Update from the Complaints Desk: The importance of editorial discretion

A cornerstone of a free and responsible press is journalists’ ability to report information that is significant, interesting, or new. Reporters and editors are tasked with deciding which details are needed for readers to understand the broader context of a given story.

In exercising this editorial discretion, journalists follow standards of accuracy and fairness, and take care to avoid undue harm. While quality journalism seeks to provide readers with a full account of events, occasionally it is also possible that certain details only become available after a story is reported, and articles may be updated to indicate any changes to readers.

The cases below are some recent examples of complaints brought to the attention of the NNC by readers  concerned with editorial decisions surrounding which information to include (or not) in local news reporting.

A free press means the freedom to report on public events and those involved

An individual phoned the NNC expressing concern that a local newspaper incorrectly spelled his daughter’s name and reported on his family members without their consent in an October 2022 article. The article reported on a public signing of an agreement to include more Indigenous teachings in schools. The article also referenced a story that had been published the previous year which highlighted the need for more education on Indigenous culture and teachings.

The individual took issue with the reference to the original story, which was widely reported on and centred around his daughter who was shamed at school for wearing a culturally significant garment. In that case, the article used inaccurate and insensitive language when describing her heritage. Further, although it did hear from a family member who was understood to be speaking for the family, the news organization did not directly consult the parents prior to publishing the piece. In response, the news organization apologized and removed the article in question.

The individual was also upset that the October 2022 article included a photo of his wife, who was a participant in the public event. He stated that as a result of the missteps in the prior article, the news organization had agreed not to cover him or his family in future stories. This, he said, was because any coverage of his family by the local newspaper results in them being the target of anti-Indigenous hate. He did not elaborate on specifics. 

The news organization responded to the individual by promptly fixing the spelling error in the daughter’s name. Although it noted that the event was public, and was in part prompted by his daughter’s widely reported experience, the news organization subsequently decided to remove all mention and images of his family members.

The NNC agrees that issues involving racism should be treated with appropriate journalistic care and rigour. Accuracy in facts and language is particularly important so as not to perpetuate harm.

As the concerns were made over the phone, and not submitted in writing, the matter did not rise to the level of a formal complaint. That said, the NNC informed the news organization of the matter so that they had an opportunity to address the issue at the local level, as is standard procedure.

In this case, the NNC recognized the news organization’s efforts to treat the issue of potential harm with sensitivity, particularly in cases where hate is an issue. At the same time, the ability of journalists to report on significant public events and their participants is a key aspect of press freedom. For this reason, the NNC does not endorse general agreements to refrain from covering specific individuals or their families. Instead, it would emphasize the need to report on such stories in accordance with best journalistic practices, which includes attention to language use. (Case ID: 2022-73)

Updating stories on criminal charges with relevant information is a best practice

An individual filed a complaint stating concern that a 2007 article reported on shoplifting charges against him. The article included a number of brief reports on separate charges laid against different individuals based on information from law enforcement. The article noted that the then 19-year-old was charged with theft under ($5000) following an allegation of shoplifting and was to appear in court. 

The complainant said his charges were dropped but that the article continues to affect his livelihood. The NNC referred the complainant to the news organization, as is standard practice when newsrooms have not been given an opportunity to respond to the matter directly. The news organization responded by removing his name from the article and indicated that the charges did not result in a conviction. In this case, the NNC considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (Case ID: 2022-83)

Reporting on farm animals breaching barriers does not breach privacy

An individual filed a complaint stating concern that a local news site breached privacy by reporting on the escape of two goats from her farm. 

The individual worried that it reflected negatively on them and their farm and that they received negative social media comments as a result of the coverage. The article reported that a number of residents attempted to corral and return the animals to their pasture. 

Although standard practice would generally support the identification of the local farm, in this case, the NNC observed that the article did not include the name of the farm or the farmers out of courtesy, as noted in the piece. The NNC also observed that the story included comments from community members stating their love for the farm. The NNC found no evidence of a breach of journalistic standards, such as breach of privacy, or any evidence of harmful statements that would have merited a response. On the contrary, it was the view of the NNC that the article reflected positively on the farm and its inhabitants, both human and animal alike. (Case ID: 2022-67)