FYI Complaints We Heard: Photo of tragic event, editorials and letters to the editor – April 11, 2019

The NNC mediates complaints and issues decisions on breaches of journalistic standards. In cases where there is no evidence of a breach, readers may still have questions about a journalistic issue. Part of what we do at the NNC is to provide explanations to those questions. Here are some of the issues we’ve heard and how we handled them.

Issue: Photo of tragic event

An individual contacted the NNC with a concern about a photo published on March 21, 2019 story by Erie Media. The photo showed first responders mourning over a fellow first responder following a motor vehicle collision. The individual was concerned that the photo was distasteful and insensitive to the first responders who were mourning the loss of their colleague.

The NNC found no breach of journalistic standards and no grounds for a complaint.

In declining to take further action on the complaint, the NNC explained that while we recognize that publishing photos of tragic events is a delicate subject, this particular photo does not, in any way, breach journalistic standards. For example, the victim of the accident is not portrayed. As well, the photo is taken from a wide angle that it does not identify the victim of the car crash, or the firefighters responding to the situation, in any specific way.

We agree that being a first responder to these kinds of tragic situations can be difficult. That said, there is obvious public interest and newsworthiness in events that call on the work of first responders. Journalism tells that story, and can also highlight the impact on first responders. In this case we find the photo, while perhaps disturbing to those involved, served that journalistic purpose in a manner that did not intrude on grief or privacy.


Issue: Editorials and letters to the editor

The NNC reviewed a complaint about a February 20 2019 editorial in Kamloops This Week. Generally speaking, editorials and opinion columns have wide latitude to express a point of view, even if that point of view is not popular or shared by all readers.

However, the complainant did not provide information about what in the editorial was allegedly untrue, and the NNC was not able to investigate further. Similarly, without seeing the letter or rebuttal that the complainant believed contained errors, the NNC could not assess or take further steps to investigate the complaint.

The NNC’s usual process is to contact the publication for a response to a complaint. However, without specific information identifying the allegedly inaccurate statements or pointing out errors, the NNC was unable to ask a publication to respond.

This complaint also raised several questions about letters to the editor. As general information, publications have the right to edit letters for clarity, style, legal and other reasons. It is the right of the publication to select, reject, or limit the letters it publishes. Generally, these policies are stated for writers to read before submitting a letter to the editor.

Letters to the editor are by definition opinion. Journalists must adhere to factual accuracy, but letter writers are not journalists. That said, a publication has the discretion, as stated, to edit and to decide which letters to publish. Best practice is to publish letters that express a variety of points of view and a variety of topics, but again, the selection of letters is the editorial prerogative of the publication and there is no duty to publish.

For these reasons, the NNC found no breach of journalistic standards and declined to take further action on the complaint.