Update from the Complaints Desk – July 14, 2022

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is an industry self-regulatory organization that receives and evaluates complaints about possible breaches of journalistic standards from members of the public against member news organizations. Another critical element of our organization’s mandate is to promote a news literate public that is aware of journalism’s critical role in a democratic society.     

In this latest dispatch from our complaints desk, you’ll find several summaries of recent reader complaints that the NNC has received and which have been addressed through corrective action by the news organization or through reader education about journalism standards and practices. 

Correcting out-of-date data in pandemic reporting

A reader expressed concern that an explainer article about COVID reinfection in New Brunswick inaccurately stated that reinfection was rare. 

The article cited provincial data on reinfection rates along with Canada’s 2021 communicable disease report to indicate that COVID reinfection was rare but still possible. However, the complainant pointed to more recent data from other provinces to support the fact that reinfection was more common than once thought. 

The news organization responded to the reader’s concerns about accuracy by updating the article to state that since the 2021 report, new variants and waning immunity against the virus have made reinfection more common. It also included an editor’s note to readers explaining the reason for the change. 

In this case, the NNC found that the news organization took appropriate steps to correct an error based on out-of-date data, and considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (Case file: 2022-38)

Alerting readers to serious accuracy issues is critical 

An individual was concerned about how a news organization handled a correction in a story about their deceased family member.

The story stated that the complaint’s family member was charged with sexual harassment and assault. The complainant rightly pointed out, however, that the Crown had decided not to lay charges in the case. The day following the publication of the article, the news organization issued a correction on social media, and to its newsletter subscribers, noting the error. It also removed the story, “given the fundamental nature of the error.”

The NNC does not generally advocate for unpublishing content. However, in rare cases where changes to a piece are not sufficient to remedy serious journalistic errors, removing the article and alerting readers to the error may be an appropriate course of action.

In this case, the NNC found that the news organization’s steps to inform its audience of the error and remove the story constituted appropriate action to resolve the serious accuracy issue. For this reason, the NNC considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (Case file: 2022-34)

(Not) just joking – deciphering reader columns that combine a range of content

A reader complained to the NNC with their concern that a regular column in a community newspaper was potentially spreading misinformation. 

The long-standing column in the local newspaper includes comments from readers on a range of subjects, in a range of styles, such as opinion and humour. In particular, the complainant was concerned with a comment noting “breaking news” that tech mogul Elon Musk had put in an offer to buy a local park in the community and “fix it up.”

On reading the column, the NNC noted that the statements were clearly satirical-style commentary not intended to be taken literally. For this reason, the NNC found no grounds to support a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy. 

While the NNC emphasizes the importance of clearly labeling content for readers, it noted the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express unpopular views, use strong language, and employ a variety of rhetorical tools, such as satire, as a means to persuade, entertain, or enlighten readers. (Case file: 2022-36) 

Online coverage of criminal charges and outcomes 

The NNC received a complaint from a reader, who had been subject to criminal charges, expressing concern that the news organization did not provide a follow-up story indicating those charges were later dismissed. 

Staff searched the publication’s archives and explained to the complainant the news organization had, in fact, written a follow-up story which stated the original charges had deen dropped. The complainant stated this story was not as prominently placed as the original article, indicating that charges had been laid, when they searched their name in Google. 

In this case, the NNC determined that the news organization followed accepted practices for covering criminal proceedings. That said, the NNC recommended to the news organization that future complaints about similar concerns could be mitigated by simply linking the original story to the follow-up, or updating the original reporting with the outcome of the charges. (Case file: 2022-29)