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National NewsMedia Council Members' Update: Summer 2020

Members' Update: Summer 2020

Note from our Executive Chair 

Earlier this month I had the happy duty to preside over the Annual General Meeting of the National NewsMedia Council. The way these formal things go, I was required to report on the NNC’s activities and achievements for 2019. The achievements were pretty good considering all the challenges that have always been there since our inception in 2015 and remain evident these days.

However, to tout a good year in the midst of this almighty pandemic did seem a little…weird! But there you go. No one ever said Robert’s Rules of Order or standard practice in board meetings in democratic countries has to pay any attention to anything as peripheral as a global pandemic. So I didn’t, because we did do well last year and I was proud of our staff’s achievements, our board’s loyalty and support, and our members’ courage in sticking with their own individual mandates to report and comment on the news fairly and as fully.

At the NNC, we remain committed to being a partner in the crucial matter of an ethical journalistic landscape in Canada with our more than 500 members. A few of those members have had to shut down and each departure, so far as I and many Canadians are concerned, is a tragedy to be mourned. At the same time, we see many entrepreneurs, devoted to telling stories of their communities, aborning. 

And for this unique period in everyone’s life, I have a small but sweetly emblematic story to pass along. Ironically, it’s about newspaper delivery. I say “ironically” because the NNC often bears the brunt of consumers upset for not receiving their morning newspaper. For the record: these are not the kind of ‘complaints’ the NNC is mandated to resolve, but we are happy to provide some help and guidance, regardless.  

Many of these queries we receive often come from older subscribers who haven’t the inclination, or sometimes the means, to read their news online. Many of them have been faithful newspaper subscribers with home delivery for decades. When they call, they are often angry and they think the NNC is actually the newspaper itself that has failed to deliver what has already been paid for.

So there I am one day last April, well into COVID-time and the lockdown, when I received a phone call from a woman named Carol R. in Edmonton and it’s about her Edmonton Sun subscription. Typically, I get the address stated first, then the phone number and then how long she has subscribed to the paper and I wait patiently for the outrage that usually follows the co-ordinates. But not this time. This time is different:

“I’m a pensioner with mobility problems,” says Carol R. “I want to tell you about my newspaperman. He’s a Turkish fella, name of Najib I think. I don’t know his last name and anyway he always delivers my Sun at 2:30 a.m. every day. Do you know what he did today? He knows I’m shut in so he brought me a beautiful basket of fruit. It was wonderful. No one has done something so nice for me in a long time and I…I…,” Carol R. is in tears over the recorded phone message by this point and I have to listen twice to get the rest. “…but I wish I could do something to help him. He made me realize there really are still wonderful people out there…”

There was a little bit more, but you get the gist.  It’s a small story, but for me it was large because it speaks of normal human kindness during a tough time. It also speaks of the personal connections people still have with their newspapers and – if they are lucky – with their carriers.

I took it upon myself to pass along this message on to Lucinda Chodan, Senior Vice President Editorial at Postmedia. She was as touched as we all were at the NNC and she assured me she would follow through with the organization’s national head of distribution, and that Najib would get appropriate recognition sometime soon.

So that’s my story from the NNC’s complaint line for the Year of the Plague!

- John Fraser

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We welcome new members of the National NewsMedia Council who have recently signed on. 

Digital news sites: 

• Narcity Media

• Muskoka411.com

• Midland Today

• Innisfil Today

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As our world changes, so too does journalism

A week or so ago I had the pleasure of reporting to the NewsMedia Council members’ AGM about a solid and successful year of resolving public complaints and upholding journalistic standards. That report was a look back at 2019, but the question in the room was what about 2020, when the year is half over and half of that has been in pandemic lockdown?

We know that a new disease and emergency orders sent the public searching for information. In large measure, people turned to traditional media. Interestingly, complaint numbers dropped sharply in the first several weeks of the lockdown. We don’t know the reason, but it could be from the fact that people were watching news and events more closely and could see for themselves the credible, professional job done by journalists in Canada.

More recently, COVID-19 coverage has made way for stunning reports of global protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Protests in Canada took up the broader issue of injury and death at the hands of police.

If you’ll recall, before the pandemic, the big national news was Gaslink blockades and related protests. Those protests, and the current demonstrations against police violence, raise questions around use of language to describe protesters, Indigenous leaders, and other parties involved in events.

Debate over use of words looms large. The words one chooses to use says a lot about a journalist’s or news organization’s perspective. The word ‘looters’, as an example, has been criticized for conflating lawful protesters with a smaller group of lawbreakers, and for focusing on concern about property above concern about human rights.

