National NewsMedia Council releases new best practice guidelines for reporting on police and minor crime

National NewsMedia Council releases new best practice guidelines for reporting on police and minor crime

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is pleased to announce the public release of its latest best practice guidelines for reporting on police and minor crime to reflect and further inform newsroom discussions on these issues.

The release of this report comes after several years of discussions between readers and news organizations about the public’s growing concerns surrounding the news value, and the long-term impact, for example, of being named in a news report on what could be considered a ‘minor’ crime. At the heart of these conversations were debates that were grounded in systemic issues of equality and police practices, as well as the impact of digital technology that have made the retrieval of past accusations, which were later dropped, more easily accessible through the internet.

Staff at the NNC, under the leadership of former executive director Pat Perkel, began researching, reviewing, and compiling guidance for its member publications on best practices several months ago. Research for this project included reviewing past writings on the subject, engaging with experts, and participating in professional discussion forums. 

In addition, the NNC also worked with multiple reporters and editors at Canadian news organizations to add both thoughtful insights and earn broad consensus on our findings. This report also provides a brief review of how news organizations in other democratic countries deal with similar issues.

As you are reading the NNC’s findings, please remember :

  • These best practices apply to reporting on minor crime and routine police news releases. They do not apply to reporting on major crime and trials. Likewise, they do not speak to cases where individuals have been convicted of crimes, nor do they advocate for ‘unpublishing.’
  • This guidance on best practices recognizes that choices on police and crime reporting may vary among newsrooms and even on a case-by-case basis depending on the community, the particulars of the story, and a host of journalistic choices for the newsroom to consider.
  • The objective is to promote discussion on this subject, and to encourage consideration of the news value and ramifications before naming a person accused of minor charges, as well as to aid newsrooms in refining or developing their own processes to limit undue harm or provide remedy where appropriate.

These best practices are designed to support newsroom discussion and consideration of a process to limit undue harm or provide remedy if warranted. There is no doubt that crime reporting is important in terms of safety, law enforcement and an open court system that includes accountable police forces and judiciary. At the same time, the NNC recognizes that journalistic choices on police and crime reporting will vary among newsrooms; on a case-by-case basis; or on the particulars of the story. These guidelines have been compiled with the intent to reflect and provide  thoughtful suggestions related to current reporting practices that could help address some instances of systemic and preventable harm to communities and individuals.

To read the full report, please click here.

Update from the Complaints Desk – July 14, 2022

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is an industry self-regulatory organization that receives and evaluates complaints about possible breaches of journalistic standards from members of the public against member news organizations. Another critical element of our organization’s mandate is to promote a news literate public that is aware of journalism’s critical role in a democratic society.     

In this latest dispatch from our complaints desk, you’ll find several summaries of recent reader complaints that the NNC has received and which have been addressed through corrective action by the news organization or through reader education about journalism standards and practices. 

Correcting out-of-date data in pandemic reporting

A reader expressed concern that an explainer article about COVID reinfection in New Brunswick inaccurately stated that reinfection was rare. 

The article cited provincial data on reinfection rates along with Canada’s 2021 communicable disease report to indicate that COVID reinfection was rare but still possible. However, the complainant pointed to more recent data from other provinces to support the fact that reinfection was more common than once thought. 

The news organization responded to the reader’s concerns about accuracy by updating the article to state that since the 2021 report, new variants and waning immunity against the virus have made reinfection more common. It also included an editor’s note to readers explaining the reason for the change. 

In this case, the NNC found that the news organization took appropriate steps to correct an error based on out-of-date data, and considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (Case file: 2022-38)

Alerting readers to serious accuracy issues is critical 

An individual was concerned about how a news organization handled a correction in a story about their deceased family member.

The story stated that the complaint’s family member was charged with sexual harassment and assault. The complainant rightly pointed out, however, that the Crown had decided not to lay charges in the case. The day following the publication of the article, the news organization issued a correction on social media, and to its newsletter subscribers, noting the error. It also removed the story, “given the fundamental nature of the error.”

