Update from the Complaints Desk: January 2024

Over the last few months, the National NewsMedia Council (NNC) has received a considerable number of complaints from individuals and organizations concerned with the use of language and arguments contained in opinion pieces. The nature of opinion writing provides readers with opportunities to see their own views reflected or, frequently, consider alternate perspectives on matters of public interest. 

While readers may disagree with particular ideas or arguments, the NNC regularly explains that this, in itself, is not a breach of journalistic standards. At the same time, however, we recognize that publishing commentary on sensitive and divisive topics is not without its challenges for both newsrooms and their readers. 

The NNC has long supported the wide latitude afforded to opinion columnists to use strong language and present unpopular opinions. It likewise upholds news organizations’ prerogative to select the content they see as best serving their readers, so long as articles adhere to journalistic standards, which includes clearly labeling opinion content for readers. 

In light of the challenges facing journalists and communities, particularly these days, the NNC would emphasize that best practice surrounding commentary, broadly speaking, is to present readers with a range of perspectives on issues of public importance. In some cases, publishing op-eds and letters to the editor may help address reader concerns about published opinions. Below are examples of recent complaints that address such issues. 


Distinguish between precision in facts and differences of opinion

An individual filed a complaint with the NNC about an opinion article that he said unfairly characterized his social media posts about the war in Gaza and simultaneously inaccurately described his role with a labour union. The individual had shared an article in a social media post, which he later deleted, that suggested Israel was responsible for the “massacre of Israeli captives.”

The opinion column claimed the complainant was a member of the executive of a local school board, and the complainant expressed views contrary to those reflected in the complainants’ social media posts.

The complainant pointed out that he was not a member of the executive board but was in fact a member of the union’s communications and political action committee, as noted on his social media profile. During the NNC’s mediation process, the news organization amended the article to accurately reflect his professional association and appended an editor’s note to the piece noting the change.

The NNC supported the update to the article to address the accuracy issue raised by the complainant. At the same time, the NNC agreed with the news organization that the columnist was expressing a particular perspective on the article posted by the complainant and about the views reflected in the complainant’s social media posts in general.

In this case, the NNC found that the accuracy issue was remedied by the news organization and that any outstanding concerns by the complainant indicated opposing viewpoints rather than further issues of accuracy. For these reasons, the NNC considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (CASE ID: 2023-92)


Columnists have latitude to express views on how events unfolded, but including additional context provides important nuance on sensitive issues

An individual took issue with an opinion column’s characterization of a social media post as being pro-Palestine when instead, he argued, it indicated “denialism” of the atrocities in Israel. The complainant argued that the characterization crossed the line in terms of language and that it was offensive and hateful.

The news organization responded to the concerns raised by noting that the column characterized the social media post, which stated that Palestinians “are experiencing genocide and war crimes,” as a general statement of solidarity with Palestinians.

In reviewing the article, the NNC noted that the column stated a doctor had been suspended and doxed after he “posted views in support of Palestine on social media.” That statement was supplemented by a hyperlink to a news article, which provided the specific content and context of the post. The hyperlinked article contained information available at the time of publication, which reported that some of the incidents allegedly committed by Hamas remained unverified.

In reviewing the matter, the NNC noted that the column did not indicate that it supported the specific content in the post. Rather, it cited the post as an example of an individual expressing a certain perspective. While the post in question may also contain other statements and views the complainant disagreed with, that itself does not point to a factual error.

Further, the NNC noted that including more information for readers by hyperlinking to a relevant news report on the matter aligned with best practices when commenting on sensitive or complex matters. 

For the reasons outlined above, the NNC agreed with the news organization that the column’s characterization of the post did not indicate an inaccuracy, and declined to take further action on the complaint. (CASE ID 2023-98)

 

Columnists use strong language and may argue for unpopular or even unlikely outcomes

An individual objected to an opinion column’s use of language and its argument that people with particular perspectives should be “purged” from a range of institutions. The complainant argued that the columnist erroneously conflated pro-Palestinian perspectives with being pro-Hamas, and that the piece failed to mention the many pro-Palestinian activities that have not condoned Hamas’s actions.

The news organization agreed that the column used strong language to make the point that, in the columnist’s view, having antisemitic views disqualifies a person from holding positions in organizations such as universities and government agencies, and that “purge” in this context simply meant “get rid of” something. The news organization noted that regardless of whether firing people on such grounds would be appropriate, simply arguing for it is within the wide latitude afforded to columnists.

In its review of the matter, the NNC noted that the column included a statement criticizing certain actions, such as intimidating Jewish people “on the street” under justifications of decolonization, and that the piece stated, “none of this has anything to do with the security and well-being of the Palestinian people.” In reviewing the specific statement in question, the NNC noted that it referred to “the so-called pro-Palestinian activists (not really pro-Palestinian at all).”

The NNC agreed with the complainant that the column’s central argument could have been strengthened by referring to more specific, recent examples of incidents for readers. However, based on the statements in the column, the NNC agreed with the view that the column distinguished between  people who hold specific views, or perpetrated specific actions, and  all or even a majority of pro-Palestinian activists and activism.

While the NNC recognized the opinion writer’s point of view was unwelcome to the complainant, the NNC considered it to be a matter of differing opinions, and found no grounds in the submission provided to indicate a factual error in the published statements. (CASE ID: 2023-104)