Members' Update: December 2019

Note from our Executive Chair 

The various regional press councils which came together five years ago to create the National NewsMedia Council all had their raison d’être to support the public notion of fair and ethically-based journalism. Almost of parallel importance was the need to demonstrate that the journalism profession could police itself and that government should stay out of the business of regulating what constitutes journalism.

Although this is still a cardinal rule in the newspaper and digital news profession, the federal government’s support of local journalism in Canada, created out of a broad concern to support local journalism in communities where their news sources were hard pressed to compete with the unprecedented challenges brought on by the internet, would seem on the surface to be a departure from that once iron-clad commitment to independence. And some journalists have written vociferously against the initiative.

Before he left the National Post for the Globe and Mail, for example, political columnist Andrew Coyne wrote that there were “any number of objections to the government getting into the game of propping up failing news organizations” and went on to argue “that taking money from the people we cover  will place us in a permanent and inescapable conflict of interest; that it will produce newspapers  concerned less with appealing to readers than to grantsmen; that it will not only leave us dependent on government, but without standing to oppose such dependence on others…”

In contrast and in the same newspaper he once owned, Conrad Black, no chum of government-intervention in general, nevertheless wrote: “…I think an investment by the public sector in Canadian media can be beneficial, if it is politically even-handed and underwrites quality and originality and not just cronyism and the second-rate.”

Adding complexity, perhaps, is the fact that the National NewsMedia Council was cited as one of the “identifiers” for news publications applying to the program for grants and this citation, not surprisingly, has led to an uptick in inquiries into membership conditions as well as actual new memberships. That would seem to indicate that we are part of this initiative, but the fact is we aren’t. Some confusion has arisen because the name of the organization which is partnering with the federal government is the similar-sounding News Media Canada.

But on the specifics of this subject the National NewsMedia Council is neutral, despite our foundational ethos. That’s because it doesn’t change one iota our institutional mandate. We are a self-regulatory journalistic standards organization and, as our Executive Director Pat Perkel pointed out in one of our newsletters when the programme was first launched: “As always, the NNC supports the public’s right to know and to hold public institutions, such as governments, courts, regional councils, and school boards, to account. It also recognizes the value of local journalism in doing that job.” 

- John Fraser

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We welcome new members of the National NewsMedia Council who have recently signed on. 

Academic institutions:

• The University of Alberta

Community newspapers:

• Uxbridge Cosmos

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The NNC Remains Steadfast in its Role

There’s inevitably a degree of retrospect and looking forward amid the celebrations of the festive season. In the NNC’s case we can look at the past year as one of growth: in complaint numbers, in members, in staff, and in the NNC’s stature as a self-regulatory standards organization.

We experienced a late-in-the-year uptick in membership inquiries and numbers thanks the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI). While the NNC had no hand in establishing the program’s parameters, we are happy that it emphasizes the existence, and importance, of media councils in Canada.

Our task will be to maximize the opportunity of that increased profile while making sure that the industry and the public understands we have no say in the LJI program, and the program has no influence on how the NNC handles complaints.

On that note, complaint numbers topped the 100 mark this year. Among them was a wide range in the nature of complaints, including some that obviously presented no breach of journalistic standards. Another 120 complaints to the NNC – regarding broadcast websites, foreign media, and the occasional legal or neighbourhood dispute - were clearly outside our mandate. 

The NNC holds fast to its commitment to regard every complaint seriously, to respond as fully as possible, and to track the work we do for members and the public. Over and again we find that readers want accountability from the news media. For that matter, the public at large wants someone to listen when something is wrong. Within our mandate to promote journalism standards, the NNC responds to those complaints and seeks to remedy or educate as the case requires.

Looking at trends in the complaints we’ve handled, a major source of complaint is that readers conflate news and opinion, and object to reading opinions they don’t share.

A growing thread of complaints we’ve received addresses concerns about vaping. There are strong voices both for and against the practice of vaping, and likewise for and against regulations around vaping. As in debates over climate change or fluoridation, the NNC’s job is not to settle the science or decide the winner in the argument, but to make sure that reporting meets journalism standards and that facts cited in opinion writing are accurate.

