Members' Update: Autumn 2019

Note from our Executive Chair 

Amazingly enough, the National NewsMedia Council of Canada is well into its fifth year of operation. I write “amazingly enough” because when we were given our mandate in the fall of 2016, there weren’t a lot of people who would have taken a bet on the survival of a newspaper dispute resolution organization. The print media business was in major turmoil, the digital news media business was still aborning and uncertain, and, well…on and on the mantra went.

What has actually happened is instructive. Newspapers, especially regional dailies and weeklies, turned out to be more resilient than first thought. The big city dailies got something of a second wind. Dailies and their digital sites are dramatically more realistic about how to operate and how to manage transition in the digital universe that awaits all of us. Assistance from outside (i.e. government) was proffered and accepted – brave acts on both sides! Broadcast digital news services, on the other hand, are still in a jurisdictional jungle as far as dealing with public complaints, and they will have to come up with something quite like the NNC, if not membership in the NNC itself.

More to the point, new partners and new kinds of memberships are emerging in the cause of maintaining ethical standards in the news business. These all point to a healthy regard for reliability and integrity despite all the charges of the nay-sayers and the undeniable remaining challenges in the industry and the profession of responsible journalism.

On that count, the evolution of the NNC’s new academic initiative has been refreshing. Originally conceived to operate similarly with selective academic and campus publications as it did with regular media members, it has come to be regarded more as a kind of insurance policy against possible litigation than as a regular intervener with the public. Unexpectedly, the NNC discovered that it can usefully act as a bridge between student campus publications and academic administrators. This is in addition to acting as a mentor-peer to academic administrators trying to deal with “unwelcome” media attention in problem areas, or simply having some of our staff go to the campus for media symposia or workshops. 

Equally unexpected is the emerging synchronicity between academic and news media in the complex world of privacy issues. This is an area where both campus publications and public journals are discovering that the ever-present reality of instant internet recall can seriously affect young people later in their lives, whether it is past coverage of controversial issues, questionable statements reported during heated moments, or happenchance coverage of public or campus events with attendant potential collateral damage. As with “deindexing” or “unpublishing”, there is no clear consensus on how to handle these emerging privacy challenges, but at the NNC we are determined to remain current on the issues that are increasingly raised by members of the public—for whom we were created by the news media industry to assist and be a watchdog. Our members would expect no less, and we don’t intend to disappoint them.    

Speaking personally, I find it amusing and illuminating as a former working journalist and former head of a graduate residential college that in journalism the word “academic” is often an adjective for “theoretical” or “nit-picky” or “unrealistic”; while in academic circles, the word “journalistic” is often an adjective for “superficial” or “sloppy” or “sensational.”  As it turns out, at the NNC in any event, the two sides are natural allies in a great cause of making sure the public record of events is grounded in solid ethical principles, in due process and in reasonable, civil dialogue.

- John Fraser

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The National NewsMedia Council
welcomes two new directors

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) is pleased to welcome two outstanding journalists to its board of directors.

Janice Neil, the chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism joins the NNC and will serve as academic director. 

Natasha Hassan joins the NNC as an industry director representing the Globe and Mail. Hassan has been a journalist for 28 years, working for the Financial Post, National Post and The Globe and Mail respectively. 

Read more.

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Incorporating mediation techniques
into our complaints process 

Press councils in Canada were born in a more adversarial time. The goal appeared to be about proving either the newspaper or the complainant was right or wrong. A decision would be pronounced and a winner and a loser would emerge.

The thinking has now changed. While the mandate of the National NewsMedia Council is still to serve as a forum for hearing complaints from the public about news stories published by our members, the focus has shifted to do so by highlighting journalistic standards, looking for a resolution to complaints, and educating the public whenever possible.

From time to time, we receive complaints where the resolution is all but obvious. The complaint might be about wording of a headline, an update to the status of charges against an individual, or a statement or number that isn’t supported in the story. For whatever reason, the issue hasn’t been resolved by the complainant’s call or email to the journalist or editor, and the matter has been ‘escalated’ to the National NewsMedia Council.

As at other media councils around the world, staff examine all complaints to determine if they appear to have substance or merit. This gate-keeper function is part of our mandate and saves editors from having to respond to complaints that don’t involve potential breach of journalistic standards. This also allows us to identify those cases where an intervention or mediation could set things right. Usually, it involves a conversation with the complainant or editor to zero in on the issue, and hopefully identifies a remedial measure.

In a recent example, the NNC contacted a newsroom about a complaint about a wrong neighbourhood name in a photo caption, which was then quickly corrected. Another case was resolved when a complaint about an offensive term in a headline was conveyed to an editor, who immediately had it changed.  

