Update from the Complaints Desk: Use of term ‘book ban’ appropriate in light of campaign to defund libraries in rural Manitoba community

Earlier this summer, the National NewsMedia Council (NNC) received multiple complaints related to coverage of attempts to defund libraries over allegedly sexualized content published in children’s books in rural Manitoba. In all cases, complainants were concerned about language use and what they considered a lack of context in the reporting.

In one complaint, for example, an individual objected to the story’s coverage by the Winnipeg Sun. This April 13, 2023 article reported on a presentation made to city councilors in Winkler, MB., by the complainant, as well as other community activists, that requested funding for the library be ceased until certain books were removed.

In her submission to the NNC, the complainant took issue with the description of their request as a “book ban.” The complainant said the use of this terminology was inaccurate, underscoring  that her campaign was about “creating library policies that align with the Criminal Code of Canada.” She argued that the published article should have made direct reference to the relevant sections of the criminal code but failed to do so.

The complainant also objected to specific words used in the piece, including the characterization of the event in question as a “protest,” and that community members were “demanding” the removal of certain books and “harassing” library staff. She argued that individuals were lined up in anticipation of a public meeting and that all presentations were carried out peacefully and in accordance with library policy.

Finally, the complainant stated that her presentation was not simply the view of a single resident but that it reflected the perspective of a number of community members, as indicated by the petition she cited.

In response to her concerns, the news organization updated the story to include her perspective that certain books violated specific sections of the criminal code. The update also included information about the petition presented.

In reviewing the concerns as well as the news organization’s response and actions taken to address them, the NNC considered the journalistic standard of accuracy and employed a simple reading of the terms referenced by the complainant.

With regards to the points raised about language use, the NNC noted that word choice is generally the prerogative of journalists when reporting stories. In this case, it was the view of the NNC that requests to remove certain titles from the library were reasonably characterized as a ban. Similarly, describing the organized and repeated requests for the restriction of access to titles or the removal of titles from a library may reasonably be described as a “demand.”

Further the NNC found no grounds to indicate that describing the event as a protest was inaccurate. Generally speaking, a protest may include individual or collective action expressing objection to an issue or policy. Given the volume and shared interests of the individuals in attendance, as well as other widely available reports indicating the presence of signage and other markers of protests, organized or otherwise, it was the view of the NNC that it was reasonable to describe the situation in this way.

In assessing the reference to the allegations of harassment, the NNC noted that the statement was clearly attributed to the director of library services, and that relevant context is provided in the following paragraph and attributed appropriately. An ordinary reading of the article offered a report on the events that unfolded at a public meeting and the issues raised by a number of community members about library policy.

That said, the NNC would point out that simply because the story reports that some members of library staff have encountered harassing behaviour, the article does not suggest that everyone who shares the complainants’ views has engaged in such behaviour. At the same time, reporting on this behaviour in the wider context of the debate about library policies and access to library material is a matter of public interest.

The NNC found no evidence that the language used in this case indicated a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy. Further, it was the view of the NNC that the update to include the references to the criminal code and the signed petition is a matter of courtesy and demonstrated good faith on the part of the news organization to take steps to find a resolution to the concerns raised.

Journalists are tasked with choosing the appropriate language to provide readers with an accurate and fair understanding of the matter. While the NNC understands that individuals passionate about a particular cause would prefer to see specific words used to describe their actions, journalists and editors have the prerogative to choose the appropriate words for a story.

For the reasons outlined above, the NNC found no grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards and did not take further action on the matter.