Update from the Complaints Desk – December 22, 2023

The NNC frequently hears from individuals concerned about coverage of sensitive issues. Even when reporting is accurate, individuals may still raise concerns, for example, over appropriate language use when covering complex or particularly divisive matters, the individual impact of reporting on the courts, or the dangers of perpetuating stereotypes and stigma when covering mental health matters. 

Journalists consider a number of factors when deciding which information and language to include in a story, including its newsworthiness and relevance, the public’s right to know, and minimizing undue harm. Below are examples of some of the complaints the NNC has heard recently that reflect the different considerations undertaken by newsrooms when reporting on a range of sensitive matters.

Reporting on open court proceedings foundational to accountability journalism

An individual was concerned that an article about a lawsuit he filed included reference to his current employer and said he was worried about the impact on his employer’s reputation. He noted that he was working at the business on a temporary basis and that the lawsuit had been amended to remove the business name.

The NNC has consistently stated that it is standard journalistic practice to report on court proceedings as part of an open court system. Information arising from court proceedings may be appropriate to include. Journalists are tasked with weighing the sensitivity of such information against the public’s right to know.

The news organization noted that the information was publicly available at the time of publication. That said, in response to the amendment to the lawsuit and concerns raised by the complainant, the news organization removed the name of the specific business out of courtesy.

The NNC would note that simply because information is removed from the public record, that does not necessarily warrant removal from a published piece of journalism, particularly in cases of reporting on public interest matters. At the same time, the NNC supported the news organization’s efforts to find a reasonable solution to the issue and considered the matter resolved. (Case ID: 2023-85)

 

Be clear in establishing what is ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record with sources and treat sensitive material with care throughout all stages of the reporting process

An individual was concerned about the publication of her son’s name in a story. The article reported on the fact that her son, who was a youth recovering from an addiction, was being treated with opioids in hospital.

The news organization noted that the individual reached out to the news organization to share her experience as a cautionary tale that the medical system was not properly equipped to deal with such situations. The article noted that while no conditions were placed on shielding identities prior to the interview process, some information, including their surnames, was removed out of courtesy following publication.

In reviewing the matter, the NNC considered standard practices related to reporting on sensitive subjects such as mental health and addiction issues. Journalists are tasked with weighing what information to present to readers when reporting on matters in the public interest, while taking care not to cause undue harm. That includes using appropriate language and other best practices (a resource for best practices on covering mental health matters can be found here). 

Journalists obtain consent for material provided on the record, and best practice is to communicate the terms of the interview with individuals speaking on the record in a clear and consistent manner. Anonymity may be granted in exceedingly rare cases for specific reasons, but that must be agreed upon prior to the interview process and is not granted simply by request.

In this case, the NNC noted that it was the decision of the complainant to reach out to the news organization and to pose for photographs. While the NNC understands that the complainant was concerned about the wellbeing of her son, it noted that the updated article did not contain her son’s full name or his photo, which could identify him in search results or otherwise. For these reasons, the NNC was supportive of the news organization’s decision to update the article out of consideration for the individual’s situation.

The NNC agrees that this is a valuable story for the community to know. Importantly, the NNC found no grounds to indicate that the article indicated a breach of journalistic standards in the disclosure of personal, identifying information when reporting on sensitive subjects and considered the matter resolved. (Case ID: 2023-86)

 

Removing entire articles not generally a remedy when reporting findings of guilt

An individual was concerned about a story on a court case involving her daughter, who had received a conditional discharge for fraudulently using another person’s credit card. She requested that the article be removed.

The complainant stated that her daughter was experiencing considerable pain as a result of a medical procedure, which affected her mental health at the time, and that she was not a threat to the community.

The news organization noted this was a relevant story for the community to be aware of, as it involved a matter in the public interest. The news organization also explained that the individual’s lawyer never mentioned any mental health issues in the proceedings, but that a recent dental procedure left her feeling “not herself,” which was reported in the story.  

In considering this complaint, the NNC considered journalistic standards about reporting on court proceedings and other sensitive matters as well as standard practices related to requests for removing or ‘unpublishing’ articles.

Generally speaking, when a matter is not covered by a publication ban, journalists are permitted to report on arguments and facts presented for the court’s consideration. At the same time, journalists weigh which information to consider when reporting on sensitive matters and take care not to cause undue harm. When it comes to reporting on charges for minor crimes, news organizations may sometimes choose not to include names or other individuals.

That said, it is standard practice for journalists to report on court proceedings and outcomes. Canada has an open court system, and reporting on law enforcement activity and justice matters is an important part of fostering public transparency and accountability. The NNC has long emphasized that news organizations reporting on charges should also report the outcome of those charges. This allows news reports to present a full depiction of facts, including final judgements.

In the case of the article in question, the NNC noted that it included statements about how the individual publicly expressed remorse for her decision, and that it contained information about the steps she took to repay the money and her desire to help people in her profession. In this way, it offers significant context for readers who might otherwise pass judgment.

However, with regards to ‘unpublishing’ facts, this practice is done only in extremely rare instances, such as egregious errors. While the NNC understands the publication of the court proceedings may be unwelcome, there was no evidence to indicate the news organization erred in their reporting. We would note that these details, furthermore, were not reported in a sensational or dramatized manner. 

For the reasons outlined above, the NNC did not find grounds to support a complaint about a breach of standards and declined to take further action on the matter. (Case ID: 2023-91)