We read newspapers both to learn about our world, and to better understand it. A newspaper’s news section keeps us informed, but its comment section should go further — encouraging us to think more deeply about current events, confront arguments that challenge our opinions, and defend our views against opposing positions.
As concern grows about social media’s cultivation of ‘echo chambers’ that limit our exposure to diverse views, The Varsity and other newspapers can — and should — fight this tendency by embracing these varied viewpoints.
Nothing generates debate like a well-argued, provocative opinion piece. When The Varsity’s comment section succeeds in articulating a range of perspectives, readers respond — commenting under articles, posting on the newspaper’s Facebook page, and emailing the editors and I.
Readers have responded to The Varsity’s commentary on the need for campus to be a space safe from bigotry by defending the prerogative of the individual to air controversial opinions. They have countered commentary defending Fidel Castro’s legacy by lambasting his tyranny. And they have debated commentary critical of the Bell Let’s Talk mental heath campaign by celebrating the initiative’s accessibility.
This is a good thing — diverse societies thrive on open dialogue. It is also how the comment section of a newspaper is meant to operate: contributors to the section get to express their views, and readers get to think they are the wrong ones.
As Public Editor, I don’t weigh in on the merits of an opinion piece’s argument — only on its adherence to journalistic ethics. This is true for op-eds, comment pieces written by opinion columnists, and for commentary by the paper itself, in the form of unsigned editorials.
This means it is up to readers — not me — to decide if the reader who wrote to me in response to The Varsity Editorial Board’s column “Responses to mismanagement tell the real story,” is right in his assessment that the column’s take on the faltering financial transparency of campus student societies is “at best holier than thou.”
But what about the reader’s suggestion that the piece is “borderline slanderous given the actualities of the cases [of financial mismanagement] referenced therein?”
Readers often accuse journalists of defamation — slander (if spoken) and libel (if written). Defamation can include any statement that harms a person’s reputation in the eyes of others.
But Canadian law gives journalists wide protection against defamation — through the defense of “fair comment.” In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that defamatory comments are fair comment so long as they are based in true facts, and — given these facts — could be honestly expressed by an individual other than the journalist who conveyed the opinion.
As Public Editor, when I get complaints about opinion pieces written by The Varsity, I think back to fair comment. Are the facts on which the opinion piece is based true? Could someone else realistically express the same opinion, given these facts?
For me, The Varsity Editorial Board’s column is fair comment. It bases its argument on evidence — of poor financial management by the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit), the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), and St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) — that has been well substantiated by campus leaders, administrators, and reporters.
It uses this evidence to reasonably raise concerns about “the wavering accountability and transparency of elected student societies on campus.” You or I may not agree with this conclusion, but we reasonably could, and that is what matters.
None of this is to say you have to like the Editorial Board’s opinion. The reader who wrote to me is probably right in his observation that the view expressed by the editorial “doesn’t bode well for future relations between campus media and student leaders.”
Turns out, fair comment isn’t always popular comment. But that’s kind of the point. Fostering a vibrant and open Canadian society — something we should all want — means engaging with viewpoints that challenge, contradict, and even infuriate us.
So, if you want to challenge one of The Varsity’s op-eds, columns, or editorials — please do. Send us a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope to hear from you.