Star public editor: Columnists free to express outrageous opinions
Why does the Toronto Star publish opinion columns that readers judge to be outrageous, offensive, inappropriate? Columnists express their own views, not the views of the Star, which are expressed on its editorial pages, writes public editor Kathy English. They can and often do express opinions the Star does not agree with.
By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star
“I’m wondering if you can clarify whether it is the Star’s official position that cyclists should be shot . . . ,” a reader wrote to me this week. “Looking forward to your clarification on the execution of cyclists comment.”
Really? Well OK, let’s get that question cleared up from the get-go: It is not the Star’s view that cyclists should be shot.
The absurdity of that statement is not lost on me. But, it was a fact I had to make clear this week to readers who expressed outrage over columnist Rosie DiManno’s opinion that cyclists are “arguably the most sanctimonious breed on the planet. “They have risen to No. 1 on my list of People Who Should Be Shot,” wrote DiManno.
Given the barrage of emails I’ve received in the past whenever the Star has published anything even slightly critical of Toronto’s cyclists, I fully expected this provocative column to provoke.
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But I was surprised so many of the offended took DiManno’s over-the-top statement literally and seem to have little understanding of the role of an opinion columnist at the Star.
As the Star’s public editor, it’s not my role to rebuke or defend columnists no matter how outrageous or offensive their opinions and the manner they express them might be — and no matter whether I agree or disagree with their views. The public editor is not a one-person censorship board and public editors and ombudsmen in news organizations overall rarely weigh in on the “fairness” or “appropriateness” of opinions.
But it is my role to help readers understand why the Star publishes opinion columns that some readers judge to be outrageous, offensive, inappropriate.
Columnists express their own views, not the views of the Star, which are expressed on its editorial pages. They can and often do express opinions the Star does not agree with.
As I repeatedly tell “offended” readers, the Star gives its columnists wide latitude to express their opinions. In effect, columnists have the right to offend.
The Ontario Press Council has repeatedly stated that such latitude for opinion columnists prevails, “No matter how controversial or unpopular the opinions may be.”
So, too, has Canada’s Supreme Court ruled on the right to offend in this country where freedom of expression is a Charter value. On this, I am a big believer in the 2008 judgment on “fair comment” in which Justice Ian Binnie so eloquently wrote:
“We live in a free country where people have as much right to express outrageous and ridiculous opinions as moderate ones . . . public controversy is rough trade . . .”
Freedom of expression is one of the Star’s fundamental values. That doesn’t mean anything goes for the Star’s columnists. Columnists do not have latitude to make racist remarks, advocate violence, use profanity or defame. As City Editor Irene Gentle (DiManno’s editor) pointed out, the newsroom regularly discusses matters of “standards, ethics, taste and what crosses the line” in columns and news stories.
Both Gentle and Managing Editor Jane Davenport told me there was no newsroom discussion about whether DiManno’s controversial cycling column crossed the line.
To continue reading this column, please continue to thestar.com where it was originally published.
Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.