FYI Complaints We Heard: Explanatory journalism – July 9, 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.

JULY 9, 2019 – The National NewsMedia Council recently reviewed a detailed complaint about a February 18 2019 article that was published in a number of papers in the Niagara, Ontario area.

The article, “NAACP’s first meeting was held in Canada” originated through a collaboration between academics and journalists. The complainant stated the headline was is inaccurate because the NAACP was formed in 1909, while the meeting described was of the Niagara Movement, formed in 1905.

After careful review of the complaint, the article, and other materials submitted by the complainant, the NewsMedia Council noted that the first sentence of the article state the meeting was of “what would later become” the NAACP. In this light, the headline style and wording, used for brevity and relevance, was acceptable as accurate when supported by the facts related in the article itself.

Generally speaking, the article was in the category of an explanatory article. It was not a history of an organization, as the complainant viewed it, but instead was a look at an event held in Canada that involved the early days of an important American civil rights organization. The NewsMedia Council noted that it is the job of explanatory journalism to present information in a context and perspective that brings new understanding, or challenges the traditional story.

In the case of an article that looks back at notable events and historic times of social change, it is not unlikely or unreasonable that a reader may find other sources that dispute the article, or that a reader may disagree with the writer’s argument. However, it is the NewsMedia Council’s view that a reader’s difference of opinion or perspective from that of the writer does not in itself constitute a breach of journalistic standard.

Writers are free to select their sources and the focus of an article. It is reasonable that sources will differ and may even offer varying facts and context in matters of history. It is not the job of the NNC to determine which side is the correct version, but rather to ensure that the journalist adhered to principles including selecting and crediting sources, accuracy, context and opportunity for response.

For these reasons, the Council found no evidence of breach of journalistic standards and declined to take further action on the complaint in this case.