The NNC does not generally advocate for unpublishing content. However, in rare cases where changes to a piece are not sufficient to remedy serious journalistic errors, removing the article and alerting readers to the error may be an appropriate course of action.

In this case, the NNC found that the news organization’s steps to inform its audience of the error and remove the story constituted appropriate action to resolve the serious accuracy issue. For this reason, the NNC considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (Case file: 2022-34)

(Not) just joking – deciphering reader columns that combine a range of content

A reader complained to the NNC with their concern that a regular column in a community newspaper was potentially spreading misinformation. 

The long-standing column in the local newspaper includes comments from readers on a range of subjects, in a range of styles, such as opinion and humour. In particular, the complainant was concerned with a comment noting “breaking news” that tech mogul Elon Musk had put in an offer to buy a local park in the community and “fix it up.”

On reading the column, the NNC noted that the statements were clearly satirical-style commentary not intended to be taken literally. For this reason, the NNC found no grounds to support a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy. 

While the NNC emphasizes the importance of clearly labeling content for readers, it noted the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express unpopular views, use strong language, and employ a variety of rhetorical tools, such as satire, as a means to persuade, entertain, or enlighten readers. (Case file: 2022-36) 

Online coverage of criminal charges and outcomes 

The NNC received a complaint from a reader, who had been subject to criminal charges, expressing concern that the news organization did not provide a follow-up story indicating those charges were later dismissed. 

Staff searched the publication’s archives and explained to the complainant the news organization had, in fact, written a follow-up story which stated the original charges had deen dropped. The complainant stated this story was not as prominently placed as the original article, indicating that charges had been laid, when they searched their name in Google. 

In this case, the NNC determined that the news organization followed accepted practices for covering criminal proceedings. That said, the NNC recommended to the news organization that future complaints about similar concerns could be mitigated by simply linking the original story to the follow-up, or updating the original reporting with the outcome of the charges. (Case file: 2022-29)

The National NewsMedia Council welcomes three new directors

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is pleased to announce it has confirmed three new directors to its board following its annual general meeting held last week. 

Two of the new directors are professional directors with editorial positions at their respective news organizations, and one director is a public director with expertise in the regulatory field.

Paul Samyn, the editor-in-chief of the Winnipeg Free Press, joins the NNC as an industry director on a one year term. Samyn has been part of the Free Press newsroom for more than a quarter century, working his way up after starting as a rookie reporter in 1988. He began his relationship with the Free Press as a boy delivering the newspaper in St. James, MB. As a reporter, he has written for every section, having covered elections, wars overseas and the funerals of a royal princess and a prime minister. Prior to returning to Manitoba, Samyn helped lead the Free Press’s political coverage for a decade as its Ottawa bureau chief. 

Philip Wolf, the managing editor for Black Press’s Vancouver Island Free Daily/PQB News, also joins the NNC as a professional director on a one year term. Wolf has been a journalist on Vancouver Island for more than 25 years. He began his career at the Cowichan Valley Citizen and was also previously the managing editor at the Nanaimo Daily News. 

Lucy Becker joins the NNC as a public director on a three-year term. Becker has an extensive background in the regulation of the investment, legal, health, and bereavement sectors. She currently serves as an adjudicator with the Ontario Physicians and Surgeons Discipline Tribunal, amongst a series of other advisory panels. She also volunteers as a Director for the Don Valley Community Legal Services, a legal aid clinic. Becker began her career as a journalist with the Ajax-Pickering News Advertiser and Oshawa-Whitby This Week in Ontario’s Durham Region.

The Council, and its staff, would like to extend its sincere thanks to outgoing directors Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, Ken Sims, former executive secretary of the Atlantic Press Council, and Tim Shoults from Kamloops This Week. All three were instrumental in the creation of the NNC as a national organization in 2015.  

Update from the Complaints Desk – May 5, 2022

All four complaints summarized in this latest ‘Update from the Complaints Desk’ relate to journalistic sourcing. 

