Members' Update: Spring 2017

Letter from our President and CEO

Opinion-mongering is one of the great bulwarks of traditional journalism. If you look at the history of newspapers, it will inevitably lead back to the glory days of London’s “Grub Street” periodicals and political broadsheets in the early 18th-century, generally favouring one party over another. Within a few decades, the business of music and theatre reviews also started up, either in their own broadsheets or attached to leading periodicals.

There is, these days, a kind of return to these foundational roots in the rapid and happily unregulated rise of specialized digital journalism platforms. iPolitics, for example, has started asserting itself on the national consciousness as an important source of knowledge on our political and governmental life. Ditto for impressive digital-only publications like The Tyee; or some of the newest members of the NNC like Musical Toronto or Queen’s Park Today. They come about because there are readers who care about the things these platforms report and comment on and they want to stay informed. They also like the angle or perspective taken, and especially the sharp commentaries.

The diffusion is equally a challenge for readers as it is for an organization like ours which strives to offer a legitimate and independent service to deal with disputes or errors or misunderstandings, whether on a digital service or the printed page. It’s the misunderstandings about opinion mongering that I want to focus on in this issue of the NNC Newsletter. Columnists and reviewers often have strong opinions and strong opinions invariably arouse reactions, one way or another.

A big part of the NNC mandate and our day to day work is to explain to complaining members of the public the traditional role of critics and reviewers, whether in the arts, the legislature, or even the dining rooms of the nation. When an outraged bistro owner feels a food critic has been unfair in Toronto Life, or an angry patron of the Canadian Opera objects to a critical evaluation of a performance, or a political party member feels there is a particular bias in a column about his or her favourite public figure or issue, our team at the NCC spends a decent amount of time explaining the role of the columnist or critic. It is part of the service, you might say.

I am a former arts reviewer and former political commentator, so believe me I know exactly how exercised readers can get about opinion mongering. I often find myself explaining what I firmly believe is the matrix of a healthy political or performing arts life in any community and it usually involves engaging the public through reviews or commentaries that are studied in their provocation. If, on the other hand, a writer makes factual errors, it is a legitimate source of complaint with which we always deal very seriously. If it’s a matter of “he says, I say”, then we try to put it in the context of acceptable community standards and practice.

This usually works to the complainant’s satisfaction, but sometimes it doesn’t. In one such encounter we have had recently, we listened for an age (and several times) to a complaint about an editorial in a leading newspaper. The complainant was exercised by the fact that there were conflicting facts which emerged after an editorial had been published (a day later in fact). His solution was to ask the NNC to order the newspaper to add a note to the digital version of the editorial which said, in effect, “This was researched and written before counterbalancing facts emerged.” We tried to explain that this was something that could be put on almost any article anyone published. The logic escaped him and he is probably still complaining to anyone who will listen that both the newspaper and the NNC lack 20-20 hindsight – or is it foresight? Hindsight, in fact, we have. Foresight is for unanswerable or unresolvable complaints.

- John Fraser

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We welcome new members of the National NewsMedia Council which have recently signed on. We are updating our web site so that all individual members are noted, whether are part of a larger group or not, along with Internet websites, so stay tuned:

Community Publications:

• Chateau Voice (Chateau, Ontario)

• Davidson Leader  (Davidson, Saskatchewan)

• Four Town Journal (Langenbury, Saskatchewan)

• Frontenac News (Sharbot Lake, Ontario)

• Glengary News (Glengary, Ontario)

• North Renfrew Times (Deep River, Ontario)

• Sentinel Courier (Pilot Mound, Manitoba)

• The Signpost (Dorchester, Ontario)

• Times-Star (Geraldton, Ontario)

Digital-only Publications:

• The Athletic (Toronto, Ontario)

• The Public Record (Hamilton, Ontario)

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Complaints Report

During the period of January thru mid-March, 34 complaints and three inquiries from a range of papers and regions crossed our desks.

Two complaints went to Council. Both were dismissed with reservation.

