2023-43: Markus v Toronto Sun

Download Complaint PDF

August 28, 2023 – for immediate release

The National NewsMedia Council considered and dismissed a complaint about accuracy in an opinion article, “Striking PSAC workers still cashing in,” published by the Toronto Sun.

The column argued, “Continuing to pay workers during the time they’re on the picket line (and workers who expect to be paid their usual wages with striking) defeats the whole point of collective bargaining and striking.”

Thomas Markus filed a complaint with the NNC stating that statements in the opinion piece were inaccurate and contained misinformation about the strike. The complainant pointed out that the piece failed to note that public sector employees are paid two weeks in arrears and that regular salary paid while on strike must be reimbursed to their employer, the government. He also noted that strike pay comes from the employee’s own money paid via regular union dues and not from the government.

The news organization responded by pointing to widely reported information, including other published news reports, which noted that workers would continue to receive their normal pay from the federal government through at least May 10 and possibly after that.

In its response, the news organization noted that the union had informed members that interruptions to regular pay were unlikely unless their strike was prolonged. It pointed out that the column cited an April 16 memo, which stated, “Interruptions in pay would be unlikely, although it is possible. If we take strike action, past practice shows that the employer would likely recover wages paid during the strike after a settlement is reached.”

The news organization also pointed out that, while it was not possible to know this at the time of publication, a “lump sum payment made by the federal government to each striker to cover any costs or loss of pay they may have incurred while on strike” supports the argument made in the column.

The complainant was not satisfied with the news organization’s response and took issue with the fact that the column did not include links to the published articles referenced by the news organization in its response.

Following the mediation period between the parties, the news organization chose to provide a clarification to the article to address the point about workers being paid in arrears.

The clarification reads, “CLARIFICATION: At the time of the strike, PSAC employees were paid for work already performed as they are compensated for work done in the previous two weeks. While on strike, employees were paid through the union strike fund.”

In reviewing the matter, the NNC considered standards surrounding accuracy and context in opinion writing.

The NNC agrees with the news organization that widely available information at the time of publication supports the statements about workers’ regular payments continuing until, and possibly beyond, May 10. Available reports likewise noted that there was uncertainty surrounding how and whether their pay would be interrupted beyond that date.

The NNC observed that, in addition to referencing the communication from the union, the opinion piece states, “Strikers might not see a reduction in their standard pay until nearly a month into the work stoppage that began on April 19.”

The opinion piece goes on to state, “[…] clawbacks could happen only after the government had waded through the thousands of requests for leaves of absence PSAC members were expected to file on the eve of their strike.” For this reason, it is the view of the NNC that the point raised by the complainant about pay “clawbacks,” or reimbursements to the employer, has been appropriately included in the piece.

At the same time, the NNC also agrees with the complainant that context is important, and that in this case, the point about workers being paid in arrears would have been relevant information for readers. Had this been a news report, including this context at the time of publishing would be in line with standard journalistic practice.

That said, in this case, the NNC considers the statements in question to fall within the wide latitude afforded to opinion writers to present unpopular views, so long as those views are grounded in fact. While additional context may have been useful for readers to have a complete picture of the issue at hand, the statements that were included indicate the opinion writer’s views of an issue based on widely available information.

In this case, the opinion article offers a criticism of the dynamic between striking public workers and the federal government, which the article argues transfers “the costs and pain to ordinary Canadians.” Readers may strongly object to this view. However, that in itself does not indicate a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy.

The NNC would note that it does not consider the news organization’s point about the sum of money issued following the strike to be relevant to the matter at hand, as it was not known prior to the publication of the piece. Further, the NNC does not agree with the complainant that not including hyperlinks to other stories indicates a breach of journalistic standards.

Standard practice calls for corrections and clarifications to be provided to readers in a prompt and consistent manner for readers. In this case, the NNC recognizes that the news organization took steps to issue a clarification that offered further context to readers about the nature of the payments.

In its deliberation, Council emphasized that the context in question could have been included at the time of reporting and that a significant amount of time had passed between the initial publication of the piece and the clarification to readers.

That said, Council found that the statements at the time of publication fell within the wide latitude of opinion writing. For the reasons outlined above, Council did not find grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards in an opinion piece, and dismissed the complaint.