Oh editor, where art thou?

Oh editor, where art thou?

As a self-regulatory industry association, the National NewsMedia Council frequently hears from Canadians who express concerns about how our member news organizations report, or opine, on news and current affairs that have a public impact. 

Some of the most popular refrains from complaints include keywords such as: “bias”, “omission”, “inaccuracy”, etc. As a matter of process, before the NNC gets involved, we encourage complainants to attempt to find a resolution to the concern with the news organization at the ‘local level’. 

But what happens in the event that the names and contact details of editors responsible for addressing these concerns aren’t easily available, either in print or online? This was the subject of a complaint we recently received against an Ontario-based community newspaper last month. 

An individual approached the NNC about their concerns with a police blotter news story that included their name and the details of their arrest. The complainant said the arrest was caused by a “misunderstanding” that had since been resolved. They had attempted to contact the news organization on several occasions to ask for the story to be updated but their requests had gone unanswered. 

The story’s impact was compounded by the fact that it was indexed by search engines, which meant their name and the charges could be easily retrieved through a simple keyword search. The complainant said this had a negative impact on their professional life and possible employment opportunities. 

In an effort to de-escalate the concerns of the complainant, the NNC staff contacted the publication and discovered that the contact details for the editor were out-of-date. Staff did receive the updated contact information for the publication’s current managing editor and contacted them in an effort to find a resolution to the complaint. 

NNC staff connected the complainant with the managing editor. The complainant provided the editor with the proper documentation, which indicated the charges against them had been dropped. The publication also verified this fact with the Ontario Provincial Police. The news organization updated the story and removed the complainant’s name from the publication. 

In this regard, the NNC finds that corrective action was taken to address this complaint. At the same time, however, the process of arriving at this resolution represents a cautionary tale for news organizations. 

This case illustrates how important a news organization’s ‘contact us’ page should not be treated as an online afterthought. Not only is it an important gateway for customer service, it is ground zero for building a long-lasting, trusting, and productive relationship with its readers. 

The National NewsMedia Council is recruiting new directors

In 2022, the National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is looking forward to welcoming new public directors to strengthen its educational mandate. 

Public directors are members of the public who are not affiliated with news organizations that are members in the NNC and form a simple majority on the Council. Past public members have included teachers, lawyers, faith leaders, or those with expertise in business and/or management. 

To learn more about current NNC directors, please click here. 

All public members receive a small annual stipend for their service.

Responsibilities for public directors consist of governance-related work, review of complaints referred to Council, as well as oversight of the NNC’s educational activities. 

The ideal public director: 

  • Has a passion for journalism’s critical role in a democratic society 
  • Has a keen interest in news literacy 
  • Is bilingual 
  • Possesses experience dealing with the media in some professional capacity
  • Maintains an interest in learning more about journalists ethics and best practices 

We welcome applications from individuals with different sets of skills and life experiences. 

If you are interested in applying, please send your CV and a short letter of application to: info@mediacouncil.ca

Deadline to apply is December 15, 2021. 

What happens when editorial choices surrounding a story about divisiveness and lack of empathy are subject to the same criticism?

Over the past two months, the has NNC received more than 50 complaints, and dozens more phone calls, from people who expressed their concerns about a front-page layout of an August 26th edition of the Toronto Star. Readers were incensed over the front-page presentation of a story featuring strongly-worded tweets about people who chose not to get the COVID vaccine. The front-page tweets were, in many readers’ words, “divisive and hateful.”

That day’s edition of the Toronto Star featured an article about public attitudes towards unvaccinated people, citing a poll that suggested many vaccinated Canadians had “no sympathy for those who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine and then fall ill.” The article pointed to strongly worded tweets from people who felt similarly, and the tweets were prominently displayed on the front page of the paper.

One tweet included on the front page read, “I have no empathy left for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die.”

While the Toronto Star’s public editor published a column about the issues with the front-page display in the following days, the significant outcry from readers underscores the need for clarity and consideration when presenting complex issues, particularly when they are given the weight and focus of a front-page display.

In this case, the NNC heard from many complainants who were concerned that the comments expressed harmful views, sowed further division, and were not clearly identified as tweets from individuals.

Take, for example, some of the criticism we heard from complainants:

“This is a prime example of the divide the media has caused…This newspaper is fanning the flames of hatred and division.”