On a bigger scale is the question of whether journalism should be “objective”. The NNC hears many complaints that certain articles or opinion columns are biased. Our response is that news is objective and must not be biased, but bias is allowed in clearly marked opinion pieces, where opinion is based on facts.

However, it could be that the next debate will be whether what has largely been considered as objective news reporting might, in fact, contain a degree of bias. It might be time for more discussion about whether the ‘objective’ assessment of what is, or how things should be or might be, is actually a majority view. If so, there will be interesting work to do in reporting and the use of language so that the journalism that informs our democratic society includes the voices and accurately reports on the perspective of diverse and marginalized communities across this country.

The NNC’s mandate to uphold journalistic standards means continuing to defend our members’ freedom to report, to choose sources, to criticize authority, and to use journalistic expertise to present the news in relevant context. At the same time, the public has a perspective about how journalism is performing in terms of accuracy and sensitivity around reporting on non-majority communities, crime, arts and institutions. In 2020, the NNC could be hearing a lot about language and perspective.

 - Pat Perkel, Executive Director

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The Complaints Desk:

 By the Numbers

Since the new year, the NewsMedia Council opened files on 44 new complaints. In five of those cases, the files represent complaints from multiple individuals about the same article or headline.

The most commonly-cited reason for complaints to date this year was accuracy in reporting and opinion writing. The examples cited included complaints about accurate representation of identifiable groups, and use of language in reference to identifiable groups.

Of the complaints dealt with between January and the end of May, one complaint was upheld and corrective action was taken in seven cases. Nineteen complaints were dismissed.

In 15 cases, complainants were instructed to first contact the news media organization and/or give the news organization reasonable time to respond. This is a first step of our complaints process, but is apparently skipped over by news readers when emotions around a headline or issue run high.

The NNC also reviewed and rejected 43 complaints. Among those were 15 complaints about broadcast news organizations, nine against media non-members of the NNC, and an array of complaints about foreign media and delivery issues. Among the most surprising complaints were one about “discriminatory” behaviour of staff at an Idaho bingo hall and one criticizing management of a White House briefing.

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Thank you for your service! 

At last week's annual general meeting, the NNC said goodbye to two of its valued directors, whose terms were expiring. 

Joanne De Laurentiis (left), was one of the founding directors of the NNC. Prior to that, she served on the board of the Ontario Press Council. Right from the get-go five years ago, Joanne always offered the NNC sage advice, particularly on issues of corporate governance. She has been a wealth of experience and practical insight. We will also miss her warm, sensitive personality. 

Jeff Elgie (right), joined the NNC as a professional director in 2018. His work over the past several years growing Village Media into a local news powerhouse has been awe-inspiring. His efforts to build a digital news was invaluable in making the NNC a platform agnostic organization. He will remain a friend of the NNC and (informal) consultant. 

The NNC would like to thank both Joanne and Jeff for their efforts in upholding the standards of quality journalism - and to the NNC. 

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37 Front Street File:
Adapting to a 'new normal' 

Typically, in this space, I’m happy to update you on the various projects – and collaborations - the NNC has been working on. But over the past few months, the world’s pace has changed. And so has mine.

Like many in the journalism world, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced our small but mighty NNC team into working remotely. Sure, we keep in touch over email and telephone. We still hold our weekly Tuesday team meeting, only now over Zoom, rather than around a small table cast in shadow by one of downtown Toronto’s many condo buildings.

Adapting to this ‘new normal’ has come in ebbs and flows. But after thinking a great deal about what seems to be missing in this three-month-long (and counting!) sequestered existence is the feeling that comes with being part of a team.

As you’ve probably gleaned from previous newsletters, the NNC team is a well-oiled machine. We each have an uncanny admiration of each other’s distinct qualities and abilities. It is, without question, the greatest team I’ve ever been a part of.

What’s most amusing, to me at least, is the realization that, despite the many tools and apps the world offers to ‘enhance productivity’ or whatnot, the time of the pandemic has taught me about the importance of the so-called ‘human connection.’

Whether it is debating matters of process and procedure, or interpreting editorial best standards, there’s a cosmic energy that comes with working every day alongside colleagues you so deeply admire. It’s a rewarding part of this job that I never fully appreciated until now – and one I’m happy to share with you all.

But, as the famous saying goes, the show must go on!

Certainly, this summer will be unlike any we’ve ever experienced at the NNC. While routines will be disrupted, our collective enthusiasm to serve our member news organization, and the public, will not waver. In a time when the value of quality, accurate information is critical to shaping a prosperous future, the NNC is a partner willing to lend a hand.

