Dear NNC members,
We’re reaching out with huge congratulations to each of you for your dedicated commitment to public service during these uncertain times. We know your readers appreciate very much your heroic efforts to serve the needs of your communities by providing steady access to accurate, reliable, and trustworthy information. Your hard work in extraordinary circumstances is concrete evidence of how vital the news media is during a time of crisis.
For our part, NNC staff are in the second week of working from home, but we are still on the job to deal with your questions, any complaints, or to offer advice. For the moment, email is the best way to reach us, but we are also following up on phone messages.
Below are a few resources that might be helpful as you and your staff deal with the COVID 19 situation – both from the standpoint of how to report on it, and on how to deal with the ramifications at a personal and family level.
This information, from our friends at Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, is aimed at helping to counter stress and promote safety for journalists.
Our partners at the Poynter Institute have offered these tips on covering the pandemic, including refresher advice on writing. As well, they offer an important read on the role of the press during times of crisis.
The Canadian Association of Journalists has published an open-source guide that offers tips and best practices for newsrooms.
This advice from the Ethical Journalism Network has rapidly become part of the new normal.
CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) has some helpful FAQs for your own care or that of your family and friends.
Best wishes to all – don’t hesitate to call on us!
Pat, Brent, Cara
The National NewsMedia Council received a complaint about a racially insensitive syndicated cartoon that appeared in the Calgary Herald.
Concern was expressed that the cartoon, “Close to Home,” published on February 21, 2020, was racist against Indigenous people in its depiction of a character. The cartoon showed the Lone Ranger and Tonto at a bar, with the words “‘Kemosabe! Tonto hear last call coming! Maybe eight or ten minutes away…’”
A number of news media subsequently reported on objections to the inappropriate nature of the cartoon, hearing from First Nations groups and individuals on social media who stated that the cartoon presented negative stereotypes of Indigenous people as alcoholics. Reports also cited the inflammatory nature of the cartoon in the political backdrop of current events, which centres on the widely-reported protests and blockades taking place throughout the country in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation’s opposition to a pipeline project in B.C.
The news media organization responded by tweet on February 25, 2020, and by publishing an editor’s note in the February 26 edition of the Calgary Herald. Both responses apologized for the offensive nature of the cartoon and stated that the paper will cease publishing the syndicated comic strip.
The NNC is of the view that news media organizations are responsible for the third-party content they publish. It is worth noting that the syndication service and creator of the comic strip also issued an apology for the cartoon.
Ethical journalism takes care to ensure that language and images do not expose groups to discrimination. The NNC recognizes the particular importance of using appropriate language and images in times when such groups may be the subject of heightened political discourse.
In this case, the NNC recognizes that the news media organization offered an apology to readers. It further sent a strong message of preventing a similar error in future and distancing itself from the prejudiced representation by cancelling the cartoon in question. For these reasons, the NNC considers this matter resolved due to corrective action.
The National NewsMedia Council recently received a strongly-worded reader complaint about an opinion column published in the Vernon Morning Star that commented on expectations related to women in public, in particular, the assumption that an unaccompanied woman must be a sex worker.
In the November 22, 2019 column, “Nothing wrong with being mistaken for a sex trade worker,” the writer humourously described her experience of being mistaken as a sex worker by virtue of where she was—alone—and how she was dressed.
In their submission, the complainant objected to the premise and tone of the column, and stated concern that it sent the wrong message to readers about sex work.
The NNC defends the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express unpopular views. It also upholds the prerogative of the opinion writer to question both change and the status quo, and to use strong language.
At the same time, the NNC recognizes that opinion pieces impact readers differently and to varying degrees. While opinion pieces may encourage debate or inspire empathy among readers, in other cases, readers may even find the opinions offensive.
Generally, the NNC will not consider a complaint about opinion writing except in the case of an error of fact. In reviewing the article and complaint, the NNC found no evidence of factual error.
Instead, the NNC found that the opinion piece in question offers commentary on the social norms surrounding women in public and the stigma associated with sex work. The article neither condemns nor promotes sex work, though it does include a proviso about the safety of individuals in the industry.
Although the complainant found the opinion writer’s point of view objectionable, there was no evidence of factual error, nor was there evidence that the opinion writer had crossed the line in any way.
While distinct from news reporting, opinion pieces play an important role in journalism to provoke thought and provide perspective on important issues. They also serve to showcase diverse, sometimes provocative, perspectives.
For these reasons, the NNC found no evidence of a breach of journalistic standards, and no grounds for a complaint. It did, however, find that the complaint underscored the important role that opinion writing plays in examining uncomfortable issues in the context of a free and democratic society.
The staff at the National NewsMedia Council, along with our board members, would like to wish everyone a happy, healthy, and prosperous holiday season.
Our offices will be closed from December 24, 2019 and we will re-open on January 3, 2020. All questions, complaints, and other concerns will be responded to promptly upon our return.
See you in 2020!
John, Pat, Brent, and Cara.