“To see such words of hate plastered across a front page is not only outrageous and unacceptable but also utterly irresponsible in these volatile times”

“We are already so fractured as a society that this headline does nothing but fuel the divide.”

“Everyone has a right to their opinion but a newspaper has an even greater responsibility to the community to ‘draw a line’. That front page article is down right scary and absolutely promotes hate, discrimination, misinformation and fear towards fellow human beings.”

One individual pointed out, “There are others who by means of exemption are unable to be vaccinated either due to religious beliefs or medical conditions,” and “Being that it is the front page, many people will see these hateful remarks and have no context unless they read the article.”

Even among those who recognized the comments as tweets, many felt it was difficult to discern this fact and that the comments were given undue weight. As one complainant put it, “The newspaper quotes someone from Twitter…and promotes it on their front page in a way that suggests they agree with it. The fact it comes from another person is in very small characters, and the text is placed without quotation marks.”

In addition to the general outrage over the front-page display of the story, some complainants took the opportunity to express their views on vaccination. A number of complainants simply wanted an apology from the news organization about how the newspaper chose to highlight these tweets.

Most complainants immediately contacted the NNC with their concerns. Some told us they even reached out to their local police with concerns about hateful language and were referred to the NNC.

The NNC reviewed each of the complaints and listened to their phone calls. As is our process, we encouraged them to try to resolve the matter, first, with the news organization directly and allow reasonable opportunity for the news organization to address their concerns.

On August 28, the public editor of the Toronto Star published his findings in a column in response to reader concerns. The Star had received thousands of messages from concerned readers who found the front-page display “confusing, hurtful and inflammatory.”

As noted in the column, “Many readers thought the statements were the Star’s view, like a front-page editorial; others thought it was the headline to the story.” The public editor noted that there were no quotation marks around the tweeted comments, that the tweets lacked context, and the source of the comments was not clearly identified.

The column included comments from the editor of the Toronto Star, who acknowledged the “power” and “responsibility” of a front page. She apologized for the fact that the particular front-page display did not meet their usual standards.

As noted in the column, the public editor found that “greater care should have been taken” in this case, and that “The Star wound up stoking the very divisions it sought to write about.”

Throughout the pandemic, the NNC has received a number of complaints and phone calls from people concerned with polarization and ‘divisiveness’ in reporting on COVID, and especially, COVID vaccines. In many of these cases, people want to see another side of the story reflected, even if the evidence does not support it.

Whether covering vaccine hesitancy or people’s response to vaccine hesitancy, reporting on unfounded, offensive, or even extreme views can be newsworthy and serve important journalistic purposes, so long as those views are treated with appropriate care. That means providing appropriate attribution and context, including verifiable evidence and information about sourcing.

In this particular case, the NNC recognizes that the complaints were primarily directed at the front-page layout of the story, and not the story itself, which in fact aimed to provide context and shed light on the attitudes expressed in the strongly-worded tweets.

In reviewing complainants’ concerns and the news organizations’ response to the matter, the NNC agreed with the news organization that the comments should have been more clearly labelled. It also agreed that in this case, the display of the tweets on the front page fell short of journalistic standards around context and attribution.

At the same time, the NNC found that the public editor’s findings and thorough report on the matter both acknowledged and addressed reader concerns about the lack of context, inadequate labelling, and divisive nature of the comments.

While apologies typically fall outside the mandate of the NNC, we would note that the chief editor’s comments and apology for the front page’s shortcomings, as quoted in the column, go a long way to addressing reader concerns, particularly of those who wished to see recognition of the wide-reaching impact of the newspaper’s front page.

In light of the published findings by the Toronto Star public editor, the NNC considered this matter resolved due to corrective action.

Carleton University’s Rachel Watts named the 2021 Fraser MacDougall Prize winner

Rachel Watts, a fourth-year undergraduate journalism student at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, has been selected as the recipient of this year’s Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting for her story Pandemic intensifies silent sorrow of Canada’s asylum seekers, published in Capital Current. 

This year’s judges agreed Watts’ story was thorough and eloquently written. The story’s compelling focus on chronicling the challenges asylum seekers face, even after overcoming horrific challenges in their home countries, was both potent and persuasive. 