As I’ve already shared, I think we’ve got a remarkable crew committed to supporting the production of quality journalism. To many, that may sound like a daunting task. But having been part of this team for nearly four years now, I know it’s a challenge I have no doubt in my mind that we, as a team, can answer.

We are here. We are listening. We want to help any way we can.

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communication, Research, and Community Manager

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Reflections on regional self-regulation and the legacy of the Kent Commission

It was the summer of 1980 when two newspapers—one in Ottawa and the other in Winnipeg—ceased operations, leaving their respective owners with little competition in each city. Renewed concerns over concentration of the news media which had defined the 1970 Davey Committee report gave rise to the Kent Commission, headed by former journalist Thomas Kent, and proposed sweeping restrictions on newspaper ownership. Though the final report did not result in major regulatory changes to the industry, its legacy on press councils remains.

The report contained numerous recommendations that were largely criticized for being overly restrictive, and even outlandish, including limiting the number of newspapers that a chain can own to five and prohibiting dailies from owning community papers in the same area. Of course, these never materialized into law but the report’s comments on press regulation—in the form of self-regulation—were strong, to say the least.

“We think that newspapers that do not become enthusiastically involved in the establishment and operation of press councils are exceedingly short-sighted,” stated the 1981 report by the Royal Commission on Newspapers.

National NewsMedia Council public director Ken Sims remembers the impact that the Kent Commission made when its report was released in 1981 and in particular its effect on the voluntary regulation of media in Atlantic Canada. Indeed, the report was especially supportive of regional councils as a way to fill the “‘communications vacuum’ between people and press.”

We’re a little biased here, but perhaps the most salient advice the report gave regarding press councils was this:

“We have said much in this report about legitimacy and credibility. It seems to us that there is no better way in which newspapers, in a free and voluntary fashion, can achieve the credibility they so much need than this: press councils, standing voluntarily between press and public, honestly trying to interpret each to each, to demonstrate uniquely that newspapers are accountable, are actively striving to do right by the reading public.”

In the years following the report, regional press councils saw their membership increase. According to the Sourcebook of Canadian Media Law, the Ontario Press Council tripled its daily newspaper membership in 1982—jumping from 10 dailies to 32—and other councils sprang up, including the Atlantic Press Council in 1983.

At the time of the Kent Commission, Sims was publisher of the New Glasgow Evening News. Sims, who would eventually become a director and then Executive Secretary of the Atlantic Press Council, attributes the regional council’s formation in part to the lasting words of the Kent Commission.

Sims was publisher of numerous local and daily newspapers throughout Canada, from the Charlottetown Guardian & Patriot in P.E.I. to the Lloydminster Times in Alberta.Throughout his career, he served on a number of industry boards, including the Canadian Press and the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association, and served as the president of the Atlantic Community Newspaper Association. 

“Every place that I ever worked, I always considered the paper the community newspaper of that area—be it a small community like Antigonish, a larger community like the Evening News in Pictou County, or an even larger community of PEI.”

Though he considers himself fortunate to have worked or lived in seven of Canada’s ten provinces, Nova Scotia is where he calls home.

“Home is the Maritimes,” said Sims. “I was born and brought up here and darn proud of it.”

During his time with the Atlantic Press Council, Sims handled numerous complaints from readers across the region. Like the complaints we receive at the NNC, issues often revolved around distinguishing news from opinion, and readers wanting to see their perspectives reflected in the pages they read.

“We had a lot of complaints in the East that were perceived to be injustice,” said Sims of the types of complaints he handled as the Atlantic Press Council’s Executive Secretary.

At the time, he was often able to resolve the matters on an individual basis through the rapport he had built with the publishers and news organizations he had worked with in the past. Despite the ease with which these matters were handled on an individual basis, he acknowledged that some of the reader complaints might have benefited from more perspectives on the matter—more directors to consider reader concerns—to strengthen public trust.

Sims explained that while the core of the complaints we receive at the NNC are similar to those that the Atlantic Press Council dealt with, they’re amplified not only because of the national scale of the organization but also because social media has allowed for concerns—and even minor errors—to take on lives of their own.

Sims was part of the transition committee when the Atlantic Press Council amalgamated into the National NewsMedia Council in 2015. He recalled that while not everyone was keen on amalgamation, many of the regional councils recognized that they could do more if they formed one council.

A national press council “brings the industry together,” said Sims.

“As a national group, we have the opportunity to spread the word. [We] have the strength of our organization through its membership.”