This past Monday, 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.
Robinson won this year’s award for her submission ‘Raising a stink about public washrooms in Ottawa: Why you should care about toilet privilege’ which was published in the online-only publication Capital Current, based at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
In this short video, Robinson takes us behind the story to explain why this story matters to her community, and what it means to have been awarded this year’s prize.
A complaint to the National NewsMedia Council during the recent federal election campaign questioned a news organization’s right to endorse a political candidate.
The complainant insisted that Postmedia’s endorsement of Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer demonstrated bias, and was an unethical attempt to influence the electorate.
The complainant noted that the newspaper’s editorial listed concerns with Liberal party policy and leadership, and explained its reasons for supporting Scheer and the Conservative Party. However, the complainant argued that editorial endorsement amounts to the media’s attempt to manipulate facts and electoral outcomes.
The NNC rejected that view, and supported the widely-accepted journalistic standard of allowing editorials and opinion pieces that express unpopular or partisan views.
The NewsMedia Council responded to the complainant by stating that news organizations have the prerogative to take an editorial stand, and that many have been clear in their support for one party or another.
In fact, many newspapers in Canada were established for the purpose of influencing the electorate, whether on the Confederation question in the 1800s, or since then to promote a more conservative or more liberal point of view.
A news organization’s prerogative to publish clearly identified editorial and opinion articles that express differing points of view facilitates important public dialogue in a democratic society. This widely-accepted standard is balanced by the equally widely-accepted standard that news articles will be objective, regardless of the organization’s editorial stand.
There is no compulsion on the reading public to act on a newspaper’s editorial view or opinion piece. The public may be convinced by an opinion article or not, but in either case examining the issues from a stated perspective is the job of opinion journalism and analysis.
In this case, the news media organization followed best practices by providing a clear and appropriate label for the editorial article and by placing it in the opinion section. The NewsMedia Council found no breach of journalistic standards, and no grounds for a complaint.
Following the federal election, the National NewsMedia Council received a complaint about a reprinted opinion article that referred to Western separation as a “dumb” idea.
The complainant stated that the article failed to provide reasons that Western Canada is unhappy, and objected to their being described as “dumb” for wanting to separate from a federal relationship that he argued isn’t working.
The NewsMedia Council responded to the complaint by stating as a general principle that opinion articles are allowed to express unpopular or partisan views. It noted that providing strongly stated, even sometimes unpopular opinions, can facilitate public dialogue on important issues.
In this case, the NNC pointed out that the columnist did not direct qualifiers, such as ‘dumb’, to the residents of Alberta. A thorough reading of the article revealed that the columnist’s comments were directed to the limitations of Alberta separating from Canada, and outlined his reasons to deem separation as one of the ‘dumbest’ notions.
For this reason, the NewsMedia Council found no breach of journalistic practice or ethics and no grounds for a complaint.
The NNC has been discouraging the term ‘fake news’ for a long time now. Still, it’s difficult to push back against an easy term that has come to mean everything from an honest mistake, to the other guys’ opinion, to a fact that undercuts your preferred point of view.
Most dangerously, the term denigrates and strips away the important work journalists do.
The more accurate terms are misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. Over the past handful of years, a number of news literacy and journalism groups have been working to better define these terms and to describe how they work to manipulate or obscure facts.
FirstDraft recently updated its review of what it calls “information disorder” with a straightforward guide on breaking down misinformation.
A few key points to apply as journalists and news consumers:
- Use proper terminology. If there is an intent to mislead or manipulate, call it propaganda, a lie, conspiracy, a hoax, partisan content, manipulation, or polemic
- If it’s lazy, sloppy reporting that lacks accountability, the right label might be rumour or clickbait
- Misinformation might be more simply described as honest error, ranging from a typo to a mistake in a photo caption or fact
The NNC’s view is that a key way to fight the ‘fake news’ label is with accountable, credible journalism. One part of that is a commitment to find, acknowledge and correct any error as soon and as transparently as possible.
The Local Journalism Initiative, a program to help Canadian media organizations hire reporters to cover civic institutions and local news in under-served communities, is open for applications. Membership in the NNC is cited as one of the identifiers for news publications applying for the program.
The program is being administered by News Media Canada, which is the publisher’s trade association.
As a self-regulatory journalistic standards organization, the National NewsMedia Council is not affiliated with the Local Journalism Initiative, but is aware of financial stresses facing the news industry and that the LJI program may be of interest to members.
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.
Created by the Government of Canada, the Local Journalism Initiative is a five-year program that supports original civic journalism relevant to the diverse needs of people living in so-called news deserts and areas of news poverty. Existing Canadian-owned English, French, and Indigenous print and digital news media organizations are eligible to apply. The deadline to apply for this program is November 15, 2019.
News Media Canada says the program intends to provide funding for a minimum of 93 LJI reporters on contracts with terms of up to 15 months. Their stories will help citizens know what is going on where they live and will be shared with accredited media organizations across the country.