NNC staff regularly hear from engaged readers who critique stories that appear in member publications for a variety of reasons, sometimes because the stories do not hear from certain sources or other times because they do not include specific research findings or examine particular angles. 

Council has long supported the view that journalists have the prerogative to select the story’s sources and scope. Standard journalistic practice calls for news organizations to report information with accuracy and precision, to demonstrate fairness, and to corroborate claims or allegations. While readers may find other sources to support their views, this, in itself, does not always constitute a breach of journalistic standards. 

Hearing the half of it: Accuracy in an audio story 

One individual expressed concern about an alleged inaccuracy in an episode of a podcast that covered the story of police arrests at a protest. The complainant cited information provided by the RCMP to government officials to support their claim. 

The NNC reviewed the episode in question and noted the story was corroborated by observations from witnesses at the scene, including those who were arrested. The host also presented the statements from law enforcement and asked the guests to respond. This aligns with standard journalistic practice. 

The NNC noted that the complainant did not first demonstrate a reasonable attempt to resolve their concerns with the news organization directly. That said, the NNC found no grounds to support a claim of inaccuracy. (2022-11)

What constitutes sufficient context in breaking news? 

An individual was concerned that a ‘breaking news’ article did not include sufficient context about the reason for a judge’s decision to grant bail to “Freedom Convoy” protest organizer Tamara Lich. 

The article included information about the reason that a bail review was launched but did not delve into the details of the legal reasons behind the judge’s decision to grant bail. Generally speaking, breaking news updates offer immediate information to readers on a story of importance. In this way, they are different from longer form pieces, such as features or analysis pieces. . 

In its review, the NNC found that the article in question presented a brief report about a new development in a matter of public interest at the time. The NNC found no evidence to support a breach of journalistic standards. (2022-23)

‘That’s not funny’: Concerns about story selection in the entertainment section 

One individual wrote to the NNC arguing that an article about the Ukrainian president’s background as a former comedian, which was published in the entertainment section of a newspaper, was inappropriate in light of the devastating effects of the war in Ukraine. 

In reviewing the article in question, the NNC noted that the article offered a closer look at the unique background and skillset of an international public figure and the impact such skills may have on his political ability and leadership style. 

The NNC found no evidence to support a breach of journalistic standards in this case, and emphasized that journalists may choose the focus of a story for a wide range of journalistic purposes, including offering elements of human interest or providing nuanced perspectives on a specific topic. (2022-26)

Staying within the story’s scope when drawing on specific scientific findings 

An individual expressed concern that an article in a series about domestic violence did not adequately represent men as victims. The complainant wished to see the findings of a particular research study included in the article. The study showed men were equally likely as women to experience a form of abusive behaviour called coercive control, but less likely to report it. 

The NNC agreed that stigma can play a major role in the decision to report an incident, and that may impact available data on a number of sensitive subjects. However, the failure to include a specific scientific finding does not indicate a breach of journalistic standards. News stories are not necessarily intended to offer or compare the results of an entire body of scientific evidence on a vast area of study or complex issue, such as domestic violence. 

In this case, the article heard from individuals who had personal experience with the issue, and cited data and information from professionals in the field, to communicate to readers the severity of the problem. 

The NNC found that the information cited by the complainant did not directly contradict the statements in the article and found no grounds to support a breach of journalistic standards. (2022-27)

Thank you, Tim!

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) would like to express its most sincere gratitude to Tim Shoults, a stalwart of our organization and a tireless champion of community news, who will be departing our board on April 22, as he moves on to a new role outside of journalism.

Shoults has been one of the NNC’s professional directors since ‘Day One’. Prior to the creation of the NNC in 2015, he served as a director on the British Columbia Press Council. During his time with the NNC, Shoults was instrumental in helping to establish a cohesive national organization.

Since that ‘Day One’ he has served as the chair of the NNC’s finance committee and helped to ensure the Council remained on sound financial footing.

“We are very sad to see Tim depart our board where he has played such a dynamic role,” said board chair John Fraser, “but at the same time we congratulate him for taking on important new responsibilities in the medical and health field.”

