Reader outraged, but columnist correct to make social commentary

Complaint raises important role that opinion writing plays in journalism

The National NewsMedia Council recently received a strongly-worded reader complaint about an opinion column published in the Vernon Morning Star that commented on expectations related to women in public, in particular, the assumption that an unaccompanied woman must be a sex worker.

In the November 22, 2019 column, “Nothing wrong with being mistaken for a sex trade worker,” the writer humourously described her experience of being mistaken as a sex worker by virtue of where she was—alone—and how she was dressed.

In their submission, the complainant objected to the premise and tone of the column, and stated concern that it sent the wrong message to readers about sex work.

The NNC defends the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express unpopular views. It also upholds the prerogative of the opinion writer to question both change and the status quo, and to use strong language.

At the same time, the NNC recognizes that opinion pieces impact readers differently and to varying degrees. While opinion pieces may encourage debate or inspire empathy among readers, in other cases, readers may even find the opinions offensive.

Generally, the NNC will not consider a complaint about opinion writing except in the case of an error of fact. In reviewing the article and complaint, the NNC found no evidence of factual error.

Instead, the NNC found that the opinion piece in question offers commentary on the social norms surrounding women in public and the stigma associated with sex work. The article neither condemns nor promotes sex work, though it does include a proviso about the safety of individuals in the industry.

Although the complainant found the opinion writer’s point of view objectionable, there was no evidence of factual error, nor was there evidence that the opinion writer had crossed the line in any way.

While distinct from news reporting, opinion pieces play an important role in journalism to provoke thought and provide perspective on important issues. They also serve to showcase diverse, sometimes provocative, perspectives.

For these reasons, the NNC found no evidence of a breach of journalistic standards, and no grounds for a complaint. It did, however, find that the complaint underscored the important role that opinion writing plays in examining uncomfortable issues in the context of a free and democratic society.