“This story captures so many meaningful nuances which, against the backdrop of the pandemic, have become all the more concerning,” says John Fraser, the executive chair of the National NewsMedia Council. “The story helps to amplify the perspectives, and life experiences, of those whom we do not always hear from in the media but that are important voices that shape our collective worldview.”

The Fraser MacDougall Prize is jointly sponsored by the National NewsMedia Council (NNC), in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). The prize was first presented in 2017 as a way of supporting young journalists to report on challenging, high-impact human rights issues. You can read about previous winners here

Watts offered a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to her “wonderful” professor, Kelly Patterson, for her guidance on bringing this important story from idea to publication. 

Through my reporting, I began to realize how newcomers and refugees are often depicted as being mostly ‘grateful’ and ‘relieved’ upon their immigration to Canada,” says Watts. “Settlement, or creating ‘a new life’, is viewed as ‘the easy part’. 

“Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Too many vulnerable groups of migrants continue to experience various challenges such as culture shock, severe isolation, language barriers, discrimination and dead-end jobs. It’s particularly relevant to consider these barriers in the COVID-19 pandemic context– one which began to isolate newcomer families and individuals on a whole new level.” 

This year’s competition attracted a record number of submissions. A short list of four finalists was announced last month

“Despite an extremely trying and challenging past 18 months, the quality of this year’s submissions have shown us that student journalism continues to successfully push boundaries and has never been stronger,” says Fraser.

In addition to the $1,000 prize, Watts will be celebrated at JHR’s upcoming Night for Rights gala, which will be held on October 20. 

Balancing competing views, listening to readers, and exercising editorial judgement

How many perspectives should be included in a brief news piece? When are letters considered an appropriate remedy to showing another side of an issue? These are questions that reporters and editors face every day as they exercise their editorial judgment to determine the angle of the story, the people interviewed, and the evidence used to provide an accurate account of events for readers.

The National NewsMedia Council recently reviewed a reader’s concerns about accuracy and lack of opportunity to present another perspective in a story about local pesticide use.

The article, published in an Ontario-based community paper, reported on residents’ reactions to a recent application of fungicide, via helicopter, to a cornfield in the area. The article featured comments from local residents expressing concern with the noise disturbance and proximity of the helicopter to their houses.

An individual in the agricultural industry expressed concern with the lack of perspective from farmers and other members of the agricultural community. In particular, the individual argued that the article suggested that the fungicide was “sprayed liberally on the native ecosystem around the field boundaries,” rather than used correctly by trained professionals.

In reviewing the article, the NNC observed that the comments were clearly the perspective of some residents and were attributed accordingly. The NNC found no evidence to support the claim that the article implied that the product was used incorrectly or outside the intended area.

The brief article offered a summary of the concerns raised by residents about the application of the fungicide near their houses. All statements were attributed accordingly to the individuals quoted in the story.

That said, we understand that the individual’s primary concern in this case was not being able to provide a different perspective and relevant information in response to the concerns raised by residents quoted in the article.

A subsequent edition of the local newspaper dedicated a section of its pages to reader reactions to the brief article.

In one article, the publisher alerted readers to the different—and often strong—perspectives on the published piece and other issues at hand. The edition included a published response from the complainant as well as several letters to the editor and other comments in response to the story.

In this case, the NNC considered the news organization’s decision to publish responses to the article to be consistent with best practices in addressing reader concerns, and found the issue resolved. The significant attention devoted to reader responses provided opportunity to show a range of opinions in the community, from farmers and those outside the agricultural industry.

Letters to the editor offer opportunities to clarify or provide different perspectives on information and opinions presented in articles. In this way, they can often serve as a remedy to concerns raised by readers, and showcase the breadth of opinions held by members of a community.

Announcing the four finalists for this year’s Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC), in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), is pleased to announce the short list of four finalists for the 2020-21 Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting.

This year’s shortlist was chosen from numerous outstanding submissions made by campus news organizations spread across the country.

“It is so encouraging to see student journalists embracing the best standards in reporting, especially in the crucial area of human rights,” said John Fraser, the NNC’s executive chair, who served as one of the judges for this year’s entries. 

“We have had the most entries since the new Fraser MacDougall Prize was launched by the NNC and JHR four years ago, and all of them were solid and important efforts.”