Fraser added that Shoults fortified the NNC during its early days. “The good news is that he has promised to stay our friend and, when needed, adviser. On behalf of the board and staff at the NNC, I wish him and his wonderful family all the best and we send profound thanks for all the support he gave us.”

Earlier this week, Shoults penned a touching note on LinkedIn that reflects on nearly a quarter century in the community news business.

Two years ago, we profiled Shoults in our ongoing ‘Director’s Spotlight’ newsletter feature. You can read more about him here.

**UPDATE** Shortly after publishing, it was announced that Shoults, in conjunction with several of his colleagues at Kamloops This Week, had been selected as a finalist for the 2021 Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism.

Update from the NNC’s complaints desk: March 24, 2022

Below are several complaints that the National NewsMedia Council received and addressed through reader education about journalism standards and best practices over the past few weeks.

Readers express strong opinions on opinion polls

Two individuals complained about what they felt was inappropriate reporting about a public opinion poll that gauged Canadians’ attitudes about people who are not vaccinated. The poll showed the majority of respondents were in favour of mandatory vaccination, and that more than a quarter of respondents favoured a jail sentence for people who chose not to be vaccinated.

The complainants expressed concern that simply reporting on the poll was irresponsible and unfairly demonized a segment of the population. The NNC agrees that reporting on public opinion polls should be done responsibly and in proper context. In this case, the article presented important information to readers about the organization that conducted the poll, how the poll was conducted, the total number of respondents, and the margin of error. The NNC observed that the complainants’ concerns centred on the results of the poll, rather than the reporting of it, and found no evidence to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards. (Case ID: 2022-07)

Some comments on comment moderation

The NNC received two separate complaints from individuals concerned about comment moderation. In the first case, one individual was concerned that his comment was unfairly removed from a community news site. A second individual expressed concern to the NNC that a news organization did not take appropriate steps to remove what he felt was an offensive comment about the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It is the view of the NNC that comments and letters to the editor are designed to promote reader engagement and enhance discussion in the community. At the same time, the NNC recognizes that news organizations have an interest in ensuring that conversations remain appropriate and on topic. That said, it pointed out that in addition to engaging in their own comment moderation, many news organizations’ platforms allow readers to flag comments that may violate community standards, and as such, that it may take some time for comments to appear or to be removed. The NNC view is that news organizations have the prerogative to allow or to prohibit commenting on articles, and to moderate comments for appropriateness and relevance as they see fit, which may include removing comments that include inappropriate language or promote misinformation. (Case IDs: 2022-12, 2022-13)

Dogged reporting is critical when publishing allegations against others

A dog owner, who’s dog was involved in an attack, argued that a local news story that reported on the event was inaccurate and did not include her side of the story. The complainant was not named in the article, and told the NNC that she wished to remain anonymous.

Standard journalistic practice requires that journalists corroborate information, including allegations against others. In this case, the story relied on multiple sources to retell the proceeding of events, in accordance with standard practice. The NNC also noted that transparency is critical to the credibility of reporting on events in the public interest. Standard journalistic practice indicates that sources should seldom be granted anonymity, and only for exceedingly compelling reasons, such as protecting victims of serious crimes. Given the practice of limiting the use of anonymous sources, the NNC agreed with the news organization’s position that granting anonymity to include additional on-the-record comments would be outside its normal practices, and did not find grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards. (Case ID: 2022-17)

Update from the NNC’s complaints desk: February 17, 2022

Below are several complaints that the National NewsMedia Council received and addressed through education over the past few weeks.

Satirical column falls flat for reader – distinguishing opinion from news

An individual complained that an opinion column about attitudes toward COVID vaccination was insensitive and promoted hateful views. The NNC noted that the role of opinion writing is varied, and may include seeking to persuade, entertain, or enlighten readers. 

