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Reflections of a first-time Public Editor

On fairness, balance, and making mistakes in student journalism

Reflections of a first-time Public Editor

When The Varsity introduced me as their first Public Editor in January, the announcement generated more interest than I expected.

Much of this was a by-product of the timing. Donald Trump, then days away from being inaugurated as President of the United States, had already launched his attack on the “fake,” “biased,” and “dishonest” news media.

News outlets were responding by emphasizing their commitment to truth and fairness in reporting. In this environment, The Varsity’s move to hire a public editor to hold it to its commitment to ethical journalism seemed like a smart move.

Others were interested in my appointment because most student newspapers don’t have public editors. Did a campus newspaper really need one?

I don’t have a good answer for you, but I do have a few thoughts from my first term as Public Editor:

(1) Campus newspapers — like everyone else in the media — are grappling with the line between balance and “false balance”

Most of the complaints I received this year were from readers objecting to opinion pieces. As I wrote in my last column, I think it is great when the paper’s opinion pieces generate controversy — so long as they stay within the bounds of accepted journalistic practices in doing so. Diverse societies thrive on open dialogue.

Still, a few readers have since asked me a different question: at what point does a newspaper go too far in including diverse opinions?

Fairness is one of journalism’s most basic ethical principles, defined in The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics as, “a balanced and impartial presentation of all the relevant facts in a news report, and of all substantial opinions in a matter of controversy.”

When reporting the news, balance means including all relevant points of view. But sometimes balance morphs into something less welcome in journalism ­­— false balance. This happens when rival views are portrayed as being more equal than facts warrant. Nowhere has this been more evident than in climate change reporting, where journalists too often put climate science and climate denial on equal footing, despite the overwhelming evidence.

In an October column written following U of T’s “Rally for Free Speech,” The Varsity’s Editor-in-Chief Alex McKeen weighed in on false balance. In response to complaints of biased coverage of the varied viewpoints at the rally, she argued that not all views are legitimate, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are. Shouting, “We need more Michael Browns” at a rally constitutes hate speech, she pointed out, “and it would be wrong to position it otherwise.”

Balance is also something newspapers think about when choosing what to publish in their comment sections. A newspaper’s commentary is meant to showcase diverse opinions. But here too, not all opinions are created equal.

I asked The Varsity’s Comment Editor Teodora Pasca how she decides which viewpoints to include. Strong opinion pieces, she tells me, build their arguments on the foundations of a strong set of facts. Thinking in this way helps her guard against false balance. By this logic, an opinion piece denying climate change ­— that will struggle to present compelling evidence — is unlikely to appear in The Varsity, but a piece that makes an argument for deprioritizing climate change over other policy priorities might well.

If I’m making it seem like it is easy to distinguish fair from false balance, it isn’t. After McKeen published her column on the rally, a number of readers complained that The Varsity was hiding behind “hate speech” as a means of privileging the perspective of social justice over free speech advocates, though McKeen herself rejects this dichotomy.

For the record, I think McKeen is right in her take on false balance in coverage of the rally.

But finding the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate viewpoints is hard. With or without public editors, newspapers don’t always get it right. Even so, I think an arms-length public editor — able to reflect on the paper’s practices with some distance — usefully provides an extra line of defense for student newspapers pursuing real balance over false equivalence.

(2) Student politicians are still developing the thick skins they need for politics

In my term as The Varsity’s Public Editor, I received a number of complaints from U of T student politicians, one of whom wrote to tell me the paper has, “never been fully taken seriously or trusted by any student groups or movements on campus.”

It takes guts to get into politics, and I have an enormous amount of respect for those who do it.

U of T’s student politicians fight hard to improve life on campus for their student bodies. But, just as this is their job, it is The Varsity’s job to hold student leaders accountable, and to make sure they use their power with care.

My job is to ensure The Varsity’s coverage of student politics is accurate and fair.

Where we’ve regrettably published errors, corrections have been issued. I know this is far from ideal. A mistake in print cannot be undone, but mistakes published online also leave imprints, with corrections often only issued after most readers have already seen the article.

The Varsity — like other newspapers — needs to think harder about how it can prevent errors in the first place. But mistakes inevitably happen, and when they do, I think it helps to have a public editor who can investigate potential inaccuracies and make corrections as quickly as possible, to limit the damage.

Beyond correcting factual errors, however, I can’t protect student politicians’ egos. It is their job to develop the thick skins that guard against the criticism that comes with holding office. The only advice I can offer is this: find a close friend or family member to vent to in private, and for the love of god, keep it off Twitter.

