Members' Update: Autumn 2018

Note from our Executive Chair 

The National NewsMedia Council is now into its fourth year of operations. Our future did not seem as confident as it does today when we first set up shop as the successor to four regional press councils (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Atlantic Canada). Then, the newspaper world was in continuous turmoil as advertising and subscriptions declined at alarming rates, and the economic models of time immemorial started looking like actual memorials.

What’s changed? Well, a lot of the challenges remain and the overall news media landscape keeps shifting. From the NNC’s vantage point, we certainly see the continuing volatility, but we also see areas of stability and – more importantly – of growth. The concept of an independent, non-legal dispute resolution organization actually seems more anchored in Canada than at any time in the recent past, and we are pretty close to being unique in North America.

Partly this is due to emerging digital news media outlets, many of which have chosen to become members of the NNC. The continuing courage and adroit management of print media also plays a big part. Partly it’s because our services are expanding into areas never before ventured by press councils, such as the academic initiative to sign up university and community college publications. And partly, too, because we have developed efficiencies in services to members – most notably speedy resolutions to all complaints – as well as dramatically expanded and extended our outreach, from innovative podcasts aimed at young journalists dealing with ethical dilemmas to seminars on media ethics at various educational institutions.

Most complainants and most members appreciate our work, which makes it rewarding. Since we first set up shop we have dealt with well over 390 complaints and 4500 phone calls of one sort of another. Everyone gets listened to and every complaint dealt with, one way or another. We get many calls to do things that are beyond our powers as a news media “first responder” (like securing reliable home delivery circulation) or beyond our mandate (like all questions of libel). We correct mistakes of information, editorial errors and mishaps (especially in the age of digital auto-corrections) and try to sort out issues of ethical challenges.

We have a dedicated staff and an equally dedicated council of wonderfully qualified assessors, both from within the news media business and amongst the general public. In this regard, in our next newsletter you will note a new feature spotlighting individual directors so that all members and the public can have a clearer idea of why they have been chosen to adjudicate disputes. Their profiles, I know, will lead to a better understanding of our success so far.

Because there are always two sides to every dispute, we don’t always leave everyone happy. But what has been truly remarkable is the small amount of push back on NNC decisions, even on those perennial issues which are – in a certain sense – unresolvable. We cannot, for example, resolve certain Middle East issues. All we can do is check verifiable facts and call out claims based on unverifiable facts. We do not feel obliged to settle contrary opinions. We recognize there is commonly and widely accepted historical or scientific consensus on some issues, whether it applies to the Holocaust or climate change. Our job is to ensure that the journalism around those issues adheres to the highest standards of accuracy and fairness.

Neither do we accept the distinction made by some self-appointed ethicists between freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This is a particular vexation to those contrarians who like defining what the public should or should not be allowed to read. The NNC noted some time ago the increased number of opinion columns in general and the complaints which ensue as a result. Nothing is changed in our process however:  we support freedom of expression that allows wide latitude for controversial columns, we recognize the job of journalism is to expose issues and foster civil debate, and we understand this must happen within the scope set by facts, journalistic standards, and laws around libel and hate.

So into the fourth year we go. We are about to welcome more than 100 Alberta community newspapers as members on January 1 and new academic members all the time. We are exploring other and very exciting avenues for membership within the ever-exploding digital universe. Stay tuned: we are the National NewsMedia Council of Canada.

- John Fraser


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

Our new members include:


• The Hill Times Group

Digital-only Publications:

• The Pointer

Wire Services:

• Canadian University Press

Academic Members:

• Sheridan College

• McMaster University


Working with the Public to Differentiate
Between Facts and Opinions in News

By Pat Perkel, Executive Director

Keeping news separate from opinion is a journalism basic, but in dealing with complaints over the summer it evolved as a common thread of discussion at the office, and with members and the public.

The news and social media landscape creates an environment that can rapidly amplify messages and information, whether accurate or not. At the same time, readers sometimes criticize journalism as “biased,” often because the distinction between news and opinion is not made clear enough. This is a combination that can lead to loss of trust in the media.

