Update from the Complaints Desk – September 14, 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.

Quotes in headlines don’t tell the whole story

The NNC dismissed a complaint about the headline of a story that reported on criticism of a protest led by a local activist. The activist was concerned that the headline’s use of quotes from community members, and its formatting of certain words in red typeface, unfairly characterized the activism as “misleading” and a “publicity stunt.” 

In reviewing the matter, the NNC noted that headlines are expected to reflect the focus of an article in an accurate and concise manner. At the same time, news organizations are tasked with providing headlines that draw readers into the story. By their nature, a headline is not intended to capture the nuances contained in an article. 

While the NNC agreed that it was an unusual choice to draw attention to individual words in a headline, the colouring of keywords appeared to be a consistent style used by the publication. As the NNC noted in its response to the complainant, design choices are generally the prerogative of the news organization.

That said, the NNC found that the headline was supported by the content of the article, which included comments from a number of sources with different perspectives, including the complainant’s comment referring to his own actions as a “publicity stunt.” 

Importantly, the words in the headline were appropriately presented in quotation marks as a way to indicate to readers that they were direct quotes from individuals whose comments appear in the story. For these reasons, the NNC found no evidence to support a breach of journalistic standards. (Case ID: 2023-40)

Details matter when reporting on surveys

An individual filed a complaint with the NNC because they were concerned that an article, which reported on a union’s member survey results, did not contain sufficient context, such as survey population and sample size.

The NNC agreed that survey reporting should be accurate and include appropriate context. Best practice includes providing readers with key information, such as sample size, total number of respondents, and, when relevant, margins of error, for readers to understand the significance and applicability of survey results.

For these reasons, the NNC heard from the news organization on the matter. In response to the concerns raised by the complainant, the news organization updated the article to include the total number of survey respondents and alerted readers to the change with an editor’s note.

It was the view of the NNC that the update to the story and editor’s note provided appropriate context for readers to understand the relevance and limitations of the survey results. For these reasons, the NNC considered the matter resolved due to corrective action. (Case ID: 2023-52)

Past public comments are fair game’ for those seeking public office 

An individual filed a complaint with the NNC because they were concerned about how a profile piece portrayed a recent Toronto mayoral candidate.. The complainant felt the article showed negative bias against the former newspaper columnist turned political candidate by quoting a researcher that criticized the candidate’s past commentary on Islam. 

The NNC noted that it is common practice to report on political candidates’ professional history and past public comments, which extends to published columns. In this case, the subject of the profile had written opinion columns that showcased his perspective, which are a matter of public record and would be of interest to readers. The profile included the published comments as direct quotes or paraphrased statements, as is standard journalistic practice.

It is likewise standard journalistic practice to seek out comments from those with expertise in a particular field or subject matter. The news organization sought out comments from a researcher who was familiar with the candidate’s previously-shared opinions. All views were clearly attributed to the source, as is standard journalistic practice. Nowhere in the profile are such statements reflected as the opinion of the writer. 

While the NNC understands that the complainant objected to the perspective of the researcher quoted in the piece, the NNC found no evidence indicating that statements had been taken out of context or that they contained an inaccuracy, and dismissed the complaint. (Case ID: 2023-58)