Competition for fourth annual Fraser MacDougall Prize now open

Competition for fourth annual Fraser MacDougall Prize now open

The National NewsMedia Council, in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights, is pleased to announce the opening of the fourth annual Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Voice in Canadian Human Rights Reporting.

The prize is awarded to an exceptional piece of student journalism, with a human rights focus, that is published in campus-based media during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Winners (typically, the story’s writer and editor) receive a cash prize of $1,000. Previous award winners of the Fraser MacDougall Prize have gone to young journalists from The VarsityThe Queen’s Journal, and Capital Current.

In pre-COVID times, young journalists would be recognized for this achievement at the annual Journalists for Human Rights Gala, held in Toronto. Winners will be celebrated as soon as in-person events resume post-pandemic.

This award is made possible by a generous endowment to the National NewsMedia Council by the family of the late Fraser MacDougall, who had a distinguished career in journalism, chiefly with the The Canadian Press. Later in life, he was the first executive secretary of the former Ontario Press Council.

This year’s competition is open on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Submissions will be accepted until Monday, May 3, 2021 at 23:59 EST.

To apply for this year’s award, please include the following items in your application:

  • A copy of the story, in either print or digital format
  • The names of the principle writer and editor who worked on the story
  • A one page note to jury members that contains information on:
    • What kind of human rights issue was addressed
    • Why this story was important to its readers/community
    • What changes, if any, came because of the story’s publication
    • Any other information about the editorial process you think is worthy of consideration by judges

Queries about the award can be directed to Brent Jolly, the NNC’s director of community management. He can be reached at: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca


An evening to celebrate public service journalism (and an industry legend!)

It’s not every day that one is presented with the opportunity to reflect on a career of more than 60 years in the news business, but for the NNC’s executive chair, that rare moment will be taking place on Thursday evening.

This past June, the Michener Awards Foundation announced that John Anderson Fraser would be receiving the prestigious Michener-Baxter Special Award for long-term achievement in public service journalism.

This special award, established in 1983 and presented at the discretion of the foundation’s board of directors, has only been bestowed on eight Canadians in the past three decades.

“It seems fitting that Mr. Fraser — an icon of Canadian journalism — receive this honour in our 50th anniversary year,” said Pierre-Paul Noreau, President of the Michener Award Foundation.

As a reporter, columnist, editor, ombudsman and benefactor, Fraser has lived as diverse a journalistic career as anyone in Canada. His extraordinary legacy spans six decades of the modern news media era in Canada.

The award is traditionally bestowed during the annual Michener Award ceremony at Rideau Hall, which for the past two years has been hosted by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada.

Fraser started out at 16 as a summer copy boy at the old Toronto Telegram. He also worked summers in newsrooms in St. John’s and Sherbrooke. In his distinguished and award-winning tenure at The Globe and Mail, Fraser was a dance and theatre critic, a China correspondent, UK-based European correspondent, Ottawa bureau chief, national columnist and national editor, before becoming editor of Saturday Night magazine from 1987-1994.

As a journalist, John Fraser received multiple national and international awards, he has been a columnist at The Toronto Star and the National Post, a best-selling author of 12 books and has been published in everything from the New York Times to Paris Match and The Guardian. In his career, he twice became part of the story: first when he assisted Russian ballet star, Mikhail Baryshnikov, to defect from the old Soviet Union to the West in 1974; and later as a correspondent in China when he addressed a crowd of over 20,000 people in Tienanmen Square during the short-lived 1978 Xidan Democracy Movement.

He was Master and Chair of the board of Massey College for 19 years before becoming Founding President and CEO of the National NewsMedia Council, the principal media ethics watchdog in Canada with over 500 daily and weekly newspapers, digital news platforms, magazines and campus publications. He currently serves as the council’s Executive Chair.

Over the years, John Fraser has been a staunch and tireless mentor for countless young journalists. He rescued the beleaguered University of Toronto Southam Journalism Fellowship Program, which for two decades under his leadership supported dozens of mid-career journalists from across Canada and around the world. In 2016, in recognition of his long and continuing career in the profession, he was named to the Canadian Journalism Hall of Fame. 

The Michener Award is Canada’s premier journalism award, dedicated to meritorious public service journalism. This year’s six finalists for the award are The Globe and Mail, La Presse, CBC News, the London Free Press, the Halifax Examiner, and the Institute for Investigative Journalism.

