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.