2023-64: G.H. v Queen’s Journal

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September 19, 2023 – for immediate release

As this complaint contains sensitive information, the NNC has withheld the names of the complainants in this case.

The National NewsMedia Council has considered and dismissed a complaint against the Queen’s Journal about publishing sensitive and potentially identifying information in a news article.

The article reported that a university student had been arrested for trespassing. It stated that the student, who was not named in the article, alleged that the university banned her from a campus building instead of accommodating her disability.

The parents of the student filed a complaint with the NNC stating that even though their daughter was not named in the article, she was easily identified on campus as the subject of the piece based on the details reported about her disability.

The complainants stated that the article affected their daughter’s emotional and mental wellbeing and requested that the Journal remove the piece from the publication’s website. They alleged that she was pressured into providing comments on the record after being contacted by a reporter from the Journal.

Prior to the NNC complaint submission, the Journal responded to the complaint by explaining their reasons for publishing the piece and for withholding the student’s name. The complaint was also considered by the Queen’s Journal advisory board, which supported the editorial decision not to remove the article and referred the complainants to the NNC.

In response to the NNC complaint, the Queen’s Journal reiterated their position that the story was a matter of public interest, as it occurred in a public location on campus and involved law enforcement.

The news organization noted the allegation that the individual was “pressured” to provide an interview was particularly concerning. A thorough review of their records, they said, indicated clear consent on the student’s part to provide on-the-record comments.

The article states that the student was not identified by name “due to a compelling risk to her emotional safety.” The complainants argued that the fact that her name was withheld for this reason meant that the story in its current form, which included details about the student’s disability, posed a similar risk, and they again requested that the Journal take down the piece.

The news organization explained that while they were not required to withhold the student’s name, the decision not to publish the name was done as a courtesy. That said, they noted that “identifying details about [the student] were included in the story because they were fundamental to her claims of facing alleged discrimination by the University,” and that the student discussed the issues and challenges she was facing in her on-record interview.

The Journal stated that the details of this story were reported in a respectful, fair, and factual manner, and that a retraction was not appropriate in their view.

The complainants argued that the article was a form of “cyberbullying” and that it “exploited” their daughter while in a vulnerable situation. They stated that while she may have consented to the interview at the time, it was not in her best interest.

In reviewing the matter, the NNC considered journalistic standards surrounding public interest reporting, anonymity of sources, and best practices when reporting on matters that call for a significant degree of sensitivity, including reporting on individuals living with disabilities.

Generally speaking, sources are granted anonymity in rare cases for particularly compelling reasons, such as protecting victims of certain crimes. Journalists are expected to clearly communicate with sources on this matter, where appropriate, as part of the interview consent process, and, if granted, the reasons for anonymity are clearly explained to readers.

The NNC recognizes that reporting on incidents involving law enforcement is an important part of community journalism. As such, reporting on law enforcement activity on campus is a relevant area of coverage for student publications and their communities. Likewise, reporting on allegations about a lack of accommodation in public institutions also speaks to the role that journalism plays in holding public institutions to account.

For these reasons, the NNC agrees with the news organization that reporting on the incident was in the public interest and that the details about the student’s disability were critical components of the story.

It is worth noting that the NNC generally supports providing readers with updated or amended information, rather than ‘unpublishing’ or removing entire articles. While the NNC recognizes that rare exceptions may occur under specific circumstances, such as in cases of egregious error, regularly removing content on request risks undermining the role of journalism in providing the public with accountable information of record. Instead, journalistic standards emphasize the importance of appropriate and accurate reporting at first instance.

The NNC would note that best practices call on journalists to weigh a number of factors when determining which details to include in a story involving an arrest, including the nature of the alleged crime, the potential impact on the individual and wider community, and the public interest of reporting on law enforcement activity as part of the open court system in Canada.

To that end, the NNC has compiled best practices to help inform newsroom discussion and policy in this area. Similarly, the Canadian Association of Journalists offers solutions on how to address such concerns.

In this case, the NNC supports the actions taken by the news organization to withhold the student’s name out of an abundance of care. The NNC extended the same courtesy provided by the news organization by withholding the complainants’ names.

It is also the view of the NNC that the inclusion of the statement to readers indicating why the name was withheld provides context to readers and promotes transparency, which aligns with best practice in this area. In addition to withholding the student’s name, the news organization took time to explain the reporting process and the editorial decision-making prior to and following publication.

In its deliberation of the matter, Council emphasized that the news organization’s decision to withhold the name of the student showed considerable foresight with respect to online search results. Council expressed support for the steps taken in this case to minimize the potential impact of the reporting on the individual in the future.

At the same time, Council stated that “unpublishing” the article would be contrary to journalistic standards as it could create a ‘chilling effect’ that would lower the threshold for such requests. Council was of the view that such actions risk undermining the role of journalism in reporting on community matters, as they occur, in an accountable and responsible manner while preserving a record of stories in the public interest.

In its review of the materials, the NNC found no evidence to indicate that the individual did not provide full consent to an interview on the record. The NNC also observed that the individual had posted about the situation in a public forum with her name visible.

While the NNC understands that this may be a particularly stressful incident for the student in question and that her parents are advocating for her emotional wellbeing, Council did not find evidence to indicate that the matter was reported on in a sensational or dramatized matter.

In contrast, the NNC observed that the news organization in this case handled the concerns of the student and complainants with appropriate care and sensitivity while reporting on a story in the public interest.

For the reasons outlined above, Council dismissed the complaint.