.

2020 was an extraordinary year of unexpected discoveries and challenges, not all of them welcome, but also some that were evidence of tenacity and resilience which is where I would place press councils in general and the National NewsMedia Council in particular.
Michener Foundation honours John Fraser
This is not a boast, but a statement of gratitude to our members whose faith in us has been rewarded with an evolving approach not just in findings on complaints but also in mediating to a public that has increasingly come to find us useful in some of the stresses the news business throws up these days.

Examples of all this abound on our website where NNC decisions and “interventions” are there for everyone to follow. But it’s not the specifics I want to celebrate here, because they are our business and we should always be about our business. It is instead about the very fact of press councils and why we exist, and for that it is useful to redirect attention to the European press councils which – like us – have had their own challenges and, also like us, have come up with solutions and participatory ethical advice custom-made to deal with the ever changing news platform scenery.

As just one example, the Council for Mass Media in Finland has recently published a new report on news media self-regulation in the emerging era of news automation. According to the report, and those of us in the business know it only too well, while news automation and “personalization” have become more common in recent years, it has received little attention from press councils which so far have not faced major ethical problems in this area. The report suggests that in future, self-regulatory guidance on news automations is likely to be needed.

At the root of this and other current or looming challenges are the mighty tech giants like Google and Facebook. There is not one publication anywhere in the world, or any media enterprise of any sort, that does not understand the challenges and disruptions they have and will continue to cause. Some governments – like those in Australia and France – have already commenced preliminary legislative studies and measures to bring some control over the unbridled growth and monopolistic control at the expense of more traditional conveyances of news. Other government's – like Canada’s – are contemplating some measure of control.

The traditional news media platforms, which still account for the majority of the NNC’s membership, also still struggle to deal with the Big Tech challenges and have been mounting increasing pressure on government to follow through on promises of support and protection. Of course, the NNC wishes them well for our own survival’s sake if nothing else, but I also wish that they – and we – could learn more deeply from some of the tech spirit of innovation.

A friend of mine in the business – and a member of the NNC family – recently went to a “futures” conference sponsored by The Walrus and Facebook. No friend of the Big Tech that had wreaked economic damage to his own newspaper, he was nevertheless impressed by the spirit of enthusiastic innovation of the young digital platform entrepreneurs and thought members of the “legacy” media could learn from this. I agreed, but couldn’t prevent myself from showing my friend that Big Tech was also smart enough to take lessons from legacy media. There is no better example of that than Facebook’s new Oversight Board which, when stripped down beyond its bells and whistles, looks remarkably like…well, like a press council. Independent of Facebook itself, it is there to deal with unfairness and other problems in Facebook postings and just as NNC members must abide by the rulings of our council, so also is Facebook obliged to accept the Oversight Board’s findings.

There are, of course, profound differences. The NNC has many members (over 500 and still counting) whose readers we support; the new Oversight Board has only one member, and concerns have been expressed about its actual independence. Nevertheless, this particular tech giant has realized the need for such a board and it may end up a model for other such vast enterprises. In he meantime, we keep calm and carry on.

- John Fraser
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Explaining journalism, one case at a time


Unsurprisingly, callers to the NNC are sometimes cranky. Thinking about why that is, here’s a January nod to Janus, looking back at the source of some complaints and a look ahead to better ways to address or prevent them in the future.

Occasionally, our callers and complainants are down-right suspicious. They feel ‘tricked’ by the media – a broad allegation that can take some time and questioning to unpack. Sources of frustration run the gamut of allegations:
    • The headline was misleading or wrong
    • A reporter published information without my consent
    • An article violated my privacy or that of some other person
    • The paper doesn’t care about ruining lives by printing whatever the police tell them
    • My paper is publishing letters to the editor that promote conspiracy theories
    • The media only tells one side of the story
Any one of those perceived errors can be enough to convince a reader that the news media is part of a conspiracy aimed at whatever cause or belief system is close to the reader’s heart.

That’s not a frivolous charge, and not one the NNC takes lightly. Neither do we assume a caller or complainant is right or wrong in their complaint. Their words may be hyperbolic, but at the core is usually a reasonable concern about fairness, process, and opportunity to respond. Happily, many are willing to hear journalism's perspective.

