Members' Update:
Looking Forward to 2019

Note from our Executive Chair 

The issue of “branded” or “advertorial” content – or whatever you want to call advertising content that looks to sell a product or a political cause dressed up to look like news stories  has been around for many years.

When it first surfaced in my professional consciousness way back in 1971, however, I had to remember that newspapers themselves got started in the late 17th century (in the English-speak world at any rate) by being “branded” from head to toe – at least to the political cause they were created to champion. Strong whiffs of foundational political roots can still be found in our newspapers and digital news media sites. In Toronto, for example, the Toronto Star remains true to the Atkinson Principles, while the National Post was specifically created to provide Canadian readers with a “conservative” voice.

Today, branded content is specific and has become deeply embedded in multiple publications on all conceivable platforms. There are some useful perspectives shown, along with advertorial flourishes that may be debateable. Whatever.

At the National NewsMedia Council, which is charged by its members to defend ethical journalistic practices, we see nothing wrong in most of this stuff provided that the branded articles are properly and clearly identified by being wholly separate from regular editorial news content. Members of our council take a very dim view of any slippage in this area if this is not done properly. 

It can get more complicated if the signposts – dramatically different typefaces, for example, or boxed explanations on how editorial matter was commissioned  are indistinct or non-existent. This is something I definitely know about.

One of my earliest professional experiences was circumnavigating a new job through a little minefield of conflict. It was at the old Toronto Telegram and I was only a couple of months into my first full-time job, and was anxious to get out of my entry-level assignment with the overnight police desk. I had made this desire known to one of the youngest editors, and one day, in my office mailbox, he left me an assignment.

I was to go to a new housing development out near the old RCAF base in Downsview, Ontario and write up an account of some of the model houses which had just been opened. I was told to report to a staff photographer who would show me pictures already taken of a model house. These would help me frame my feature article. The adjective “glowing” in front of feature article was not in the memo. Somehow I saw it there  and it incensed me.

I also wasn’t that naïve, even in those far-off days. I knew a set-up when I saw one, so I marched right up to that particular assignment editor’s desk. 

“I won’t do it,” I said angrily to the editor as I thrust his assignment notice practically into his face. “If you want floss, get someone in the advertising department to write it.”

The photographer told me that two full pages of ads for the development were in the works in which would be set my article. The editor took back the assignment sheet and reread it while I seethed in front of him.

“My mistake,” he said calmly. “I made the assumption you were a journalist and could do the story. Sorry if I was wrong.”

That just enraged me even more, of course, but there was something in his voice that brought me under some control. That and the fact that I was still on three-month’ probation!

“I am a journalist,” I blurted out. “This isn’t journalism.”

“Oh really,” said my editor. “I hadn’t realized there were assignments that real journalists couldn’t manage professionally. As I said: my mistake.”

His tone was so infuriating that I grabbed the sheet back out of his hands and stormed off, because I had an idea. It was pretty straightforward idea, if a little calculated. I went out to the housing development, dutifully examined the model house, and then went around to some of the barely finished houses on the estate that already had occupants.

It didn’t take long before I found some angry new home owners who had things to say to my little tape recorder, critical things, fault-finding things. Revved up, I returned and wrote a pretty good yarn about the contrasts between the model house and the troubled ones I tracked down.

I left my copy in the editor’s box. When I returned the next day, there was a note waiting for me.

“Thanks for the piece. Glad to see you are a real journalist.”

What subsequently happened was all of a piece: the story never appeared and the two pages of ads were accompanied by a photo spread captions cadged from the interview I had with the salesman at the model house. But I learned a great lesson which has led me on my way for 40+ years through the valley of the shadow of advertorial and branded content. If properly presented and identified, it can be a useful addition to specific audiences, generate revenues for news media in general and even reinforce the value of real news.

And, in the end, here’s the real issue: In the climate we inhabit these days of misinformation, skepticism, and questioning about trust in news sources, all of us in the journalism profession and news business should be attuned to the need to be transparent about labelling content and helping readers understand how editorial decisions are taken. Just over a year ago, the NNC published a white paper offering background and guidance on branded content for the use of any of our members. You can read it here.  

Happy holidays colleagues. See you in 2019!