An ordinary reading of the article in question indicated that it was satirical in nature. In this case, irony and exaggeration were used as a means to provide important reflection on a topical issue, and it was clear that statements were not intended to be taken literally. The NNC found no grounds for a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards. (Case ID: 2022-04)

Reporting on serious criminal charges

An individual complained that articles published by several news organizations reported on sexual assault charges against him despite the fact that he has not been convicted. The NNC explained that the articles all report charges but do not indicate that he has been found guilty of the allegations against him. 

Generally speaking, reporting on such cases is in the public interest and an important part of the open court system in Canada that includes accountable police and judiciary. The NNC noted that it is standard practice for news organizations to report on serious criminal charges and to follow up on the outcomes of those charges when they become available. (Case ID: 2022-06)

Political insight and points of view on local politics – varied roles of opinion writing

An individual complained that an opinion column showed bias in favour of a particular  politician. The NNC explained that opinion columns have various roles, which may include seeking to persuade or simply to inform readers from a particular perspective. 

A review of the column indicated that it reflected on the topic of political branding in the run-up to the next municipal election. While readers are free to disagree with its view, this does not indicate a breach of journalistic standards. (Case ID: 2022-10)

‘Mother trucker’, our email just exploded!

In addition to the regular volume of complaints the National NewsMedia Council receives from the public about the editorial standards of the journalism produced by our member titles, we also hear from individuals who are concerned about what they see as insufficient coverage of a particular subject, or those who would like to see a specific story appear in the news. 

Over the last week, as a convoy of trucks and other demonstrators descended on Ottawa to protest COVID-related restrictions, the NNC received and responded to a deluge of more than 350 complaints from concerned Canadians. Many, for example, emphasized their concern about a lack of coverage of the “Freedom Convoy” and its message of rolling back vaccine mandates. Others also expressed their displeasure that their perspectives were not adequately reflected in “mainstream” news coverage.

By and large, the vast majority of complaints zeroed in on broadcast outlets, such as CBC, CTV, and Global News. In our responses, we emphasized three important points. 

First, we explained that complaints about materials aired on television and radio news are handled by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. We would clarify, for the purposes of this communication, however, there is no complaints-handling body empowered with the mandate to handle public complaints against the websites of what are considered traditional broadcasting outlets. 

Second, the NNC clarified its mandate to the complainants. While we welcome feedback on what the public sees as ‘emerging issues’, our organization’s focus is to assess specific complaints about breaches of journalistic standards—such as inaccuracy and lack of opportunity to respond to harmful statements—in individual, published news and opinion articles. 

That said, as a matter of clarification, we explained to complainants that there has been, and continues to be, significant coverage of the issue in both news and opinion pieces.

Third, we emphasized that the NNC does not dictate to news organizations what stories should be covered. In keeping with fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the NNC supports the view that decisions about what news to cover rightly rests with individual news media organizations. 

Several complainants responded to our notes expressing their outrage over news organizations’ coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically, and their distrust of the news media in general. Some appreciated our responses, others were less than polite. One individual even sent us a NSFW song.

While complaints, both real and unfounded continue to stream in, this experience provided an opportunity to underscore the important role news literacy plays in Canadian democracy.

Generally speaking, news organizations in Canada adhere to widely-accepted journalistic standards when reporting and opining on the news. We recognize that the pandemic has been challenging for journalists on a number of levels, and news organizations have risen to the challenge of dealing with fast-developing information, complex data, and sometimes conflicting perspectives. 

What is a challenge, of course, is that building trust with readers, in both analogue and digital public spheres, is a difficult and long-term exercise. We do this through several actions, including always respectfully acknowledging the displeasure of complaints, even when the rhetoric kicks into high gear. and attempting to better understand reader concerns against the backdrop of widely-accepted journalistic standards. 

Adjusted working hours during the holidays

2021 has been a hectic year. That’s why during this year’s holiday season, the NNC’s standard hours of operation will be adjusted. Our operations will close at the end of the day on Tuesday, December 21, 2021 and re-open on Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

All relevant queries will be responded to upon re-opening.

Staff will be spending their holidays re-charging their batteries for what promises to be an exciting 2022!