There are ways to make it easier for the reader to understand whether the material is news or opinion. Opinion articles can be flagged by highlighting the writer’s name or including a photo. However, as news media seek to establish a brand, it’s common for the photo of a beat reporter to appear along with their byline. That’s a reader-friendly touch, but it also blurs a strategy that otherwise marks a writer as an opinion columnist.

Language plays a role, too. Opinion articles are variously labelled as opinion, editorial, comment or analysis – terms that a study earlier this year by the American Press Institute found the public does not necessarily understand.

The result is that the reader is unclear whether the article is delivering the facts, a point of view, or something else - and the reader may conclude the paper or the reporter is biased. That take-away is trust-damaging, especially when that unchallenged assessment is repeated on social media.

Because of all of this, the need to distinguish between news and opinion is a recognized imperative in codes of practice. The Toronto Star states that sound practice demands a clear distinction between news and opinion, and that content with explicit opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified as opinion or analysis.

Similarly, the Canadian Association of Journalists calls for clear identification of news and opinion so that the reader knows which is which.

The public editors of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have taken up this issue. However, the problem has not been resolved since the then-New York Times public editor wrote ten years ago about the imperative to distinguish news from opinion.

According to the American Press Institute, labelling opinion pieces is ‘crucial’ to combating the allegation of biased journalism. It convincingly argues that labels on all opinion and news articles give readers “a road map to their content, instead of asking readers to interpret everything on their own”.

Recently, the NNC issued a decision that underlined the opinion-or-news issue. In Lascaris vs Toronto Sun, an opinion article was flagged by including the writer’s name in capital letters in the headline, but the article itself was filed as “news.” The NNC said that lack of clarity could leave the reader confused about the nature of the article, and could damage the trust readers have in the media.

The NNC supports best practices that employ strong, consistent measures to distinguish news from opinion articles. Members may have good practices and ideas about what that looks like: different colour or different font, labels for every article, consistent placement, standard agreement on terms like analysis or opinion, explainers for readers, expanded codes of ethics, and other helpful distinctions that improve reader understanding - and trust.


The Complaints Desk:

 By the Numbers

From mid-May to the end of September 2018, the NNC opened 25 new complaint files. Of those, ten were declined and three dismissed; four were resolved through corrective action, one was upheld and seven are in progress. The majority of complaints were about bias and misleading statements.

In the same period, 26 complaints were submitted but not accepted. Nine complaints were about broadcast websites; six were about unspecified complaints or delivery; and the remainder dealt with non-members or non-media issues, among them foreign banking problems and a flooded apartment. Complaints that are not accepted are answered and include an explanation of the decision.

Of the 91 phone calls monitored in the period, 42 were about delivery, 13 about customer service, 29 related to content and the remainder were non-specific.

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


Ontario's Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell pictured with two award winners: Nick Pearce (L) and Jasnit Pabla (R).

The Academic Report:

Journalists from Queen's Journal Selected as Winners of 2018 Fraser MacDougall Prize

The National NewsMedia Council and Journalists for Human Rights are pleased to announce that Jasnit Pabla and Nick Pearce, from The Queen’s Journal, have been awarded this year’s Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting. These two young journalists have won this year’s award for their submission ‘Truth & Reconciliation at Queen’s, a year later’


37 Front Street File:
Now I Know What You Did Last Summer

This past summer, as my colleagues surveyed France’s fine frontiers or motored through the American Midwest, my own sojourn took me to a similarly fanciful destination: Hogwarts.

Well, sort of.

The historic university city of Oxford, U.K. is well-regarded, not only for its academic prowess, but also, more recently, for being a source of inspiration for the internationally-renowned series of Harry Potter films.

True to my own character, as the NNC’s self-appointed ‘resident nerd’, I was fascinated at how the city was able to integrate the supposed juxtaposition of its often overlapping ‘old’ and ‘new’ cultural hallmarks. 

My reason for traveling to Oxford, however, was not to walk in the steps of characters such as Harry, Hermoine, or Ron; although, mind you, the common iconic gothic backdrop was nice.

I was there to contemplate – and ultimately face up to – some of the most pressing questions confronting the world of journalism today.

The topics analyzed during the Annenberg-Oxford Fellowship in Media, Law, and Policy were, indeed, far from fiction. 