Looking ahead, there are signs that issues around privacy could be an increasing impetus for complaints, particularly in terms of the privacy of children and vulnerable subjects. In a highly searchable world, where it seems that all details are available everywhere and always, there is emerging concern about what that means for victims, minors, and those who would otherwise have fleeting mention. Our colleagues in Europe are looking at specific guidelines for reporting on child victims of crime. We’ll watch that, and report to you on what evolves.

 - Pat Perkel, Executive Director

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The Complaints Desk:

 By the Numbers

The NNC has opened 18 complaint files since our October report. Of those, eight were dismissed or declined on the basis that there was no breach of journalistic standards.

Another four were resolved due to corrective action.

The most frequently cited basis for complaint was inaccuracy, followed by complaints about opinion columns.

In addition to the above, the NNC received 121 complaints about broadcast, foreign media business, circulation, and the occasional legal or neighbourhood dispute. All were clearly outside our mandate. The NNC holds fast to its commitment to regard every complaint seriously, to respond as fully as possible, and to track the work we do for members and the public.

To subscribe to our distribution list for new decisions, please click here

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2019 Fraser MacDougall Prize Winner
Explains Why Winning Story Matters
to Her and Her Community

In November, the National NewsMedia Council and Journalists for Human Rights honoured the work of Olivia Robinson, a rising star in Canadian journalism, with the 2019 Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting. 

Read more.

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37 Front Street File:
Newspaper? Broadcaster?
What's the Difference?

The holidays are a special time of year reserved for the appreciation and recognition of both individual and team accomplishments. At the National NewsMedia Council, that’s no different.

From the thousands of emails we’ve received this year, NNC staff have distilled the questions and concerns of Canadian news readers into thorough decisions, insightful case studies, and thought-provoking discussions of journalism best practices that we’ve shared with the world on our active social media channels.

Why?

Because quality journalism, that is fair, accurate, and produced in accordance with industry ethical guidelines, can act as an antidote to the biases, fears, and closed world views that are symptoms of an information disorder.

The NNC’s mandate is to ensure that all journalistic works produced by our members are held to the highest ethical standards. Over the last several months, however, we’ve been receiving many public complaints about news organizations that are not members of the NNC. Many of these complaints pertain to journalism published to the websites of what would be considered broadcasting outlets – for example, CTVNews.ca, GlobalNews.ca – and others alike.

In a time when newspapers were only physical print products and when radio and television stations solely presented information over the airwaves, the landscape of media’s public accountability was much simpler.

Press Councils, such as our predecessors in provinces including Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Atlantic Canada, had exclusive oversight over materials published in newspapers. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council had purview over content that was disseminated over the air.

But, as you know, times have changed. The methods through which the public consumes its news and information has changed – dramatically. Nevertheless, the rules that guide how broadcast news websites should remain publicly accountable to the public is still caught in some bewildering kind of pre-Internet time warp.

As the NNC looks to put a metaphorical bow on another successful year of operation, this is a problem we hope to address in 2020. We think it will go a long way to strengthen the public’s trust in Canadian journalism.

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communication and Community Manager

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Introducing The Sprawl: 

Canada's 'Pop-Up Journalism Project'

Journalist Jeremy Klaszus formed The Sprawl as a “pop-up journalism project” to cover the 2017 municipal elections in Calgary, AB.

“It started spontaneously as a result of newsrooms around town being cut, and there being a lack of civic journalism in Calgary,” said Klaszus.

Though it initially only set out to cover the election, The Sprawl has evolved over time to help fill the void left by merged newsrooms and the closure of the city’s alternative weekly, Fast Forward.

Taking its name from what Klaszus says is one of the city’s defining characteristics—urban sprawl—the local news platform presents deep dives into civic affairs stories and community features, while retaining its original “pop-up” style.

“The idea behind pop-up journalism is instead of trying to cover everything all the time, we do these popups that let us focus on one thing at a time,” said Klaszus.

The pop-up model allows for more manageable growth and for more flexibility to focus on the stories they want to cover—and how they want to cover them, says Klaszus.

Some stories are more suited to the website, others to the podcast, and occasionally stories about the city take the form of comic strips, Klaszus explained. They’ve even gone the more traditional route of printing a newspaper on one occasion.

