March 28, 2023 – for immediate release
The National NewsMedia Council has dismissed a complaint about the accuracy of a photo cutline that appeared alongside a November 28, 2022 news story “India’s envoy calls on Canada to crack down on Canadian funding of Khalistan separatist movement,” published by The Globe and Mail.
Jasveer Singh filed a complaint stating the photo’s cutline was improperly edited and removed critical context around Sikh support for Khalistan and the use of “anti-government slogans.”
The news organization acknowledged that the cutline, which was originally written by a local photojournalist working for Getty Images, and reproduced by The Globe and Mail, was edited solely for length.
The original cutline, attached to the Getty Image, read: “Activists of Sikh organisations shout pro-Khalistan and anti-government slogans after offering prayers on the occasion of the 37th anniversary of Operation Blue Star at the Gold Temple in Amritsar, India, on June 6, 2021.”
The edited cutline, which appeared in The Globe and Mail, read: “Activists of Sikh organisations shout pro-Khalistan and anti-government slogans in Amritsar, India, on June 6, 2021.”
The complainant stated the news organization’s edit removed important context about why Sikhs were gathering to show support for Khalistan and raise anti-government slogans. The removal of the context, the complaint said, portrayed the actions of Sikhs as irrational.
The news organization responded to the complainant by stating that the original caption had to be trimmed for space, which is a normal practice. They said the photo showed a protest and the wording used properly described what the reader was seeing.
In a subsequent response, the complainant reiterated the news organization’s editing of the photo’s cutline was “unfair” because Sikh anti-Indian government sentiment and pro-Khalistan support are innately entwined with incidents like Operation Blue Star.
In its review of the complaint, the NNC considered two questions. First, did the editing of the cutline substantially alter an ordinary reader’s perception of the events depicted in the photograph? Second, was the editing reasonable under the circumstances and limitations outlined by the news organization?
In its consideration of these questions, the NNC is of the view that careful editing requires precision. When deciding to remove contextual words, particularly in photo cutlines, news organizations should always reflect carefully to ensure the spirit and intent of the original materials are not compromised. To this question, the Globe and Mail’s public editor wrote in a 2013 column: “photo cutlines or captions are very well read and have enormous impact in a very few words.”
In evaluating this particular complaint, the NNC acknowledged the complainant’s concern that including the original reference to ‘the anniversary of Operation Blue Star’ in the cutline could have provided additional context to help an ordinary reader understand the events that were captured in the photo.
At the same time, however, the NNC has determined that the removal of this contextual detail did not significantly alter the interpretation of the events captured in the image in the mind of an ordinary reader.
The NNC has previously stated that news organizations are within their remit to edit content, which includes photos and their accompanying cutlines, to meet the demands of their printed and/or digital products.
Furthermore, the NNC has long upheld the view that readers should be wary of skimming headlines and photo cutlines as a means of interpreting and/or drawing conclusions about complex subject matter. The act of consuming news stories or opinion columns associated with headlines and/or cutlines regularly provides readers with a more fulsome view of important context and perspectives.
The NNC acknowledges this complaint took longer to work its way through the dispute resolution process than normal. This additional time was caused by unexpected technical issues that prevented the news organization from receiving and responding to the matter in a timely manner.
Nevertheless, for the reasons outlined above, the NNC dismissed the complaint about accuracy.