With fellows drawn from every continent on the planet, the parameters of the discussion were international in scope. Headline topics included the emerging concerns about the Right to be Forgotten in Europe and its potential to soon cross the Atlantic; to the challenges of regulating hate and unpopular political speech; and how to help immunize society from the perilous effects of misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’.

Admittedly, the challenge in finding common policy or legal ground to any of these grand ideas is restricted by overarching questions of sovereignty. For example, how does a social media company, such as Facebook or Twitter, establish content regulation policies when those policies may either exceed or fall well-short of a country’s laws on defamation or the policing of hate speech?  

While these daily performances of intellectual gymnastics – for a layman journalist like me, at least – were enlightening, the fellowship did provide an excellent forum to reflect more deeply upon the many issues we face every day at the National NewsMedia Council.

Two of the largest themes of relevance to the NNC that surfaced from discussions were the challenges of how to support local news, and the role that quality and accurate journalism plays in the formation of good citizens.

As we heard from several experts who study media localism, the challenge in implementing public policy responses to questions of expanding news deserts is highly conceptual.

Although the phrase is often on the tips of our collective tongues, what exactly is meant when we talk about ‘local news’?

It is something that should be measured purely based on geography? Is it a topic of interest to a specialized set of readers – or even an imagined community? Or is it some combination of all of these categories melted into one?

Certainly, these are very technical questions that deserve to be fleshed out in greater detail. That’s one of the objectives we hope to achieve in our collaborative study with Ryerson University on local news that will be released later this autumn.

Another major area of concerns was how to effectively equip citizens with the foundational news literacy skills required given the power and influence of algorithms to influence one’s consumption of news.     

Some suggestions for solutions focused on different combinations of regulation (either by government, or, self-regulation), increasing the burdens of editorial responsibility, and/or news and media literacy campaigns.

When taken as a whole, however, the discussion underscored how a so-called ‘quick fix’ is not the right answer to any of these problems.

As we’ve seen in the overwhelming offensive to push back against the deleterious effects of so-called ‘fake news’, the percolating sense of moral panic across society has been informed by scant information.  To date, for example, there is a paucity of information on how exactly algorithms curate and package information into our Facebook or Twitter feeds for ready consumption.

Having been privy to these fulsome discussions over a period of two weeks, I’ve realized that there is a lot we don’t yet know. In order to build a more sustainable news ecosystem in Canada, however, there needs to be a stronger dialogue between the thinkers and practitioners of news.

Every day, the relationship between journalism and society evolves. Over the coming months, I’m looking forward to working with the NNC to build stronger partnerships with colleges, universities, industry associations, and other important groups who can address these challenges.


Well, because as one expert said so eloquently (under strict Chatham House Rules!): “the health of democracy and journalism are wholly intertwined”.

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communication and Community Manager


'True Confessions' podcast returns for Season 2!

We are happy to announce that we our 'True Confessions' podcast will be returning soon with all new episodes. This year, however, we're going to be doing something a little bit different.  

Just like last season, we’re going to be tackling a subject that some might think of as a ‘taboo’ in journalism: editorial mistakes, misjudgments, and ethical dilemmas.

For this season, however, we’re working with senior undergraduate students at Toronto’s Centennial College to help bring you a more immersive multimedia experience.

We’re not just going to have audio. We’ll also have video, photographic, and textual elements for each episode that you can enjoy. Tune in soon! 

Listen on: iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher


Developing New Ways to Support
Student Journalism

A lot has changed at Carleton University’s student newspaper since Bob Cox was editor.

In 1982, The Charlatan was typeset and laid out with hot wax. “It was very labour intensive,” remembers Cox, now publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and an Industry Council Member at the National NewsMedia Council.

In fact, Cox recalls appealing to student council—the very same one the paper covered—for funds to buy a digital typesetting machine.

“That’s where I got my start,” said Cox.

Today, the paper is laid out with computer software, the news runs online as well as in print, and newsroom staff engage with their audiences on social media platforms. Yet, for all these changes, the need to stay relevant on campus remains, and such innovation comes with a price tag.