Yes, headlines are catchy. Newspapers aimed to grab attention long before clickbait was a thing. Still, it’s not 'ok' for a headline to be misleading. Also, it’s not the news organization’s fault if a person makes assumptions about a headline or, worse, fails to read the article!

Letters to the editor racked up a lot of attention lately. There’s a strong argument that as trusted sources, news outlets cannot afford to give a platform to conspiracy theories, even by way of letters to the editor. That viewpoint is rebuffed by those who support “alternative facts” (thank you, Kellyanne Conway) and claim the news media is curtailing their freedom of expression by not giving space to their view. To these complainants we say Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives you the right to freedom of expression but does not compel anyone to publish your views.

The concept of public and private information also requires a lot of unpacking. It should be no surprise that if you advertise – whether commercially or on social media – that information is public. If police charge you or you appear in court, that information is also public. Journalistic discretion enters in assessing where the lines are drawn in holding police accountable, when information is in the public interest, and the protection of privacy.

There’s also a growing realization that crime reporting can promote negative stereotypes and damage the reputation of communities. We hear complaints when media aren’t responsive to that. Readers want the news media to step back and consider 'why a story is being run', and whether it has unintended consequences. Are all missing persons reported the same way? Are all charged persons reported, or do some get a pass? If there is harsher, or even just less thoughtful, coverage for some than for others, it may fuel suspicion about trustworthiness.

On this front, the pandemic has disrupted society and continues to reveal far-reaching inequality. It’s raised questions about best practices in reporting on the vulnerable and about publishing sensitive information that will have a long life of online searchability. We’re no doubt going to be hearing more on these issues in the coming months.

A stubborn matter that leads to mistrust is news versus opinion. It’s been said many times, and is still true, that readers don’t understand that an opinion column expresses opinion while a news article reports facts and context. It’s crucial to clearly label and separate news and opinion, and to tell readers again about the difference. That said, it’s a fact that some readers don’t want news or opinions that challenge their own to be published at all!

The bottom line is that the NewsMedia Council, as a self-regulatory complaints resolution body, talks to readers, callers and complainants about how journalism is done. We figure out what the complaint is. We describe how a journalist does their job. We acknowledge that it’s a complicated world out there. But we defend the case that journalism is a craft in pursuit of public interest and essential to a democratic society; not a conspiracy to trick readers.

- Pat Perkel, Executive Director
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The Complaints Desk: By the numbers

The NNC opened files on 86 complaints in 2020. The majority of complaints (43) dealt with allegations of inaccuracy, followed closely by matters of sensitive issues (40), such as insensitive language about marginalized groups or personal privacy issues.

Compared to the previous year in which a significant portion of complaints related to opinion pieces, only 25 complaints involved opinion pieces in 2020. However, many complaints, regardless of the type of article, involved allegations of bias.

Most complaints were dismissed and involved reader education about standard journalistic practices, or were deferred to the news media organization for response, as is our process.

Sixteen complaints were considered resolved through corrective action. Four complaints were withdrawn or abandoned. One complaint was upheld. Four complaints from 2020 remain open at various stages in the resolution process.

The NNC also received more than a hundred complaints that fell outside its mandate for various reasons including those involving non-members such as the websites of broadcast news organizations and foreign media.

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Telling journalism's story is 'mission critical'


The violent insurgency we collectively witnessed at the U.S. Capitol last week brought into stark relief, among many things, the impact of a war waged on truth many years in the making.

Whether it was insurgents inscribing ‘murder the media’ on walls or making nooses out of camera cords, the degree to which the antipathy towards the news media was on full display should serve as a sobering reminder of the herculean task that America faces in mending its tattered social fabric. More sobering, still, is the fact that Canadians cannot afford to be smug. We face the same job in our country with our public trust.

Reconciliation, so the saying goes, begins with truth. And, sadly, the truth of the matter, at least in the experience of the NNC, is that members of the public often struggle to understand the process of how news transforms itself from events taking place out in the world into being presented by one’s publication of choice.