We also have the perspectives of a diverse group of people who form our Council to consider journalistic standards and reader concerns from a range of perspectives.

The complaints are newer, and the Council is bigger, but according to Sims, the issues closely parallel those in the Atlantic Press Council in that they come down to reader trust.

In that way, the mission of the press council, whether in its regional or national form, embodies some of the more measured appeals of the Kent commission: to improve industry accountability not by compulsion but by strengthening communication between the news media and its readers. 

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

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Saying 'farewell' to a long-time friend

Joanne De Laurentiis knows that in order to create a fair and reasonable policy, you have to think about all sides of an issue. Her ability to consider all angles served her well not only in her prominent roles in the financial services sector, but also as a long-time director of the National NewsMedia Council and former Ontario Press Council. Though her term as a public director for the National NewsMedia Council ended this month, her mark on press councils will continue to serve Canadians for some time to come.

As a first-year student at the University of Western Ontario, De Laurentiis was set on pursuing journalism. But she soon discovered that policy questions fascinated her most, so she switched her major to political science in her search for some answers.

The former journalism student would go on to become the chief of staff to Ontario cabinet minister Robert Elgie, and hold numerous high-profile positions in financial services, including CEO of Credit Union Central of Canada and president of the Investment Funds Institute. Throughout her career, she worked to refine governance structures for the industry and consumers.

“She always brought a well balanced, thoughtful perspective to all issues and complaints at the NNC,” said fellow NNC director Ken Sims of his colleague. “Joanne always challenged the board to do what was best for complainants and provide fair and balanced outcomes.”

De Laurentiis recalled her time on the Ontario Press Council before it amalgamated into the national organization. She explained that complaints to the OPC were often about a “difference of opinion,” allegations that articles “left out key information,” or concerns over invasions of privacy. De Laurentiis found that listening to both parties in a complaint deepened her understanding of reader issues as well as the rigour that journalists bring to their work.

Perhaps the most memorable—or at least the most high-profile—complaints heard by the Ontario Press Council involved reports of illegal drug use by then Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

“We really worked hard to ensure that both sides could express their views,” said De Laurentiis about the public hearings that took place in October 2013. “We tried to be as open in the process as we could.”

De Laurentiis played a role in the successful transition from a regional patchwork of press councils to a national body. She said she favours the national iteration of the council over its regional form for its ability to bring more diverse perspectives to an issue, thanks to the “rich set of individuals” who comprise the council.

Though the types of reader complaints have remained similar over the years, she acknowledges that a lot has changed in the news industry during her service on press councils.

The rise of digital platforms has opened the door for the “unprofessional mass of information spinners” to gain more ground, explained De Laurentiis. “[It’s] kind of like the Wild West.”

As professional news organizations compete for reader attention in the face of disinformation and adapt their business models in times of uncertainty, industry self-regulation must also adapt, said De Laurentiis. But that doesn’t mean that press councils have to change drastically.

“To me, the existence of a national news council is critical because it’s a beacon in the wilderness.”

Press councils remain important because complaints are important. “I always saw complaints as a positive, not a negative” said De Laurentiis.

The outgoing NNC director said that reader complaints show a willingness to be held to account and to consider other perspectives on an issue. She cautioned that without such willingness, we become intolerant of different views.

De Laurentiis will be missed dearly by her fellow board colleagues and staff. We thank her for her dedicated service, her balanced approach to deliberating on complaints, and her unwavering commitment to consider all sides of an issue.

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

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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: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

Reporting guides and resources

The National NewsMedia Council does not impose its own code of practice. Instead, it expects members to adhere to their own code and to generally-accepted journalistic standards, practices, and ethics.

We’ve compiled several resources from other organizations to help journalists navigate news media ethics and standard practices in their work. This virtual library may be of particular use for journalists covering difficult or sensitive topics.

Media ethics helpline

All NNC members get access to our pre-publication ethics helpline. 

If you or your newsroom have a question related to journalism ethics or standards, give us a call before you run the article. 

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Information update

We have short NNC information blurbs to promote your membership and let readers know how to get in touch with us. Please include one, along with our organization's logo either in your printed publication and website. A high-resolution version can be downloaded on our website.       

{Your news organization) is a member of the National NewsMedia Council, which deals with complaints about news stories, opinion columns or photos. See the NNC website at mediacouncil.ca or call 1-844-877-1163 for more information.

OR

Have a complaint about news, opinion, or photos? See the National NewsMedia Council website at mediacouncil.ca or call 1-844-877-1163 for information.

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