Update from the Complaints Desk – October 26, 2023

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.

 

Contentious letters to editors sometimes call for context and clear explanations

An individual contacted the NNC to express their concern that letters to the editor published by her community newspaper were “discriminatory against the LGBTQ+ community.” 

One letter in question expressed a view that opposed having individuals dressed in drag perform story readings at a local library. The complainant argued that publishing this letter amounted to promoting hate speech. 

The NNC typically does not accept complaints about letters to the editor, as they are not considered journalistic content. That said, given the significant allegations expressed by the complainant, the NNC reviewed the complaint and noted that the decision to publish the letters were contextualized by an accompanying editorial. The editorial explained the news organization’s intention in publishing the letters was to promote reader education and share perspectives in order to facilitate dialogue  on an important topic in the community. The news organization published a letter submitted by the complainant that voiced support for the readings.

In responding to the complainant, the NNC expressed that it supports a news organization’s prerogative to exercise editorial control over the content it publishes in print or online. The NNC also clarified that best practice for news organizations is to select letters and op-ed submissions that reflect a diversity of voices and views. 

The NNC noted, for example, that the news organization published multiple letters, including from the complainant. While the NNC respects that language is a powerful force that can shape public opinion, the NNC found there was no evidence to indicate a breach of journalistic standards. 

While we understand the views expressed in the letter to the editor were unwelcome to the complaint, NNC staff noted that they were presented to readers in a manner to  facilitate the exchange of ideas and promote reader education. The NNC supported the news organization’s decision to offer context and information surrounding their editorial decision-making process. (Case ID: 2023-67)

 

Consider timeliness a matter of accuracy when digital stories go to print edition

An individual filed a complaint with the NNC about the accuracy – and timeliness – of a news article about land development in Ontario’s Greenbelt. 

The article, which originally appeared online, included information about an upcoming rally against the development plans. The article later ran in the publication’s print edition and included the same statements about an upcoming in-person rally, which had already passed by the time the community newspaper was printed and distributed to subscribers.

The news organization stated that content is published immediately online for community members and that it is often updated for print editions. It explained that, unfortunately, the appropriate update was not made in this case and apologized for the error. It also noted the intention to discuss the matter with the newsroom to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

The NNC has consistently held that accuracy, even in the most minor details, is a fundamental feature of responsible journalism. At the same time, this error highlighted an accidental oversight in the editing process and does not indicate a breach of journalistic standards. 

The complainant was satisfied with the explanation from the news organization. In this case, the NNC found that the online article was appropriately dated and did not take further action on the matter. That said, it supports the news organization’s decision to take proactive steps to prevent similar errors from occurring in the future. (Case ID: 2023-71)

 

Context is key but significant historical background is not always warranted

A complainant was concerned that an article, which reported on violence in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, failed to mention that the refugees were “the descendants of those who fled or were driven out from what is now Israel.”

The NNC agrees that context is important, particularly when reporting in cases of sensitive subjects. At the same time, there was no evidence to suggest that not including the specific wording the complainant felt was “missing” resulted in an inaccuracy or misled readers about the situation in question.

The NNC has consistently stated that journalists have discretion over the wording and scope of a story. While the NNC understands that readers may wish to see specific information and words included in a piece, that does not necessarily indicate a breach of journalistic standards.

The NNC also noted that while including appropriate context in stories is standard journalistic practice, it is not necessarily feasible or reasonable  to include detailed historical timelines into a single news story.

In this case, the NNC found no evidence to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards and declined to take further action on the matter. (Case ID: 2023-78)