Another complainant requested an update to a news item to reflect a not guilty finding. It took some dogged work by the reporter faced with a court bureaucracy that was less than helpful, but verification of the updated status was eventually obtained and published. And in one case, both parties put aside complex facts and studies related to a regional development to focus on the journalistic principle of whether statements in an editorial were accurate. A wording change highlighted through NNC mediation provided the corrective action that resolved the issue.

The NewsMedia Council is not alone in considering mediation as one of the means of resolving complaints. The Netherlands press council and the press councils serving both Belgium’s official language communities offer mediation and “amicable settlement”.

Most often it is the collective wisdom of the NewsMedia Council - made up of directors appointed by the news industry as well as those representing the public - that is brought to bear on the questions and issues in a complaint, and to articulate why a complaint should be upheld or dismissed.

However, for the NNC, mediation can be an effective way to resolve complaints, educate about how journalism works, and uphold journalistic standards.

 - Pat Perkel, Executive Director

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The Complaints Desk:

 By the Numbers

By the numbers: Since the last newsletter, the NewsMedia Council has opened 29 new complaint files. Of those, 15 cited no prima facie breach of journalistic standards and were declined, three were dismissed, six were resolved, and five were abandoned.

In the same period, the NewsMedia Council fielded 43 complaints that it did not accept. Five were about broadcast news media, eight were about foreign media, four were filed anonymously, and the remainder were about issues outside the NNC mandate.

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Finalists announced for
2019 Fraser MacDougall Prize

The National NewsMedia Council and Journalists for Human Rights are pleased to announce the short list of finalists for this year’s Fraser MacDougall Prize for Best New Canadian Voice in Human Rights Reporting. 

The finalists for this year’s awards are (in no particular order):

• "Muslim Students' Association says executives receiving surprise visits from law enforcement"The Varsity

• "Raising a stink about public washrooms in Ottawa: Why you should care about toilet privilege", Capital Current

Read more.

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37 Front Street File:
Professional standards are critical

This article was published in Policy Options, as part of their Media and Canadian Elections special feature

Over the past half century, Hollywood’s silver screen has elevated journalists into the pantheon of popular culture. From the legendary All the President’s Men to the contemporary classic Spotlight, the mythology around a collection of admirable, albeit quirky (and sometimes downright curmudgeonly) characters, keeping a watchful eye over society’s power brokers, has taken on a tinge of glamour.

Often obscured by these dramatic accounts of government corruption, industry maleficence or personal impropriety, journalism’s true story is best told through a much humbler protagonist: professional industry standards.

Indeed, as concerns about the potentially deleterious impacts that misinformation could have on October’s federal election continue to grow, journalistic standards represent a hallmark of credibility that can help the public effectively distinguish fact from fiction.

While journalists, unlike doctors, lawyers or accountants, are not part of a regulated profession, this does not mean they have carte blanche to run amok in a lawless, anarchic Wild West. Professional journalists are bound by an enduring, powerful series of industry norms that are passed down anecdotally from one generation of journalists to another and are also reflected in formal written codes of ethics that describe the terms of the special relationship that exists between journalists and citizens.

The Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Guidelines, for example, state that journalists “serve the public interest, and put the needs of our audience — readers, listeners or viewers — at the forefront of our newsgathering decisions.” Similarly, Torstar’s Journalistic Standards Guide states: “The operation of a news organization is, above all, a public trust, no less binding because it is not formally conferred…Journalists who abuse the power of their professional roles for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust.”

While these are certainly high-minded ethics, in practice, any journalist worth their salt understands their professional duty to be fair, accurate and unbiased when covering, pursuing and writing a story. This means, for example, that opinion polls are properly contextualized; corrections are published when errors are discovered; opinion pieces are properly labelled; and that journalists treat sources who are experiencing “the worst day of their life” with sensitivity and care.

In their seminal work The Elements of Journalism, first released in 2001, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel describe with great precision the “mystery of consistency” that has allowed professional standards to remain a kind of constant in an ever-changing and uncertain digital world. The strength and resilience of journalistic standards, their research indicates, is rooted in the fact that they have been historically tied to journalism’s core mission: to provide citizens with the information they need to effectively govern themselves.

The fascinating part of this analysis is that it casts journalism standards not as esoteric, disconnected principles, but rather as living, breathing creatures that are capable of evolving to meet the needs of new environments and platforms. To see the dynamism of this theory in action, one need only examine the ever-changing guidelines developed by or for journalists on how to effectively report on many sensitive issues, including suicides, addictions, trauma and mental health; these resources are being championed by many groups in Canadian journalism circles.

Discussions about professional standards in journalism may not be sexy. But what other simple means do citizens have to help them differentiate ethical journalism from the online propagandists, political partisans and conspiracy theorists who exist for the sole purpose of peddling misinformation and special agendas?

