Update from the Complaints Desk: Breaking through allegations of ‘bias’

The National NewsMedia Council regularly receives complaints alleging bias in the news. Bias in journalism is a widely-debated topic in both academic and popular literature. It is also one of the most cited concerns in reader complaints submitted to the NNC, and it may come from all sides of the political spectrum, particularly in the lead up to elections.

Among the many complaints the NNC receives, the use of the term ‘bias’ often reflects a desire to see a specific angle or story published in the news. While the NNC understands that readers may wish to see more coverage on a particular subject or specific sources used, questions surrounding which stories to publish are the discretion of the news organization.

Case in point: The NNC recently received a complaint from an individual affiliated with the Alberta NDP, who expressed concern about a lack of print coverage by the Calgary Herald of a healthcare policy proposal released by their party during the recent pre-writ period.

The complainant, who worked as a communications staffer, argued that this reflected a partisan bias on the part of the Calgary Herald and cited a number of other outlets that covered the story. The complainant also referred to information from a media monitoring agency that the NDP contracts with to support the argument that stories published by the newspaper mention the UCP significantly more often than the NDP. (Case ID: 2023-17).

The complainant requested an opportunity to write an op-ed as a way to address his concern about what he considered a lack of coverage and to present readers with information about the party’s policy proposal.

As noted, the NNC often hears from individuals and organizations who would like to see a specific story covered in the news, covered more, or covered in a specific way.

It is worth noting that the NNC accepts complaints about allegations of breaches of specific journalistic standards in published articles. It does not deal with overarching trends in reporting, and does not have a mandate over which stories a news organization chooses to publish.

In reviewing the matter, the NNC did not find that there were any grounds to support a specific breach of journalistic standards.

Part of the NNC’s mandate is to provide education on journalistic practices and facilitate communication between the public and news media. For these reasons, the NNC heard from the news organization on this matter. The editor had responded to the complainant’s concerns by noting that a story about this announcement ran on both the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun websites. The news organization also pointed to a story that ran in print the following day which references the announcement, and stated that an op-ed from either party was not warranted at this time.

The NNC agrees that responsible reporting is fair and accurate. Like any news story, stories about policy and politics must be accurate and adhere to other widely accepted standards.

We understand that supporters, members, and staff of a particular party have an interest in seeing their perspectives accurately reflected in their community newspapers. In fact, it is the role of a newspaper to reflect a number of perspectives within a community, and to facilitate discussion on important issues, including public policy.

That said, responsible reporting on policy and politics does not equate to equal or specific coverage. While parties may wish to have their positions and policies covered, they cannot demand specific stories be covered.

The NNC would note that when deciding which stories to publish, news organizations must balance newsworthiness and reporting stories on issues in the community with a number of constraints, including the resources required to gather relevant information, limited print real estate, and other editorial considerations. The NNC does not have a mandate to influence those editorial decisions, as that would be contrary to the values of free expression and freedom of the press. 

Of course, we recognize that the complainant would like to see his view and party’s policy included in print coverage. However, it is up to the news organization to decide which content best serves its readers. In this case, the NNC supported the news organization’s view that the story in question had been reported on multiple online platforms, and that remedy in the form of an op-ed was not warranted.

For the reasons outlined above, the NNC found no grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards and did not take action on the matter.