Over the past two months, the has NNC received more than 50 complaints, and dozens more phone calls, from people who expressed their concerns about a front-page layout of an August 26th edition of the Toronto Star. Readers were incensed over the front-page presentation of a story featuring strongly-worded tweets about people who chose not to get the COVID vaccine. The front-page tweets were, in many readers’ words, “divisive and hateful.”
That day’s edition of the Toronto Star featured an article about public attitudes towards unvaccinated people, citing a poll that suggested many vaccinated Canadians had “no sympathy for those who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine and then fall ill.” The article pointed to strongly worded tweets from people who felt similarly, and the tweets were prominently displayed on the front page of the paper.
One tweet included on the front page read, “I have no empathy left for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die.”
While the Toronto Star’s public editor published a column about the issues with the front-page display in the following days, the significant outcry from readers underscores the need for clarity and consideration when presenting complex issues, particularly when they are given the weight and focus of a front-page display.
In this case, the NNC heard from many complainants who were concerned that the comments expressed harmful views, sowed further division, and were not clearly identified as tweets from individuals.
Take, for example, some of the criticism we heard from complainants:
“This is a prime example of the divide the media has caused…This newspaper is fanning the flames of hatred and division.”
“To see such words of hate plastered across a front page is not only outrageous and unacceptable but also utterly irresponsible in these volatile times”
“We are already so fractured as a society that this headline does nothing but fuel the divide.”
“Everyone has a right to their opinion but a newspaper has an even greater responsibility to the community to ‘draw a line’. That front page article is down right scary and absolutely promotes hate, discrimination, misinformation and fear towards fellow human beings.”
One individual pointed out, “There are others who by means of exemption are unable to be vaccinated either due to religious beliefs or medical conditions,” and “Being that it is the front page, many people will see these hateful remarks and have no context unless they read the article.”
Even among those who recognized the comments as tweets, many felt it was difficult to discern this fact and that the comments were given undue weight. As one complainant put it, “The newspaper quotes someone from Twitter…and promotes it on their front page in a way that suggests they agree with it. The fact it comes from another person is in very small characters, and the text is placed without quotation marks.”
In addition to the general outrage over the front-page display of the story, some complainants took the opportunity to express their views on vaccination. A number of complainants simply wanted an apology from the news organization about how the newspaper chose to highlight these tweets.
Most complainants immediately contacted the NNC with their concerns. Some told us they even reached out to their local police with concerns about hateful language and were referred to the NNC.
The NNC reviewed each of the complaints and listened to their phone calls. As is our process, we encouraged them to try to resolve the matter, first, with the news organization directly and allow reasonable opportunity for the news organization to address their concerns.
On August 28, the public editor of the Toronto Star published his findings in a column in response to reader concerns. The Star had received thousands of messages from concerned readers who found the front-page display “confusing, hurtful and inflammatory.”
As noted in the column, “Many readers thought the statements were the Star’s view, like a front-page editorial; others thought it was the headline to the story.” The public editor noted that there were no quotation marks around the tweeted comments, that the tweets lacked context, and the source of the comments was not clearly identified.
The column included comments from the editor of the Toronto Star, who acknowledged the “power” and “responsibility” of a front page. She apologized for the fact that the particular front-page display did not meet their usual standards.
As noted in the column, the public editor found that “greater care should have been taken” in this case, and that “The Star wound up stoking the very divisions it sought to write about.”
Throughout the pandemic, the NNC has received a number of complaints and phone calls from people concerned with polarization and ‘divisiveness’ in reporting on COVID, and especially, COVID vaccines. In many of these cases, people want to see another side of the story reflected, even if the evidence does not support it.
Whether covering vaccine hesitancy or people’s response to vaccine hesitancy, reporting on unfounded, offensive, or even extreme views can be newsworthy and serve important journalistic purposes, so long as those views are treated with appropriate care. That means providing appropriate attribution and context, including verifiable evidence and information about sourcing.
In this particular case, the NNC recognizes that the complaints were primarily directed at the front-page layout of the story, and not the story itself, which in fact aimed to provide context and shed light on the attitudes expressed in the strongly-worded tweets.
In reviewing complainants’ concerns and the news organizations’ response to the matter, the NNC agreed with the news organization that the comments should have been more clearly labelled. It also agreed that in this case, the display of the tweets on the front page fell short of journalistic standards around context and attribution.
At the same time, the NNC found that the public editor’s findings and thorough report on the matter both acknowledged and addressed reader concerns about the lack of context, inadequate labelling, and divisive nature of the comments.
While apologies typically fall outside the mandate of the NNC, we would note that the chief editor’s comments and apology for the front page’s shortcomings, as quoted in the column, go a long way to addressing reader concerns, particularly of those who wished to see recognition of the wide-reaching impact of the newspaper’s front page.
In light of the published findings by the Toronto Star public editor, the NNC considered this matter resolved due to corrective action.