The Michener-Baxter Special Award recognizes public interest journalism of an individual or organization for long-term achievement.

We hope you’ll join us to celebrate a distinguished career that continues to thrive!


Complaints we heard: Freedom of expression or misinformation?

Over the past several months, the NNC has been hearing a great deal about pandemic-related reader comments and letters to the editor.

“Yet another (letter) praising (a writer’s) comments has appeared in this week’s (paper). Large numbers of protestors have started to protest measures based on this type of misinformation that they believe affects them,” is one lament we heard.

“It concerns me that misinformation, and disinformation for that matter, would even get published.”

Some readers have told us they are worried about how the alleged misinformation published as letters to the editor will hurt public health and encourage risky social behaviour(s). They report being afraid to challenge those facts or opinions because of the fear of social media backlash.

We also heard about the other side of the coin – readers upset about being unable to submit comments on COVID-19 coverage.

One reader who contacted us said he and others were unable to post comments containing self-described ‘alternate information’ about COVID-19. Another complainant wanted to post “facts and data that media and governments are not providing to the public.”

Letters to the editor are a long-standing feature allowing readers to express opinions and to respond to published articles. Online comments provide a similar forum for discussion. Best practice is to publish letters that represent the diversity of views and voices in the community.

But what if letters to the editor espouse misinformation?

We’ve heard of letters to the editor containing anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric. In smaller communities, or ones with (thankfully) few cases of COVID, and where the impact is perhaps less obvious, do those opinions carry outsized influence? How does a newsroom assess whether it is giving voice to diverse views or is spreading misinformation? At what point is there no “other side” in matters of public health?

These are questions worthy of attention as the pandemic underlines a new challenge in the news media’s effort to quell misinformation while promoting freedom of expression.

For its part, the NNC cannot settle controversies around COVID-related science and policy. It supports the prerogative of news organizations to produce journalism it deems to be in the public’s interest. Our mandate is to consider complaints about breaches of journalistic standards in news reporting and opinion articles, including ones related to COVID-19.


Complaints we heard: There’s more to the story than just its headline

The NNC has received several complaints this year about headlines. In two recent examples, both complainants were concerned that the headline of the story contained misleading or insufficient information. The NNC found no breach in either case, but instead identified relevant points for the purpose of reader education.

In one case, an individual was concerned that the headline of a Globe and Mail article incorrectly attributed the statement that ‘Mi’gmaq students [were] no longer welcome’ in the province to the New Brunswick premier, or worse, to all New Brunswick residents. The individual felt that it was incorrect because no one had uttered the exact phrase.

In this case, the Globe amended the headline shortly after publication to include a more detailed statement of fact, in particular, that Mi’gmaq students in Quebec could not ‘cross border for school.’ The NNC views that corrective action as appropriate.

The NNC pointed out that it is common practice for news headlines to refer to governments or well-known groups in this short-hand manner. Readers generally understand the reference to be to the authorities, not each resident. It is also common practice to paraphrase the statements and perspectives of officials in headlines with the verb “says,” as was the case in this example.

In another example, an operator of a local business was concerned that the headline of a Collingwood Today article was misleading because it did not name the pub where a staff member had tested positive for COVID. The complainant stated he had received numerous calls from curious patrons, and said the lack of specific detail in the headline left some readers to assume it referred to his establishment.

In reviewing the complaint and article in question, the NNC noted that the first line of the article referenced the specific establishment.

The NNC sympathizes with the challenges that businesses are facing during these times. We also recognize that journalism has the job of providing the community with important information, and that at times that mandate must be balanced against privacy concerns and perceived negative impact. The NNC found that balance was achieved in this case.

Standard journalistic practice requires that headlines are accurate and reflect the focus of the article. However, headlines are also limited in that their function is to grab readers’ attention in a concise and sometimes clever way.

In these cases, most of the concerns about the headlines were answered by information contained in the article that followed. While it is unfortunate that some readers may choose to read only the headline and miss out on important information in the article, that itself does not indicate a breach of standards.


Complaints we heard: Moderating comments

The NNC recently reviewed a complaint from a reader who was displeased that Sudbury.com had removed a message posted to the comment section at the foot of June 23, 2020, article under the headline, “Graduate students say request to LU to waive tuition fees met with ‘basically silence’”.

The complainant expressed concern that the news organization acted unethically by removing the comment, and stated that the act amounted to “unlawful censorship” and violation of Charter rights to free expression.