“It’s expensive to go digital,” said Karen-Luz Sison, a recent graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program and current editor in chief of The Charlatan. Like most campus news organizations, The Charlatan’s student levy and advertising revenue are spread thin, leaving little room for newsroom upgrades. 

It’s why the current Charlatan staff decided to diversify their funds through a GoFundMe campaign. In June, the paper launched its campaign with a goal to raise $10,341 on the crowdfunding platform. The precise amount is the combined costs of a variety of new equipment for the student newsroom, including computers, visual design software, and radio-quality audio recorders.

“Our finances aren’t in such bad shape that we need to supplement them completely,” said Sison. “But what I really wanted to do was make the newsroom a better place for the generations that would come after.”

So far, the campus paper has raised $7,457, most of which has come from the paper’s alumni, including Cox.

“I’ve preached for a long time about newspapers finding other sources of revenue, including donations—not just student newspapers but all newspapers,” said Cox, who also served as the board chair of News Media Canada. “I felt it was important to lend a hand to something I believe in.”

Seeing the outpouring of support from Charlatan alumni who have gone on to do great things has “astounded” Sison.

“[It] just shows how valuable student journalism is not just as a news source but also as a teaching tool and a learning tool.”

Learning in campus newsrooms means putting ethical journalism in practice as well as navigating new frontiers in digital and social media.

Last spring, Carleton students were alarmed when a bomb threat was made on Twitter. Instead of fear mongering, however, the paper kept students updated about the investigation via Twitter but decided to wait for statements from the university and local police, who deemed the threat “not credible,” before running the story, Sison says.

While Sison learned the ins and outs of journalism standards in j-school, it’s different in real time. “Social media presents a whole different side of interacting with readers and how to post things and post content,” said Sison, who would like to see j-schools devote part of their teachings to best practices on social media.

Recognizing the importance of campus news as a learning lab for the next generation of journalists is a major part of why the National NewsMedia Council set out to join Canadian universities and welcome Canadian University Press as members.

Campus publications routinely produce stories that matter to students, faculty, and the greater public. A Queen’s Journal story that explored the extent to which reconciliation is happening on campus is a prime example of the impact that students’ stories have on their communities. Queen’s University students Jasnit Pabla and Nick Pearce were awarded the Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting at the Journalists for Human Rights annual gala on October 1, showing just how much of a ripple campus news can make.

“Student journalism, as much as we are learning and don’t have decades of media experience under our belts, is still legitimate journalism,” said Sison.

As legitimate platforms, campus newspapers are part of communities that rely on independent news to cover them accurately and fairly. Student journalism affects communities now; but the way student journalists learn to report on campus also affects how these same journalists will cover communities down the road.

Campus news is “as important as ever,” said Cox. With an impressive background covering both community and national news—first for the Canadian Press and then for the Globe and Mail—the Charlatan alum has some advice for young journalists: “if you care about telling stories about communities—in serving communities—then I think you should stick at it. The platform may change—and your ability to change may be one of the key characteristics you need to be a journalist in the future—but don’t give up.”

He also has some advice for the rest of us.

“News isn’t free,” said Cox. “If you want your community to be well served by journalism, then you’ve got to open your wallet.”

- Cara Sabatini is the NNC's Research and Academic Co-ordinator


In Other News...

The National NewsMedia Council is happy to support its academic member Ryerson University to host a first of its kind conference for high school students interested in journalism. The conference will be taking place on October 11. Our executive chair John Fraser will be leading a discussion on opinion writing. You can see the full schedule here.

AIPCE 2018

Next week Executive Director Pat Perkel and Community Manager Brent Jolly will be heading to Helsinki, Finland to attend the annual Association of Independent Press Councils of Europe conference.  

Headline topics for this year’s gathering include: media ethics, news literacy, algorithmic responsibility and more!

For updates from the conference, follow our Twitter account: @CanMediaCouncil

R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship

Canadians and non-Canadians holding valid work permits who are working as freelance or full-time journalists in any medium are eligible to apply for a R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship. 

The deadline to apply for the 2019 award is October 22, 2018. You can learn more about the late Jim Travers, and the fellowship, here


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 or call 1-844-877-1163 for more information.


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

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