Klaszus says The Sprawl has a dedicated support base of more than 800 monthly contributors. He prefers this voluntary membership model over subscription paywalls, which he views as “punitive.” Instead, he likes to tell his audience, “if you support this [local journalism] and you want to see more of it, then help pitch in.”

Klaszus explains that his responsibility to his members is often on his mind, as are the consequences if people don’t like what he reports.

In a recent “Sprawlcast” episode, Klaszus reported that city council allocated funds for a new NHL arena, despite the fact that the province recently cut funds for a public transit line, leaving the city budget in a bit of a crunch.

He recognizes that some of his supporters are in favor of the arena funding, whereas others are against it, and would like to see funds allocated to transit.

His objective for The Sprawl is that “regardless of where you stand on that particular issue, the journalism itself is still useful for you.”

Klaszus recognizes that the local news platform may not be able to compete with the bigger dailies in terms of quantity or frequency of news, but what it can do is create a community of engaged citizens.

In fact, community is the driving force behind the project. Its website even features a crowd-sourced manifesto that serves both as the platform’s mission statement and its code of conduct.

“People already have tons of information,” said Klaszus. “They have too much information in many ways—but what they don’t necessarily have is community, and they don’t necessarily have civic engagement. So that’s what people are actually hungry for.”

For The Sprawl, it’s the journalism that brings people together.

- Cara Sabatini is the NNC's Director of Dispute Resolution

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Introducing: Academic Corner!

The NNC is pleased to say that the University of Alberta in Edmonton has become the first university in western Canada to join the National NewsMedia Council’s academic community, making it the 13th member in this exciting new initiative.

The NNC appreciates its alliance with the academic community as it works to advance the idea that an ethical, trustworthy news industry is a public good, in which everyone has a stake.

Offering academic institutions membership in the media council is also a ground-breaking development in the history of press councils. It arose because of the mutually advantageous links seen by both universities and community colleges and the news media world. Dispute resolution, it turns out, can be useful to academic administrations in their media relations, an occasionally fraught battlefield, as well as internally with their own publications.

The NNC offers the same practical services to academic members as it does to its news media members, such as being available to student media with advice on a whole range of issues from libel to its core mandate with dispute resolution.

As part of the NNC’s academic initiative, members of the NNC team have conducted seminars with post-secondary level students in Toronto, London, and Ottawa. Discussions have centered on ‘ethics in the digital age’, how to identify trustworthy sources of news and information, and the evolution of media standards and practices. Other activities have included collaborating on research projects and the production of the NNC’s True Confessions podcast.

Through our ongoing work with the Canadian University Press, the NNC has also provided advice to countless student news organizations over the past year. At the same time, the NNC has provided constructive feedback to academic administration about the importance of an independent student press.

For its part, the NNC appreciates the alliance with the academic community in expanding the notion of an ethical media in which everyone has a stake. By supporting concepts like non-litigious resolution of disputes and providing tangible access to journalism ethics and standards education in the academic realm, the NNC is allowed through the academic initiative to expand its reach and influence. This means support not only for current journalistic endeavours, but also is a positive influence for the future of journalism. 

The growth of the initiative comes during a challenging period in Ontario where the provincial government has threatened the status quo of student campus newspapers by delinking automatic financial support via student fees. That decision was successfully challenged in the courts, but the government has applied to appeal the court decision. The NNC continues to monitor the situation closely.  

We see the membership of academic institutions across Canada as a positive goal for the NNC, and one that will support the health Canadian journalism. You can check out all the academic institutions who have already signed up on our webpage here.

- NNC Staff

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Meet Tim Shoults:
A Champion of Community News

NNC professional director 

When three newspaper delivery drivers called in sick, Tim Shoults went into overdrive to make sure his weekly paper got to subscribers’ doorsteps on time.

“We’re scrambling around trying to get people to [deliver] in the middle of the night,” said Shoults.

Such is life as the head of a community newspaper. Having spent the past two decades in community news, and being immersed in it every day, Shoults is no stranger to the surprises that come with putting out a paper each week.

