July 6, 2023 – for immediate release
The National NewsMedia Council considered and found that corrective action was taken to address a complaint about a March 30, 2023, news article, “Forgery charge withdrawn against consultant who led community consultations for new police chief,” published by the Ottawa Citizen.
The article reported that charges were withdrawn against an individual following his completion of a diversion program that included volunteer work, a charitable donation, and a written letter of apology. The forgery charges were the result of a private prosecution process.
Robin Browne, whose organization launched the private prosecution, as the article reports, filed a complaint with the NNC stating that the piece lacked important context that left readers with an inaccurate understanding of the matter.
In particular, the complainant pointed out that the article did not include all aspects of the diversion program, namely, the fact that the participant had to take responsibility for his actions.
The complainant pointed out that the article includes paraphrased comments from the individual in question and a dek, or subheading, indicating that, in his view, his participation in the program did not equate to an admission of guilt.
The complainant argued that this missing detail from the diversion program, taken together with the inclusion of the comments from the individual in question, misleads readers into thinking that the individual “was innocent” of the charges.
The news organization responded to the complaint by stating that the article does not contain an inaccuracy and that it reports on concrete facts, including that the individual chose not to proceed to a trial and opted instead to participate in a diversion program that included volunteer work, a charitable donation, and a written letter of apology.
Prior to the filing of the NNC complaint, the news organization explained to the complainant that a written letter of apology conveyed a similar meaning to “accepting responsibility for his actions.”
To address the complainant’s concern, the news organization updated the article to include a link to the government website that describes the program in fuller detail.
The complainant was not satisfied with the addition of the link to the webpage and said he felt that the piece was inaccurate by omission.
In reviewing the matter and relevant materials, the NNC considered journalistic standards of accuracy and context. The NNC agrees with the complainant that available information indicates that participation in the program includes the condition that individuals accept responsibility for their actions. At the same time, the NNC supports the news organization’s view that there is no evidence of a factual inaccuracy in the piece, and that a written letter of apology indicates that the individual in question accepts some form of responsibility for his actions.
The NNC also considered the wording of the dek, which reads, “Hector Addison said he made the decision to proceed with the diversion program rather than proceed to trial, but it doesn’t equate to an admission of guilt.”
The NNC is of the view that the article’s dek could be phrased more clearly to explain that participation in the program “doesn’t equate to an admission of guilt” is the view of the individual in question. Nevertheless, the statements in the article are attributed accordingly, which clearly indicates to readers that the comments are the view of the individual. Importantly, it is not the role of the NNC to determine whether the actions or comments of an individual align with community justice programs.
Furthermore, the NNC recognizes that, in cases where charges have not proceeded to trial, it may be appropriate to use language that indicates to readers that charges have not been tested in court or did not result in a conviction.
An ordinary reading of the article offers a report on the outcome of a forgery charge against a consultant contracted by the Ottawa police board, which is an issue of public interest.
We recognize that the article was updated by the news organization as a matter of good faith. The NNC supports the additional steps taken to address the complainant’s concern and include more information for readers in this case. While readers may make their own assessments of the proceedings and outcome of the case, it is the view of the NNC that the statements in the article do not mislead readers on the facts of the case.
For the reasons outlined above, Council found the matter resolved due to corrective action.