Professional standards and ethics for confirming, verifying and/or contextualizing information play a critical role in a time when everyone with an internet connection can be a proprietor of their own virtual press. While the development and use of accepted standards lack a “Hollywood moment,” these codes provide a priceless public service in the event that a tsunami of false or misleading information begins to wash up on our digital shores.

For what this story lacks in glitz and glamour, it makes up for with healthy doses of truth and substance. As Canadians head to the polls this autumn, that’s very much a story worth sharing.

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communications, Research, and Community Management

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Meet Miller Ayre: 'In Cod We Trust'

NNC Vice-Chair, Eastern Canada, public director 

Miller Ayre recently returned from his 60-year class reunion at the historical cable landing station in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. It was a history tour in more ways than one for the Newfoundlander, as they strolled the site of the first transatlantic cable, reminiscing with his former classmates about the old jokes and sports rivalries that defined their school-aged years.

“That was where all the European news from across the Atlantic entered North America,” said Ayre of the cable that once stretched from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Talking to me over the phone from his home in St. John’s, Ayre emphasized the role that his home province has played in the history of telecommunications, pointing out that the first transatlantic wireless signal was sent to the city from the United Kingdom via Morse code at the turn of the 20th century. For context, that was nearly fifty years before Newfoundland joined the confederation, and forty years after the first store opened in the Ayre family chain of department stores, Ayre & Sons, Ltd.

Though the Harvard-educated businessman-turned newspaper publisher retired nearly a decade ago in the city where generations of Ayres have lived, he currently holds positions on numerous boards, including the Michener Foundation and the Canadian Forces Liaison Council, as well as serving as the National NewsMedia Council’s Vice Chair of Eastern Canada.

“I’m someone who’s very much been on both sides of the business,” said Ayre of the news media. He credits his varied career as providing insight into the types of complaints that the NewsMedia Council handles.

“I had to spend a lot of my life as an advertiser and as a community activist on the outside of the media.”

Ayre recalled the transition from his long-time career in the retail industry to becoming publisher of The Telegram in 1993—back when the daily paper was part of Thomson Newspapers and not long after the newspaper industry hit peak print circulation.

Ayre’s sense of business and policy may have served him well in his 15 years in the publishing industry, but it was his sense of community and pride in his home province that inspired joy in his work.

“We’re very politically outspoken here, and people are very politically attuned, so it’s a really good place to publish,” said Ayre. He added, “The politicians are often themselves forces of nature, speaking their minds and so on, so there’s always things happening.”

In fact, long before Ayre was publishing the news, he was making it. In the late 1970s, while working for the family business in St. John’s, Ayre witnessed the controversy caused by animal-welfare groups in their efforts to stop seal hunting in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 1978, animal welfare activists descended on St. Anthony, Newfoundland, to protest seal hunting in the small fishing town.

“You have no idea how hostile the environment was here,” said Ayre. “That community had no way of speaking back.”

Ayre thought the news reports at the time mostly presented the animal-welfare side of the story while overlooking the impact that the anti-sealing campaign had on local fishermen and traditional hunting practices in the province.

“We [Newfoundlanders] felt we were being maligned by Greenpeace,” he said.

The young Miller Ayre then set out to provide another side of the story. At a Rotary Club meeting in 1979, Ayre gave the first speech that launched a counter campaign to Greenpeace, in the satirical style that could have only sprung from the irreverent spirit of the seventies.

“Codpeace,” as Ayre and his fellow advocates cleverly called their organization, depicted the humble cod as victims of vicious seals—the very beasts that animal-welfare supporters sought to protect. Their message attracted a large following to Ayre’s surprise, and was the subject of numerous national news headlines, landing the “codmandos” several television appearances and radio interviews.

While the campaign may have sounded silly—particularly to his father—said Ayre, it served its purpose.

You can read the full story, written by Cara Sabatini, by clicking here

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Century-old Davidson Leader
looks to a new future

Saskatchewan's Davidson Leader has won numerous awards for its community-powered journalism. But the publication is looking forward to a new future now that its long-time owner, publisher, and editor Tara de Ryk is moving on.  

You can read the Spotlight profile, written by Cara Sabatini, by clicking here

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Follow the NNC on Medium to stay up to date on topics and trends 

In addition to handling complaints, the National NewsMedia Council also strives to promote a news literate public.

One way we work towards this goal is by writing critical reflections on trending topics that come across our desks. Some of our recent work includes answering challenging questions such as: why Canadian journalists aren't licensed, to examining so-called 'branded content', and other new frontiers in journalism ethics.  

If you have a topic you'd like to see us cover, please don't hesitate to reach out. You can contact Brent Jolly at: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

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What some of our friends are working on...

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Information update

We have small graphics (including the one above) and short blurbs to promote your membership in the NNC 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.

Want one?

Contact: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

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