In its review of the complaint, the NNC noted that policies for comment moderation were clearly laid out in the publication’s community guidelines. These guidelines provide news organizations with wide latitude to review and approve comments that adhere to the stated parameters, while enhancing the discussion of the topic at hand. It is worth noting that a news publication is not obliged to print any or all comments submitted.

The news organization’s community guidelines explain that those who wish to post comments on their site are requested to stay on topic. The NNC supports the view that it is the prerogative of news organizations to moderate comments it considers to be relevant and appropriate.

As the NNC is a self-regulatory organization, and not a court of law, it declined to interpret the complainant’s concerns about a breach of Charter rights. From a journalistic point of view, however, the NNC concurs with the observation that comment moderation does not constitute censorship.

For the reasons above, the NNC decided it would not take further action on the complaint, as there were no clear violations of journalistic standards.


Michener Foundation honours John Fraser

The Michener Awards Foundation today announced it is presenting its prestigious Michener-Baxter Special Award for long-term achievement in public service journalism to John Anderson Fraser.

This special award, established in 1983 and presented at the discretion of the foundation’s board of directors, has only been bestowed on eight Canadians in the past three decades.

“It seems fitting that Mr. Fraser — an icon of Canadian journalism — receive this honour in our 50th anniversary year,” said Pierre-Paul Noreau, President of the Michener Award Foundation.

As a reporter, columnist, editor, ombudsman and benefactor, Fraser has lived as diverse a journalistic career as anyone in Canada. His extraordinary legacy spans six decades of the modern news media era in Canada.

The award is traditionally bestowed during the annual Michener Award ceremony at Rideau Hall, which for the past two years has been hosted by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. The ceremony is postponed at present due to the global health crisis.

Fraser started out at 16 as a summer copy boy at the old Toronto Telegram. He also worked summers in newsrooms in St. John’s and Sherbrooke. In his distinguished and award-winning tenure at The Globe and Mail, Fraser was a dance and theatre critic, a China correspondent, UK-based European correspondent, Ottawa bureau chief, national columnist and national editor, before becoming editor of Saturday Night magazine from 1987-1994.

As a journalist, John Fraser received multiple national and international awards, he has been a columnist at The Toronto Star and the National Post, a best-selling author of 12 books and has been published in everything from the New York Times to Paris Match and The Guardian. In his career, he twice became part of the story: first when he assisted Russian ballet star, Mikhail Baryshnikov, to defect from the old Soviet Union to the West in 1974; and later as a correspondent in China when he addressed a crowd of over 20,000 people in Tienanmen Square during the short-lived 1978 Xidan Democracy Movement.

He was Master and Chair of the board of Massey College for 19 years before becoming Founding President and CEO of the National NewsMedia Council, the principal media ethics watchdog in Canada with over 500 daily and weekly newspapers, digital news platforms, magazines and campus publications. He currently serves as the council’s Executive Chair.

Over the years, John Fraser has been a staunch and tireless mentor for countless young journalists. He rescued the beleaguered University of Toronto Southam Journalism Fellowship Program, which for two decades under his leadership supported dozens of mid-career journalists from across Canada and around the world. In 2016, in recognition of his long and continuing career in the profession, he was named to the Canadian Journalism Hall of Fame.

The Michener Award is Canada’s premier journalism award, dedicated to meritorious public service journalism. This year’s six finalists for the award are The Globe and Mail, La Presse, CBC News, the London Free Press, the Halifax Examiner, and the Institute for Investigative Journalism.

The Michener-Baxter Special Award recognizes public interest journalism of an individual or organization for long-term achievement.


Working (remotely) to support quality journalism during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dear NNC members,

We’re reaching out with huge congratulations to each of you for your dedicated commitment to public service during these uncertain times. We know your readers appreciate very much your heroic efforts to serve the needs of your communities by providing steady access to accurate, reliable, and trustworthy information. Your hard work in extraordinary circumstances is concrete evidence of how vital the news media is during a time of crisis.

For our part, NNC staff are in the second week of working from home, but we are still on the job to deal with your questions, any complaints, or to offer advice. For the moment, email is the best way to reach us, but we are also following up on phone messages.

Below are a few resources that might be helpful as you and your staff deal with the COVID 19 situation – both from the standpoint of how to report on it, and on how to deal with the ramifications at a personal and family level.

This information, from our friends at Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, is aimed at helping to counter stress and promote safety for journalists.