Based in Kamloops, B.C., Shoults performs two very time-consuming jobs. He serves as the VP of Content and Audience Development at Glacier Media. At the same time, he also manages the day-to-day responsibilities for Kamloops This Week, one of eight community newspapers owned by Aberdeen Publishing. 

On top of that, Shoults is one of the founding professional directors of the National NewsMedia Council. His presence helps bring a distinct community news perspective when deliberating complaints.

“Being immersed in [community news] on a day-to-day basis is valuable both when we’re dealing with a complaint from a smaller member, and when it is one of our larger members, [to have] someone at a national level with a localized perspective,” said Shoults.

Shoults was first elected to the B.C. Press Council back in 2009, when provincial councils were responsible for handling reader complaints about the news. Ten years on, his insights into community news prove particularly valuable at the national level, especially when it comes to understanding the different challenges facing community publications compared to their larger counterparts.

“When you’re in community news, the people that you’re writing about and for, you’re going to see them on the street constantly, you’re going to see them in line at the grocery store, or at the post office, or at your kid’s school—you don’t have the luxury of anonymity,” said Shoults.

“It gives you a different level of responsibility in how you report, and I grew to really relish that.”

But Shoults didn’t always have his sights set on community journalism. As a high school student, he decided he was going to be the editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail by the time he was 30.

He completed his BA in political science at the University of Alberta in French—a decision he figured would serve him well in career covering national politics. His plan was then to pursue a master’s of journalism.

His plan suddenly shifted when he headed to Jasper National Park to work for Parks Canada, where he had spent previous summers doing the same.

While in Jasper, Shoults, with a newly minted BA in hand, visited the now-defunct Jasper Booster to inquire whether they had any freelance opportunities.

They didn’t.

They did, however, have a job opening because their reporter had quit just the day before.

The newspaper offered him the job.

“I took a 30 per cent pay cut going from Parks Canada to the Booster,” said Shoults, who then had to explain to his parents at the time that it was the job he would have hoped to get had he received his master’s degree.

“Over time, my career ambition changed a little bit,” said Shoults. “I no longer wanted to be editor-in- chief of the Globe and Mail. I had fallen in love with the concept of community newspapers.”

Shoults is keenly aware that community journalism has changed over the years—as has the concept of community.

While local papers are no longer the sole forum for debate, Shoults says there’s something special about how a community bands together when they hear about a home destroyed by fire or a tragic car accident.

Witnessing that groundswell of community support is one of the most heartwarming aspects of working in local news, says Shoults.

Indeed, after two decades in community journalism, it’s these surprising displays of generosity that help him take other surprises (like, say, three sick delivery drivers) in stride.

- Cara Sabatini is the NNC's Director of Dispute Resolution

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How Can We Help?  

Did you know that in addition to handling editorial complaints from readers, the National NewsMedia Council also offers all of our member news organizations pre-publication support services?

At the NNC, we believe that these offerings are just another way we work towards our objectives of promoting an accountable Canadian news media and educating Canadians about the important role journalism plays in our society. 

How do we do that? There are two ways.

First, we are always on the look-out for helpful materials that we can add to our growing library of reporting guides and resources.

Second, we encourage members to make use of our ethics 'helpline'. Give us a call and we'll provide you with a free 1:1 consultation on any issue involving ethics, standards, or best practices.  

We are always looking for new ways to support our members. If you'd like additional help, feel free to send an email to Brent Jolly, our director of community management at: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

Reporting Guides and Resources

The National NewsMedia Council does not impose its own code of practice. Instead, it expects members to adhere to their own code and to generally-accepted journalistic standards, practices, and ethics.

We’ve compiled several resources from other organizations to help journalists navigate news media ethics and standard practices in their work. This virtual library may be of particular use for journalists covering difficult or sensitive topics.

Media Ethics Helpline

All NNC members get access to our pre-publication ethics helpline. 

If you or your newsroom have a question related to journalism ethics or standards, give us a call before you run the article. 

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Wishing you all the best for a prosperous 2020! 

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Information update

We have short NNC information blurbs to promote your membership and let readers know how to get in touch with us. Please include one, along with our organization's logo either in your printed publication and website. A high-resolution version can be downloaded on our website.       

{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 website at mediacouncil.ca or call 1-844-877-1163 for more information.

OR

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

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