Staff investigated one complaint in which the news media organization recognized the breach of journalistic standards and took steps toward corrective action.

Consideration of seven complaints that were dismissed involved correspondence with both the news media organization and the complainant in order to investigate the issue and find a resolution.

In most cases, the resolution involved education about how the media works. As an example, a complainant suggested a journalist was “fabricating news” when he sought reaction from community leaders to a controversial tweet by a local politician. In fact, this was an example of standard journalistic practice. Other cases involved continuing education about the difference between news and opinion, and explaining the latitude of editorial and opinion writers.

The 20 declined complaints were thoroughly reviewed by staff, including correspondence with the complainant and investigation where necessary. Reasons for declining the complaints included stale dated or anonymous complaints, complaints about matters that were not in the NNC mandate (for example, use of comments section), complaints on the same issue that has already been heard by Council (eg. vaccines), complaints where legal action has been taken or a specific story has not been cited, and complaints that did not involve a breach of journalistic standards. The last group includes complainants who made allegations that an article promoted violence or was biased. Complaints about racism, and especially sensitivity about perceived “anti-white racism” have been more frequent and strident in recent months.

One complaint was declined because corrective action to remedy a breach had already been taken by the time the complaint was filed.

Six complaints are still in process, pending information from the complainant or the news media organization.

NNC staff believe the fact that roughly half the complaints handled in this period were declined underlines the need for continuing education about how the media works. We are pleased to provide this service through outreach and through one on one conversation with complainants.

- Patricia Perkel, Executive Director and Complaints Co-Ordinator

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37 Front Street File: Strengthening our relationship with local publishers

From Tumbler Ridge, BC, to Wawa, ON, newspapers are breaking new ground in the ways they serve their communities. Though many have reduced their print content, most publishers are increasingly supplementing online while navigating the perils and perks of social media in the newsroom.

Over the past month, I’ve been speaking with dozens of community newspaper publishers across Canada to discuss general ethics concerns and possible solutions on behalf of the NNC. Many publishers recounted their attempts to apply journalistic standards in the age of digital media without an official roadmap.

In search of new leads and new audiences, questions arise over the appropriate level of moderation in online conversations as well as how and when to include content from social media posts. As newsrooms wade into the treasure troves of information that are social networks, they also recognize the challenges that come with their forays into new territory and the need to better define their own responsibilities.

These are just a few issues that come with the changing landscape. Classified sections, the manna of many a paper’s budget, continue to shrink with the rising popularity of bartering apps and swapping sites like Craigslist. Online ad sales mitigate but don’t eliminate the problem. Though the concerns may seem more existential than ethical, some publishers worry about the price of ensuring responsible journalism in ever-shrinking newsrooms.

It’s a fact that “coverage suffers when you can’t pay good journalists,” says one of the many publishers who find themselves reporting, editing, and wrangling sales for the paper along with their publishing duties. Compounded by the unique pressures of covering news in a small community—where the public and public interest often overlap—these budget constraints weigh on the shoulders of publishers who may be unable or unwilling to take strong editorial stances when threatened with revenue losses.

The newsrooms—and there are, thankfully, many in Canada—that continue to enthusiastically inform and rigorously investigate do so at the same risks as their larger counterparts but not always with the same support system. Newspaper staff find themselves “bullied by council members,” behaviour sometimes unchecked in places where your neighbours are your news.

These are just some of the reasons that newspapers are deciding to join the NNC. And while many publishers and editors continue to resolve most of their complaints face to face—whether in the pub or post office—they recognize the value of a larger support network when it comes to upholding and refining journalistic standards in the age of new media.

News literacy is an issue in today’s newsrooms, whether staffed by two or two hundred. Some publishers would like to see it as a formal subject in schools. Others lament the sometimes inconsistent standards applied to print and online media. A pillar of the NNC mission, public education, is invaluable to this next frontier in media.