- John Fraser

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

Our new members include:

Multi-Platform News Organizations:

• The Lawyer's Daily

• La Liberté

Digital-only Publications:

• The Pointer

• AB Today

• Newmarket Today

• Bradford Today

Here's a full roundup of all the news organizations that joined the NNC in 2018. It's pretty remarkable. 

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Reflecting (briefly) On Our Successes In 2018

Before we begin to cast our eyes on 2019, it's important that we take a moment to reflect on the steady progress on the many files - public education, journalism standards and organizational growth - that we've worked diligently on over the past year.  

That recognition is evident at the individual level in a growing social media following and increased website traffic. At the professional level, the volume and nature of complaints is an indicator that the NewsMedia Council is becoming better known to the news-reading public, while its decisions have generated the attention of news consumers and the news industry alike. At the institutional level, there has been interest from Heritage Canada, the Privacy Commissioner’s office, Google and Facebook in learning more about what the NewsMedia Council does and how that might intersect with high-level discussions about journalism ethics and practice.

The NewsMedia Council believes all this interest is due in part to the fact that the Council is unique in representing both the news media industry and the public in the important work of ensuring high standards of journalism. At the same time, the Council is aware that as a self-regulatory body, it needs to maintain the trust of both parties in a complaint. To do that, the NewsMedia Council relies on its founding principles of transparency, accountability, and process.

Obviously, those principles don’t guarantee satisfaction all round on the resolution of a complaint. But they do allow the NewsMedia Council to vouch for the solid consideration that goes into any decision. Decisions rest on consistent process, and on the collective wisdom of a Board of Directors with deep knowledge of the news media industry and Canadian society.

In 2019, we will continue to track complaints, research issues and confer with other media councils on complaint and journalism topics. We will ensure that policies reflect the best practice of media standards and ethics specialists. Ideally you, as members, will help guide all of that by offering comment and suggestions, either through our Directors or by contacting administration.

Financial accountability is part of our pledge to members. The NewsMedia Council is diligent about recruiting new members, containing costs, and directing expenses to areas that will reap benefit in terms of education and growth. To that end, we are excited about welcoming new members from the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association, seeing more academic institutions take on membership, and celebrating the growing number of digital news media members across the country.

Policy and planning are, in this way, key features as the NewsMedia Council moves into 2019. Our aim is to ensure the organization is on solid footing that will support our core mandate. Our mandate will continue to be complaints resolution, explaining how journalism works, and defending the everyday work of quality journalism.

 - Pat Perkel, Executive Director

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The Complaints Desk:

 By the Numbers

From September through December 2018, the NewsMedia Council opened 27 new complaint files, one of which involved seven complainants objecting to the same article. Of the total, six were declined and four dismissed; four were resolved through corrective action, one was upheld, and three decisions involved both portions that were upheld and portions that were dismissed. Six others remain in progress. The majority of complaints were about inaccuracy.

In the same period, 31 complaints were submitted but not accepted. Six complaints were about broadcast websites; five involved foreign media and another seven involved non-members, four referenced legal action, and the remainder involved subscription or other non-mandate issues, among them print quality. In cases where complaints are not accepted, complainants are provided with a response that includes an explanation of the NNC’s action.

Of the 192 phone calls monitored, we answered 142 calls for our members about delivery and 17 about general customer service. There were 28 phone calls about journalistic content or the complaints process, and the remainder of the calls were non-specific.

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

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With the end of the Alberta Press Council effective January 1st, the National NewsMedia Council of Canada – with the support of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association  invite all former members to consider joining the NNC for a special introductory membership fee.

Interested?

Click here to reach us with questions or to sign up today.  

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NNC's Pat Perkel (right) and Brent Jolly (middle) at Helsinki's Päivälehti Museum

37 Front Street File:
Journalism Standards & Ethics Go Global!

For three days this past October, my colleague Pat Perkel and I traveled to Helsinki, Finland, to participate in this year’s Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe annual conference.

Over the course of the past year, the NNC has become a keen observer, and participant, in the discussion of media self-regulation, ethics, and other topical matters, that are shared in a Google Group by the loosely aligned association of press councils in Europe, Australia, and South Africa. Given the absence of press councils in North America, attending this conference was extremely useful for Pat and I because it underscored how the work of the NNC is in line with, or exceeding, that of many of its more well-established colleagues.

