Why Brunswick News ombudswoman wanted more complaints in 2015.

By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News ombudswoman

Most people don’t want to hear more complaining, but as I began my second year as ombudswoman for this and other Brunswick News newspapers, one of my goals for 2015 was to get more complaints.

It’s not that I wished for more unhappy readers, or hoped that more things would go wrong. I was after increased visibility: for more people in this community to know I’m here to look into their concerns about the editorial content of this newspaper and its website. I wanted to move the conversation beyond the water cooler or the back fence or social media, in hopes of making it more constructive.

I succeeded in my goal, so at year’s end I thought I’d share with you a little about the complaints I investigated.

I group complaints generally as being about online commenting, content, or standards—although the line between the last two can sometimes be a little fuzzy.

Slightly over half the 2015 complaints I dealt with were content-related. These included complaints about lack of coverage of a particular topic, concerns that an article was incomplete, that a letter to the editor wasn’t published or wasn’t well edited, that the weather map was incorrect, or that a particular feature had been discontinued.

Well-founded complaints about missing or incorrect information are especially helpful if they arrive while a story is online but not yet published in print, because the online version can easily be updated and the print version will be complete.

Content-related complaints can also be useful in identifying a newsroom practice that needs to be changed. For example, I received a couple of complaints this year about restaurant reviews.

One writer was concerned they could damage a small business trying to survive in a tough economy. He didn’t think fast-food restaurants should be reviewed at all. He wondered whether the reviewers were qualified, and both he and the other complainant on this issue thought the identities of the reviewers should be disclosed.

Management responded by instituting a transparent rating system for the reviews, as well as a policy that if the reviewers had a bad experience at a restaurant they would return a second time. The identities, however, are still not disclosed, out of concern that the reviewers might receive preferential treatment.

A little less than a third of the complaints related to standards, including concerns about naming victims of crime; stories, headlines or social media content that were considered biased or lacking balance; social media postings that were viewed as too sensational for matters of public concern; and failure to seek comment or allow sufficient time for comment.

Online commenting generated almost 20 per cent of all complaints this year. Here too complainants were often helpful: in many instances, they flagged me to comments that violated the terms of use before the web editors had had an opportunity to catch them.

People whose comments had been removed by editors were a regular source of complaints. Some of them saw this as “censorship.”

However, commenters must follow the terms of use posted on the website, and editors will remove comments that are libelous, gratuitously disparaging, or cross the bounds of good taste.

Comparing people to Hitler or to Nazis, for example, will pretty much guarantee removal, as will name-calling or profanity.

People also complain when commenting is turned off on stories. The newsrooms prefer not to do this, but sometimes it’s necessary.  There may be legal risks – which is why comments were disabled during coverage of the Dennis Oland trial. Comments may also be turned off on stories that are a magnet for nasty comments. Unfortunately, this is often the case with stories about bilingualism or duality in New Brunswick. Emotions run high and the web editors can’t keep up with removing problematic comments, so commenting has to be disabled for everyone.

The vast majority of people who complain to me express their concerns thoughtfully. Most are polite, even when angry.

Then there are the few who jump to conclusions, imagining all sorts of nefarious goings-on even before they have any facts. Some will demand that someone be fired or, in one memorable instance, tarred and feathered and paraded naked through the streets of Saint John.

I encourage readers to send me their concerns in 2016, hopefully even more of them than in 2015. I will do my best to independently investigate and resolve matters between readers and the newsrooms. Naked parades, however, are never going to be part of the resolution.

This column was published originally by Brunswick News and reprinted here with Graham’s permission.