The ethics board issued decisions in June on four complaints, all of which were dismissed or found to have been appropriately addressed. They included dismissal of complaints that a Toronto Star column showed “bias against white people,” the accuracy of a term used in a Toronto Sun opinion column and two against two respective newspapers in Kamloops, B.C.
The National NewsMedia Council reviews complaints from the public about member organizations under four broad categories: accuracy, opinion, sensitive issues and attribution. J-Source is a member of the NNC.
The National NewsMedia Council published a decision on June 10 regarding a May 27 article in Kamloops This Week about a missing 16-year-old girl. “Between January 2018 and June 2019,” reads the article, “(a person) was the subject of five police missing persons press releases and was found safe each time.” The complainant said the sentence was irrelevant and, because the subject was an Indigenous person, irresponsible. For that reason, the complainant said it was “insensitive” or “opinion” to report on the number of times the person had previously been missing.
The paper responded by saying the article was based on a police press release, and it noted that such releases are issued dozens of times every year, with many involving young people who run away from homes or foster homes. It went on to say it reports on all missing persons reports, “from toddlers to adults with ties to crime because ‘they are all important.’”
The council decided to uphold the practice of giving background context for news and information, stating: “The newsroom has the editorial responsibility to provide facts and context that will allow the reader to consider such things as risk of danger, or opportunity to help find a missing person.
“The NewsMedia Council accepts that the newsroom’s knowledge of its community and familiarity with circumstances allows it to provide appropriate contextual information as warranted.” However, the decision did note that Kamloops This Week did not make reference to racial identity as a basis for characterizing missing persons.
Ultimately, the council found no breach of journalistic standards.
Another decision also involved a Kamloops newspaper, Kamloop Daily News, in which a complaint was filed stating that a March 14, 2013 news brief about a charge for possession of cannabis inaccurately described the amount of and purpose for the cannabis. The complainant also pointed out that cannabis is now legal and asked that the article be removed.
The NNC noted that the complainant was granted an absolute discharge, and that the difficulty of obtaining legal medical cannabis, stated in the article, made the story newsworthy. Kamloops Daily News said its policy is not to remove content unless there is a substantial factual error, in which the impact cannot be remedied through a correction or update, or in special circumstances involving youth.
The paper noted that the conviction was not challenged and the change in laws surrounding cannabis possession does not alter the fact. It did, however, say that due to its inability to verify the claims of inaccuracy, Kamloops Daily News was willing to remove references to the amount of cannabis and health information.
The NNC found that the paper’s policy is clear, and that appropriate corrective action was taken regarding the complaint about accuracy in the 2013 article — since the complaint referenced issues of inaccuracy, and those had been addressed and amended online.
The Kamloops Daily News ceased publication in 2014. Its parent company, Glacier Media, responded to the complaint.
On June 12, the NNC dismissed a complaint about a column in the Toronto Star titled “(Mostly) white covidiots at Trinity Bellwoods Park think the rules don’t apply to them. They’re right.” The column, focused on large gatherings that occurred in the Toronto park and lack of enforcement of social distancing rules, argued that if the gatherings had been made up predominantly of people of colour, “we’d be having a different conversation today.”
The complainant took issue with the column’s headline, expressing that it showed poor taste and bias against white people. The NNC received several similar complaints about the column, and found this complaint to be representative of the concerns.
The Toronto Star responded by saying columns are expected to show bias, as they express the columnist’s perspective on a given issue. In this case, the writer is a race and gender columnist, whose job is to bring attention to issues of racial inequity.
The NNC stated in a previous decision that it does not deliberate subjective “matters of taste,” instead considering complaints of journalistic principles and community standards. The council also stated it declines to comment on allegations of poor taste.
“While the headline and opinion presented in the column may be provocative or unwelcome to some readers, this is not in itself a breach of standards,” the decision reads.
“In fact, the NNC recognizes that the role of opinion columns throughout history has often been to provoke and to facilitate public dialogue on important issues.” The council also noted the article cited facts, referred to widely circulated images to support the argument and was clearly labelled as an opinion piece.
The council found no breach of journalistic standards and dismissed the complaint. Read the full decision of McMurtry vs. Toronto Star here.
The council’s last decision for the month was posted on June 15, in which it dismissed a complaint about the accuracy of a term used in a Nov. 21 Toronto Sun opinion article.
The complainant stated the use of the term “Ghazwa-e-Hind” is “unfair, unethical and misrepresentative,” stating that the “majority” of scholars agree that the term’s understanding as a broad call to action is fabricated, misapplied or inauthentic, according to the post. The NNC noted right away that the implication of the complainant’s statement means that some scholars do not agree with that view.
The complainant chronicled his arguments in letters to the editor of the Toronto Sun on two separate occasions, which were provided to the NNC and forwarded to the paper. The Sun’s response was that the column expresses the writer’s opinion, and it is open to receiving letters from those with differing perspectives — suggesting the complainant submit a letter.
The complainant rejected the offer, stating it was not adequate given “the seriousness and gravity” of the column, and instead requested a full-page apology in the Sun.
Again, the NNC expressed support for the “wide latitude of opinion and editorial writers to express strong or unpopular points of view.”
“It is not unlikely or unreasonable that a reader may find other sources that dispute an article or definition. Likewise, a reader may disagree with the writer’s argument and read arguments or statements through a different lens,” the decision reads. The council also recognized that differing viewpoints around religion and politics are “highly contentious.”
“It is not the NNC’s task to make a definitive judgment on a term that is subject to debate and appears to be under shifting understanding.”
The council said it is of the view that the Sun’s offer to publish a letter to the editor is adequate in addressing the controversy as a way to provide differing perspectives or points of view. It found the offer to be a reasonable means of corrective action.
These decisions are partially reprinted with the permission of the National NewsMedia Council.
Tyler Griffin is J-Source's 2020 summer reporter and an award-winning journalist specializing in feature writing, in-depth reporting and audience development, with a knack for covering politics, arts and culture. His words and work can be found in HuffPost, VICE, Maclean's and The Eyeopener, where he works as an online editor. Find him perpetually on Twitter at @tylerxgriffin.