Our partners at the Poynter Institute have offered these tips on covering the pandemic, including refresher advice on writing. As well, they offer an important read on the role of the press during times of crisis.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has published an open-source guide that offers tips and best practices for newsrooms.

This advice from the Ethical Journalism Network has rapidly become part of the new normal.

CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) has some helpful FAQs for your own care or that of your family and friends.

Best wishes to all – don’t hesitate to call on us!

Kind regards,

Pat, Brent, Cara


Complaints we heard: Calgary Herald announces that syndicated cartoon will no longer be published

The National NewsMedia Council received a complaint about a racially insensitive syndicated cartoon that appeared in the Calgary Herald.

Concern was expressed that the cartoon, “Close to Home,” published on February 21, 2020, was racist against Indigenous people in its depiction of a character. The cartoon showed the Lone Ranger and Tonto at a bar, with the words “‘Kemosabe! Tonto hear last call coming! Maybe eight or ten minutes away…’”

A number of news media subsequently reported on objections to the inappropriate nature of the cartoon, hearing from First Nations groups and individuals on social media who stated that the cartoon presented negative stereotypes of Indigenous people as alcoholics. Reports also cited the inflammatory nature of the cartoon in the political backdrop of current events, which centres on the widely-reported protests and blockades taking place throughout the country in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation’s opposition to a pipeline project in B.C.

The news media organization responded by tweet on February 25, 2020, and by publishing an editor’s note in the February 26 edition of the Calgary Herald. Both responses apologized for the offensive nature of the cartoon and stated that the paper will cease publishing the syndicated comic strip.

The NNC is of the view that news media organizations are responsible for the third-party content they publish. It is worth noting that the syndication service and creator of the comic strip also issued an apology for the cartoon.

Ethical journalism takes care to ensure that language and images do not expose groups to discrimination. The NNC recognizes the particular importance of using appropriate language and images in times when such groups may be the subject of heightened political discourse.

In this case, the NNC recognizes that the news media organization offered an apology to readers. It further sent a strong message of preventing a similar error in future and distancing itself from the prejudiced representation by cancelling the cartoon in question. For these reasons, the NNC considers this matter resolved due to corrective action.


Reader outraged, but columnist correct to make social commentary

The National NewsMedia Council recently received a strongly-worded reader complaint about an opinion column published in the Vernon Morning Star that commented on expectations related to women in public, in particular, the assumption that an unaccompanied woman must be a sex worker.

In the November 22, 2019 column, “Nothing wrong with being mistaken for a sex trade worker,” the writer humourously described her experience of being mistaken as a sex worker by virtue of where she was—alone—and how she was dressed.

In their submission, the complainant objected to the premise and tone of the column, and stated concern that it sent the wrong message to readers about sex work.

The NNC defends the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express unpopular views. It also upholds the prerogative of the opinion writer to question both change and the status quo, and to use strong language.

At the same time, the NNC recognizes that opinion pieces impact readers differently and to varying degrees. While opinion pieces may encourage debate or inspire empathy among readers, in other cases, readers may even find the opinions offensive.

Generally, the NNC will not consider a complaint about opinion writing except in the case of an error of fact. In reviewing the article and complaint, the NNC found no evidence of factual error.

Instead, the NNC found that the opinion piece in question offers commentary on the social norms surrounding women in public and the stigma associated with sex work. The article neither condemns nor promotes sex work, though it does include a proviso about the safety of individuals in the industry.

Although the complainant found the opinion writer’s point of view objectionable, there was no evidence of factual error, nor was there evidence that the opinion writer had crossed the line in any way.

While distinct from news reporting, opinion pieces play an important role in journalism to provoke thought and provide perspective on important issues. They also serve to showcase diverse, sometimes provocative, perspectives.

For these reasons, the NNC found no evidence of a breach of journalistic standards, and no grounds for a complaint. It did, however, find that the complaint underscored the important role that opinion writing plays in examining uncomfortable issues in the context of a free and democratic society.


Happy Holidays from the National NewsMedia Council

The staff at the National NewsMedia Council, along with our board members, would like to wish everyone a happy, healthy, and prosperous holiday season.

Our offices will be closed from December 24, 2019 and we will re-open on January 3, 2020. All questions, complaints, and other concerns will be responded to promptly upon our return.

See you in 2020!

Best wishes,

John, Pat, Brent, and Cara.