Although their voices are as varied as the communities in which they circulate, there is a shared sense of transformation among publications. In these changing times, using the knowledge generated from individual newsrooms will likely prove integral to a thriving industry. If the NNC can help percolate this knowledge through its national network, then all of us will undoubtedly benefit.  

 - Cara Sabatini, Outreach Co-Ordinator

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Community news is a vital ingredient to 'Canadian experience'

I first became involved with press councils as a result of answering a small advertisement in the back pages of my community newspaper on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. 

I have a penchant for reading community news, in part as a result of growing up in rural Saskatchewan where it connected a network of people spread out over large distances. I have also lived in urban communities both in Canada and other parts of the world, and have found that regardless of the community’s size, local news is central to reflecting and informing the events that impact our daily lives; from the mundane to the profound. 

While some may view a community focus as parochial or insular, the reality is that community connects us to one another and informs the weft and warp of the geographical diversity that is Canada. A 2016 public opinion study commissioned by Canada's Public Policy Forum surveyed 1,500 adults as part of a larger qualitative study into Canadian attitudes on media and its future confirms this assertion. The findings of the study indicated that the majority of participants (62 per cent) reported that when thinking of “news” they think of community before politics and current affairs. Further, 92 per cent of respondents viewed community as an important component of news coverage, slightly above the 91 per cent given to current events, and the 85 per cent to politics.    

While community news media has suffered drastic cutbacks, it has been resilient in finding ways to continue its work. I am happy to report that a number of community news media, both digital and traditional, have recently became members of the NNC. Our goal is to continue to reach out to the rich mix of community media across the country.

The NNC strives to represent the diverse communities across Canada. While the goal of full regional representation is a work in progress, we have made a good start; with geographical representation from east to west and in-between, and a mix of urban and rural. We are also working towards achieving diversity in other areas such as gender and culture, as we believe that varied perspectives enhance our work in upholding public and industry interests to achieve excellence in news media standards. 

- Shelley Chrest, Board Chair

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(Terrible pun alert!)

Springing into action

Over the winter, the NNC has been industriously stockpiling away many wells of wisdom from the innumerable consultations we have been having with publishers, practitioners, and the public. Now, as the gusty, blustery vestiges of winter begin to recede (we hope!) the NNC is seeing these seeds begin to sprout. 

The biggest return we have seen over the last few weeks is finalizing an agreement with the renowned Poynter Institute. Together, we have developed a trial program that will allow NNC members to receive a 20 per cent discount on the award-winning webinars offered by Poynter/News U. We're doing this because one of the key platforms of the NNC is not to simply to resolve complaints. We are also an organization that advocates for learning, training, and education. We believe that offering members access to these training modules, whether they live in Surrey, B.C. or St. John's, Newfoundland, helps to further our mission to promote strong, ethical journalism.   

In the same vein, the NNC completed our series of sessions at the University of Toronto's Munk School on March 15. Our final seminar addressed the subject of digital media ethics. We received some great questions from the fellows there and we look forward to sharing our full experience in a blog post on our new Medium channel soon.

The NNC is also looking forward to attending the upcoming Canadian Association of Journalists conference happening in Ottawa on April 28 & 29. We look forward to seeing you there!  

To receive the special discount code to register for a Poynter seminar, or if you have suggestions on directions you think we should take on our ‘road ahead’, or partnerships you think would be interesting to form, please don’t hesitate to send me an email to: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca.  

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communications and Community Manager

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Information update

We’ve also created two shorter NNC information blurbs to promote your membership and let readers know how to get in touch with us. Either or both are here for your use:

{Your news organization) is a member of the National NewsMedia Council, which deals with complaints about news stories, opinion columns or photos. See the NNC web site at mediacouncil.ca or call 1-844-877-1163 for more information.

OR

Have a complaint about news stories, opinion columns or photos? See the National NewsMedia Council web site at mediacouncil.ca or call 1-844-877-1163 for information.

We would appreciate if you included our organization's logo either in your printed publication or on your website. A high-resolution version can be downloaded on our website.       

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