The NNC’s core mandate is to handle complaints from readers. However, given the tenor of the times, it’s our experience that in many cases complainants are better served if we offer some education about how journalism works or an explanation of journalistic standards. These sessions don’t yield formal ‘decisions’, but they do serve the NNC’s mandate for outreach and education about the media. Our hope is that while the complainant may not agree with the resolution of their case, we can impart on them a better understanding of journalism’s foundations, and its best practices, so they can become smarter news citizens in the future.

Certainly, one could argue that this is an idealized vision. It is not a sexy ‘silver-bullet’ solution to issues, such as the dissemination of online hate, or, more broadly, to the rise of digital echo chambers. But what the NNC can do is help break the chain of misinformation and mistrust by helping to create informed, responsible readers.

And that reality will be at the foundation of our efforts in 2021. In addition to working with members of the public on complaints, we will also be developing additional educational materials to help educators instil the importance that good journalism has in democratic societies. One area we're starting with is transforming some of our decisions into formal case studies that can be included in journalism schools curriculums. Staff will also be conducting seminars, in partnership with our academic members, to underscore the importance of trusted, quality journalism.

There will, no doubt, be many more efforts to ensure that accurate reporting and informed analysis reigns supreme during 2021. And we'll keep you posted in this space and via our website and social channels.

Perhaps, you may believe that these efforts sound simple in the totality of the many complex problems before us these days. Re-writing our social contract, however, will be incremental and based on changing human behaviours. To that end, we strongly believe that the work of the NNC is part of the all-important antidote needed to combat the infodemic that currently afflicts our world.




- Brent Jolly, Director, Communication, Research, and Community Management
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New association launches to support
community-focused journalism


The National NewsMedia Council congratulates several of its digital-only members on the successful launch of Press Forward, a new industry association devoted to boosting innovation, inclusivity, and diversity in media across the country.

Several of Press Forward's founding members (The Sprawl, The Discourse, Village Media) are long-time members of the NNC.

Over the coming months, we look forward to developing positive relationships with this new organization to assist them with ensuring they have strong ethics policies that describe their journalistic standards and practices.

You can read more about the objectives of the association here.
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Meet Abbas Homayed, NNC director (Village Media)


Over these past 10 months, many people have found themselves reflecting on what they used to have, and on the flip side, what they still have. Thinking about what Canadian citizenship meant to him last Canada Day, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Abbas Homayed said in a Tweet that the two things for which he was most grateful were freedom of expression and the opportunity to make his own choices.

As a local news publisher, and professional director on the board of the National NewsMedia Council, Homayed is well-acquainted with the value of a free press.

Homayed is vice president and publisher of Sudbury.com, a local news site in Northern Ontario that reaches more than 100,000 readers each week. Since the switch from NorthernLife.ca to Sudbury.com in 2016, the news site has won more than a dozen awards for its digital experience, editorial content, and video journalism on the provincial and national scale, including a 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for its livestream coverage of elections.

“There has never been a better time than now to support the free press in Canada,” said Homayed in a recent phone conversation. He said he worries that relentless media bashing and constant questioning of the news media’s integrity by some politicians undermines democratic principles.

But there’s another reason that a free press is so significant to him. This year marks three decades since the long-time Sudbury resident became a Canadian citizen. Having grown up in Lebanon during the country’s devastating civil war, Homayed said daily newspapers were crucial to his survival. He remembers reading the newspaper each morning to check which parts of the city were safe and which to avoid. “You end up on the wrong street, you lose your life.”

Though it’s been nearly 35 years since he first arrived in Northern Ontario by way of Beirut, Homayed still expresses his strong appreciation for the community that welcomed him. One example of his gratitude in action is his service on the board of the Sudbury Food Bank for seven years and counting.

“Sudbury is a small city with a big heart, and the community is wonderful,” said Homayed. “The people are great. They’re very welcoming. I guess it is cold in the winter months, but it’s very warm in every other aspect.”

For Homayed, local news is the heart of that community. “We’re neighbourhood news in many ways,” he said of the website’s role for readers. “We don’t write about Afghanistan, but we write about your taxes.”

