Update from the Complaints Desk: March 2024

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) has recently dealt with several complaints that question editorial decision-making surrounding the inclusion of certain information in news and opinion pieces. 

The NNC understands the factors that inform news judgment are complex and depend on the nature, scope, and value of the story. The production and dissemination of ethical journalism consists of weighing a number of considerations, including deciding which context to include in a story about complex or sensitive matters, the public’s right to know about matters in the public interest, and the practice of avoiding undue harm. 

Below are some examples of recent complaints filed with the NNC that were addressed through explanation of standard journalistic practices and specific editorial decisions surrounding the inclusion of certain information.

 

Addressing concerns: Publishing specific building locations did not violate standards

An individual filed a complaint with the NNC expressing concern that a photo caption published the physical address of an organization that provides support services for Muslims. The complainant argued that Jewish institutions referenced in other reports did not contain specific addresses. This fact, they said, pointed to bias on the part of the news organization. 

In their response to the complaint, the news organization stated the information was likely included in the caption(s) submitted by the photographer. The news organization noted that it would avoid publishing specific information that could be “misused by bad actors,” and that the issue would be raised in future newsroom discussions with editors, who may adjust their practices accordingly. The news organization also emphasized that perspectives reflected in their opinion articles have no influence on what information is included in photo captions in news articles.

The NNC noted that it is not unusual for articles and photo captions to include specific addresses of the buildings and institutions covered in order to provide relevant and precise information for readers on community matters. In this case, the NNC pointed out that the information about the buildings identified, including their addresses, was publicly available and readily retrieved online.

In its review, the NNC noted that the online version of the article did not include specific addresses. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, the NNC is supportive of the news organization’s commitment to evaluate the inclusion of such information in similar reporting in the future. That said, the NNC did not find that including addresses of public institutions in this case indicated a breach of journalistic standards and did not take further action on the complaint. (CASE ID: 2023-114)

 

What does “independently corroborated” information signal to readers? 

An individual filed a complaint stating concern about the accuracy of a statement in an opinion column. In particular, the complainant was concerned with the columnist’s assertion that an allegation by Israel against Hamas had not yet been “independently corroborated.”  

In their submission, the complainant cited several examples of information provided by the U.S. government, and other news media sources, as evidence to support the view that the allegation, claiming that Hamas was preventing civilians from evacuating military targets, had in fact been proven.

The NNC upholds the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express unpopular views. The NNC also supports the prerogative of opinion writers to select the appropriate sources to support their argument.

In its evaluation of the complaint, the NNC considered what it means for events, or other facts, to be independently corroborated. Generally speaking, when information is considered independently corroborated, that information has been verified by the journalist that contributed to the published  report, rather than simply attributed to a third party. 

In reviewing the column in question, the NNC observed it was clear throughout the article that the columnist was skeptical about claims provided by government and military spokespersons. It likewise appeared that the columnist had extended that sense of skepticism to the claims reported by other media outlets that covered developments in Gaza while embedding themselves with the Israeli Defence Forces. Further, the NNC would note that other available reports at the time had characterized the claims as allegations denied by Hamas and others.

That said, the NNC noted the column had acknowledged that there was evidence to indicate Hamas has used civilians to protect military targets in past conflicts. In this way, the columnist was not denying the possibility that the allegations may prove to be true, but was instead making an argument that such claims about the use of civilians were being used to absolve “[Israel] of any responsibility for civilian casualties.”

While the NNC recognized that the complainant did not agree with the columnist’s criticism, and pointed to other sources to support his view, the NNC found the issue was a result of a disagreement with the argument made rather than a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy and did not take further action on the complaint. (CASE ID: 2024-02)

 

Reporting on disciplinary hearings in the public interest may involve sensitive information

An individual filed a complaint with the NNC stating concern about attribution and the nature of information disclosed in an article that reported on an Ontario College of Teachers disciplinary hearing. 

The complainant questioned the source of the allegations, and was concerned about the impact of the information included in the article. They also noted that the disciplinary hearing had not yet returned a verdict, and therefore felt the timing was inappropriate and an unfair violation of privacy.

Prior to contacting the NNC, the complainant was unsuccessful in having their questions answered by the news organization. After filing their complaint, the news organization responded to the complainant’s concerns stating it regularly reports on professional disciplinary proceedings that involve local individuals as they are matters in the public interest. In this case, the news organization noted that the information in question was publicly available on the College’s website. The news organization also noted that the article makes clear that the allegations have yet to be assessed by the disciplinary committee.

Following the news organization’s response, the complainant stated they appreciated the information provided by the news organization, though wished it had done so at first instance, and subsequently ended the complaints process. 

The NNC understands that newsrooms receive a high volume of queries from the public, and that it takes time to respond to readers in a considerate way. At the same time, the NNC has also observed that communicating information about the specific editorial decision-making, especially when concerns are raised about the coverage of sensitive issues, goes a long way to addressing reader concerns at first instance and strengthening news literacy. (CASE ID: 2024-03)