2020-40: McMurtry vs Toronto Star

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June 12, 2020 – for immediate release

The National NewsMedia Council has considered and dismissed a complaint about a May 24 opinion column, “(Mostly) white covidiots at Trinity Bellwoods Park think the rules don’t apply to them. They’re right,” published in the Toronto Star.

The opinion column pointed to an apparent lack of enforcement of social distancing rules despite large gatherings that occurred in a Toronto park over the previous weekend. It argued that had the gatherings in the park been largely attended by people of colour, instead of mainly white people, “we’d be having a very different conversation today.”

The complainant, Erin McMurtry, stated concern that the headline showed poor taste and bias against white people.

The NNC received several similar complaints about the same column and headline stating concerns over discrimination and bias, and considers the complaint from Erin McMurtry to be representative of these concerns.

The Toronto Star responded to the complainant’s concerns about bias by stating that columns are in fact expected to show bias, as they express the columnist’s perspective on an issue or particular point of view. It stated that the opinion writer in this case is a race and gender columnist whose role is to draw attention to issues about identity and inequality.

The news organization said, “The point this journalist is making in this column – and which the headline draws attention to – is the fact that racialized disparity exists in our community.”

It noted that the opinion piece was clearly labelled as opinion and cited the Toronto Star’s guidelines, which state, “Opinion articles are based on personal interpretation and judgment of facts. Opinion journalists have wide latitude to express their own views, subject to standards of taste and laws of libel, including views directly contrary to the editorial views of Torstar news organizations.”

The news media organization also noted that while it considers taste to be a subjective matter, a discussion in the newsroom deemed the headline to be within “generally accepted community taste standards.”

The NNC has stated in previous decisions that it does not deliberate on matters of taste as that is often subject to personal preference, but instead considers complaints in view of journalistic principles and relevant community standards. It therefore declines to comment on allegations of poor taste.

The NNC upholds the wide-latitude afforded to columnists to use strong language and express unpopular points of view that challenge the status quo. It is also of the view that opinion pieces must be clearly labelled and grounded in fact.

In reviewing the article in question, the NNC noted that the article cited facts, including information from the 2016 census, and referred to widely-circulated images to support its argument. The NNC also noted that the article in question was clearly labelled as opinion.

While the headline and opinion presented in the column may be provocative or unwelcome to some readers, this is not in itself a breach of standards. In fact, the NNC recognizes that the role of opinion columns throughout history has often been to provoke and to facilitate public dialogue on important issues.

For these reasons, the NNC finds no evidence of a breach of journalistic standards and dismisses the complaint about bias.