The finalists for this year’s awards are (in no particular order):

  1. “Lip service: BIPOC students at Rye feel unsupported by the complaint process,” The Eyeopener.
  2. “Centre tries to fill gap in Indigenous language program in Ottawa,” Capital Current.
  3. The price of swapping fast fashion for sustainability,” The Charlatan.
  4. Pandemic intensifies silent sorrow of Canada’s asylum seekers,” Capital Current.

The Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting was first presented in 2017, as a way to support young journalists to report on challenging, high-impact human rights issues. Past recipients of the award can be found here

Award winners receive a cash prize of $1,000, and are recognized for their achievement at the annual JHR ‘Night 4 Rights’ Gala. Information about that event can be found here

The winners for this year’s competition will be notified by October 8, 2021.

NNC members invited to apply for accreditation to federal leaders’ debates

Earlier this week, shortly after the launch of the 44th federal election, the Leaders’ Debates Commission released an open call to all news organizations inviting them to apply for accreditation to attend one (or both) of the two upcoming leadership debates that will take place as part of the campaign. 

As part of the newly-released process, journalists from all NNC member publications will automatically be eligible for accreditation. The deadline for accreditation applications is Wednesday, August 25 at 23:59 EDT. The debates will take place on September 8 (French) and September 9 (English) at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. 

To read the full release from the Leaders’ Debates commission, please click here 

Complaints we heard: Concerns about reporting on COVID-19 vaccines reaches fevered pace

How news organizations report on vaccines has been the subject of numerous complaints submitted to the National NewsMedia Council over the years, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the volume of those concerns has increased over the last year.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some individuals have expressed concern that any reporting on vaccine side effects could lead to vaccine hesitancy and, therefore, all critical coverage should be avoided. Others have alleged that the information reported is ‘biased’ and therefore should not be trusted.

Although the majority of such complaints did not indicate grounds to support a breach of journalistic standards, they do underscore the importance of providing accurate, relevant information to readers in a timely manner.

The NNC recently reviewed a complaint from one reader about the accuracy of the information presented about a COVID-19 outbreak in a community on the west coast. While the NNC found no grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards, it did consider the matter to be of interest to the wider public.

The article in question reported on a recent COVID-19 outbreak in a retirement facility. The story relied on a memo circulated by the company to its staff.

The complainant expressed concern that the article inaccurately attributed the outbreak to unvaccinated individuals. They stated that subsequent contact tracing efforts were not able to verify the source of the outbreak, and argued that the article contained personal, identifying information about the unvaccinated individuals.

The NNC found no evidence to support the complainant’s claim that the article contained inaccurate or personal, identifying information about the unvaccinated individuals.

Standard journalistic practice allows journalists to select the sources they deem credible. Information may become available after a story is published, and readers may find alternative sources to support their views. However, this fact alone does not indicate a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy.

The NNC accepted the news organization’s response that the letter provided relevant information on an event in the public interest at the time of reporting. It also accepted that an attempt was made by the news organization to reach out to the retirement facility for further comment. As noted in the article, that request was unsuccessful.

For these reasons, the NNC found no grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards. It also underscored the fact that as a self-regulatory body that promotes responsible journalism and free expression, it strongly defends journalists’ ability to report on these important issues in the public interest.

A new chapter begins at the National NewsMedia Council

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is pleased to announce enhanced roles for its two staff members following the retirement of Pat Perkel, the organization’s inaugural executive director, effective April 30, 2021. 

Effective today, Brent Jolly has been appointed to serve as the NNC’s new managing director and will oversee day-to-day operations. Cara Sabatini will continue to serve in her role as director of dispute resolution, coordinating and supporting the resolution of  public complaints. John Fraser continues to serve as the NNC’s executive chair. 

“Under the  direction of Pat Perkel and her team, the NNC has in barely five years established itself in the front ranks of media councils everywhere and has earned the trust of both the public and the journalistic profession and industry in Canada,” said Fraser. 

“Speaking on behalf of the entire council board, we couldn’t be more pleased at this transition in the continuing evolution of the NNC’s championing of journalistic standards, media ethics, and news literacy.”

Both Jolly and Sabatini have worked with the NNC for several years. Jolly joined the NNC in 2016, while Sabatini joined the NNC in 2017. 

Fraser said NNC members – and the public – can continue to expect the timely, thoughtful service they have come to expect from the NNC over the past several years.