While local news has been his priority for much of his career—he jokes he’s done everything in the business except for writing—Homayed wasn’t always in the news industry. In fact, his background is in IT, having studied electronic instrumentation at Sudbury’s Cambrian College.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that he is a strong supporter of the company’s ‘digital first’ approach to news.

But while the news organization launched its website in 2002, the focus on digital didn’t come overnight.
It took some adjusting, he explains. That meant re-investing in the newsroom with training for staff and adding video to the mix.

“We wanted to be first,” said Homayed. “[But] we realized that quality is important, and accuracy is important, and that we don’t always have to be first.”

That said, the site is often first with its local content, receiving recognition last year from the Ontario Community Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Competition for its quality breaking news coverage.

In March of 2020, at the start of the pandemic in Canada, Village Media acquired Sudbury.com and its sister site, Northern Ontario Business. They joined more than a dozen other news sites owned and operated by Village Media.

“Village Media really shares our vision for community,” said Homayed. “They have the independent spirit.”
Indeed, Village Media is a founding member of the newly launched Press Forward, an association of independent news organizations that seeks to advocate for Canada’s independent news sector and promote innovation and inclusivity in the industry.

In addition to his work at home, Homayed has travelled to newsrooms in Egypt and his home country of Lebanon as part of a program by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) to support innovation in Arab media through workshops and mentoring.

During his trips with the program, he was inspired by the perseverance of so many journalists to provide essential news to their communities in the face of serious technological and political challenges in the region.

Although Canada has the technological infrastructure (with some lamentable limitations) and the political landscape conducive to a free and independent press, those circumstances are not something we can take for granted.

Geography and economics are a challenge, but we shouldn’t have news deserts in Canada, says Homayed.

Homayed appreciates the fact that Village Media has been able to support local news in small communities, especially in places where newspapers have closed. He cited Ontario communities like Guelph and Orillia, which saw the closure of the Packet & Times before the launch of the Village Media site Orillia Matters in 2018.

“I was really pleased to see that Village Media has been able to close the gaps in these communities.”

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

Mark your calendars:
Upcoming events and deadlines!

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January 14, 2021

The Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University will be welcoming journalist, author, and commentator Desmond Cole to present the 2021 Clissold Lecture. Cole will draw from his professional experiences to examine the issue of objectivity in Canadian news organizations. Click here to register.
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January 18, 2021

The Canadian Association of Journalists runs an annual awards program that recognizes the best in Canadian journalism—with a particular focus on investigative work. Entries are welcome from any practising journalist whose work has been published or broadcast in Canada. Most awards come with a $500 prize. Click here to learn more.
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January 26, 2021

It’s all happening—and happening fast across the media spectrum: digital transformation, diversification of newsrooms and efforts to engage the diverse communities media organizations seek to serve. But there are still challenges and more change to come -- how best to connect with those who are typically underserved, whether it be communities of colour, the disenfranchised or the young and disengaged?
Click here to register.
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February 12, 2021

The annual competitions for the Mindset Award for Workplace Mental Health Reporting, and its French counterpart le prix En-Tête pour le reportage en santé mentale au travail are offered by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. Each of the annual awards carries a first prize of $1,000.
Click here to learn more.
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February 19, 2021

The Michener Awards are presented for journalism that makes a significant impact on the public good.
To be selected as a finalist, a news organization must be able to demonstrate that its entry achieved identifiable results. The results may include improvements in public policy, ethical standards, corporate governance or the lives of Canadians. Click here to learn more.
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February 19-21, 2021

Part of the Canadian University Press’ decades-long tradition, NASH83 will be hosted by The Varsity — the University of Toronto’s independent student publication in Toronto, Ontario. This year’s theme, DISRUPT, was chosen before the name became apt for the rapid social, economic, and public health disruptions that have come to the forefront our times. Click here to learn more.
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March 1, 2021

The R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship provides an annual award of $25,000 to cover travel, reporting and research expenses and a stipend for a journalist. It is administered by Carleton University through its School of Journalism and Communication in the Faculty of Public Affairs.
Click here to learn more.
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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: [email protected]
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'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 this edition of our 'Food for Thought' feature we 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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National NewsMedia Council
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(416) 340-1981
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