This fact was most evident when examining the degree to which new, digital start-up news organizations are eager to become members of the NNC. During the conference proceedings, we heard about how many European press councils are only beginning to grapple with the evolution of news consumption from print to digital platforms, and by extension, how codes of ethics are being rethought in a digital-first world. 

Another area where the NNC was pleasantly surprised to see its relative progress was in its building of strong partnerships with like-minded organizations. The NNC’s effort to recruit post-secondary institutions as members, in order to advance news literacy efforts, is a novel idea not taken up by our international counterparts. Moreover, establishing productive working relationships with organizations focused on the craft, such as the Canadian Association of Journalists, Journalists for Human Rights, and the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, has helped ensure that the NNC is part of a much wider discussion on industry-related topics.

One area where we noticed that the NNC could improve upon in 2019 is engaging with our members to highlight the importance of ‘trusted’ news sources. The Finnish Council for Mass Media, for example, has worked with its member publications to develop a campaign that highlights for news consumers their commitment to ethics and editorial standards. In a time when misinformation and eroding public trust in media, this is an interesting experiment that could easily be appropriated to a Canadian audience with the assistance of our members.

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communication and Community Manager

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See You In Calgary?
The NNC will be presenting at this year's
Canadian University Press conference

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Bringing people together; bridging world views

Meet Ray Gerow, NNC public director

This past September, near the Canadian-U.S. border crossing in Peace Arch, B.C., three First Nations celebrated the raising of a totem pole that had been removed by the province ten years ago.

As part of the ceremony, Premier John Horgan delivered a public apology on behalf of the province for the removal of the original pole without any notice.

Over the last year, Ray Gerow, who among other roles is a public director with the National NewsMedia Council, worked together with the Semiahmoo, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Haida nations, and liaised with the provincial government, to help achieve this milestone.

Throughout the planning stages, explained Gerow, it was necessary to “merge everyone’s interests” and to “make sure that at the end of the day, everyone got out of it what they wanted.”

From a personal perspective, Gerow wanted to help the B.C. government realize that “reconciliation doesn’t have to be painful.” It can be as simple as the public apology that Premier Horgan delivered, he said.

Gerow is continually looking for ways to “demystify reconciliation” through his work and views the recent totem pole-raising ceremony as a step in this direction. He’s a community-oriented entrepreneur.

A member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation from the Burns Lake Band in Central B.C., Gerow now lives in Vancouver. He and his wife started Eagle Spirit Community Solutions over two years ago “to advance the economic side of communities […] in a way that promotes reconciliation and understanding.”

Gerow has served on numerous boards and worked in a variety of sectors throughout his career, from business development to housing to education. He also spent six years with the Canadian Armed Forces and even had a stint in the medical field as a paramedic early on in his career.

Gerow said his military service, including his posting in the Gulf War, instilled in him “much needed self-discipline” and “respect for the power of many people working together and what you can accomplish when everyone is in concert.”

The thread that runs through his work is his appetite to take on challenges—and to challenge others.

Gerow also attributes his role on the former British Columbia Press Council to his natural inclination to challenge people. He explained that he once wrote a letter to the editor of the Prince George Citizen in response to a piece from a “prominent businessperson about why he doesn’t hire 'Indians'.”

Gerow said his published letter was met with controversy, but at the same time may have put him on the B.C. Press Council’s radar as someone who was willing to challenge people on their assumptions.

His unique way of approaching problems also informs his decision-making. Although he humbly claims not to be “a deep thinker” and that he is far from an academic—having “only got [his] Grade 12”—Gerow is a natural problem-solver.

“I used to be a paramedic, so I know you can’t just run into the scene and put a Band-Aid on the wound and consider it to be done. You’ve got to learn to diagnose what’s going on internally and fix it.”

Bringing different perspectives to the table is an important part of the NNC’s mandate to serve the diversity found in both the public and the news media across Canada.

Yet, Gerow was initially surprised at the dearth of complaints the NNC—and B.C. Press Council—received related to Indigenous issues. He was concerned that it reflected a certain degree of apathy from people about how and to what extent Indigenous people are represented in the news media.

However, he sees the potential to turn this concern into a positive.       

“There is a larger role for the news media to assist in the efforts of reconciliation and moving forward, there’s no doubt about that—there’s a role for every citizen in Canada to do that.”

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

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As a gift, we've carefully compiled 
Your Unofficial Journalism Holiday Reading List.

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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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