Which brings me to my final observation.

As I come to the end of my first term as Public Editor, I am heartened to observe U of T’s student body, leaders, and journalists honing skills that will position them, upon graduation, to defend the vibrancy of Canadian society into the future.

I’ve watched U of T student politicians take principled positions and champion them when challenged, and journalists at The Varsity use their pens to professionally and prudently hold student leaders to account. When either of these groups have fallen short, I’ve watched the U of T student body thoughtfully and diligently demand better.

Though mistakes get made, and tensions sometimes flare, these dynamics make for a better campus for everyone.

UTSU passes multiple fee increases at March 31 board meeting

Increases concern Health and Dental Plan, Student Commons

UTSU passes multiple fee increases at March 31 board meeting

The University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Board of Directors approved fee increases for the Health and Dental Plan and the Student Commons at its March 31 meeting.

The Health Plan fee was increased by 8.51 per cent or $6.93 per session and the Dental Plan fee was increased by two per cent or $1.45. Memmel stated that such fee increases are usually a response to premium increases but, given this year had no premium increase, the fees “will go to additional coverage as well as an increase in the Reserve Fee.” 

The Student Commons fee was increased by 10 per cent or $0.93 per session. During the meeting, Memmel spoke on the Student Commons, saying that the increase would be allocated to operating costs. “This building is a mess. We can’t afford it,” he said.

There was discussion about the negotiations between the university and the union in regards to the Student Commons Agreement. Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) executive and sitting member of the Governing Council Susan Froom suggested bringing the issue to the Governing Council. Memmel responded that, while deferring to the university is tempting, “this one falls on the UTSU.”

There was a debate between University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) Executive Director Munib Sajjad and Memmel. Sajjad asked why the previous year’s Board of Directors had only increased the Student Commons fee by 3 per cent. Memmel stated that the low increase was a “dumb decision.”

The UTSU released a report on the financial status of the Student Commons on April 2. The report, entitled Student Commons: Analysis and Update to Members, outlines the timeline of the Student Commons project; it includes the initial agreement, mistakes that were made by the UTSU, and potential steps for the future.

The report states, “In order to overcome the structured operating deficit,” the UTSU will consider “a range of additional revenue streams from charitable donations to business operations that might provide our members with useful product or service offerings.” The report continues: “This is very challenging especially considering that little to no work was done on this until last year.”

The report introduces a Student Commons Management Committee to inform students of the progress and receive input. It claims that “operational viability is achievable,” although there will be “obstacles to overcome.”

In an email to The Varsity, Memmel added that if the UTSU does not increase the fee, then “the building will bankrupt the UTSU.”

The CPI increases follow a UTSU members’ referendum that approved CPI fee increases. Statistics Canada calculated that the Ontario December 2015 to December 2016 CPI increase was two per cent.

The approved CPI increases were the following: the membership fee by $0.37 per session, the Student Refugee Program fee by $0.01 per session, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and CFS-Ontario fee by $0.16 per session, the Downtown Legal Services fee by $0.02 per session, the UTM Downtown Legal Service fee by $0.06 per session, and the Bikechain fee by $0.01 per session. 

Memmel said that the CPI fee increases were “just to account for inflation.”

Consulting firm advising the UTSU on Student Commons

Kokobi consulting group was founded by former anti-CFS campaigner

Consulting firm advising the UTSU on Student Commons

Kokobi, a non-profit consulting group with a focus on the community sector, and Robert Boissonneault, a former staff member at the UTSU, have been involved in union deliberations this year.

Kokobi has been involved in the Student Commons strategy, and Boissoneault’s input has been informal and limited to editing documents and giving advice, according to Matthias Memmel, Vice-President Internal and Services and President-elect of the UTSU.

Kokobi focuses almost exclusively on working with other non-profits. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union is another students’ union that has worked with the consultancy.

“Student organizations have the same needs as other non-profits,” Kokobi’s founder and Operations Director Adrian Kaats told The Varsity. “So there is little difference, if any, between what we do with student organizations and our non-student organization clients.”

Kaats was involved in student politics when he was a student at McGill University and also wrote actively for the McGill Daily newspaper at that time. “It’s all in the public record, and in the past,” Kaats said of these associations.

That public record reveals his involvement as the chair of the Canadian Federation of Students Québec (CFS-Q), which he left in 2009 to lead a decertification campaign from the CFS in the province.

By the end of 2009, the CFS-Q was no longer a recognized provincial affiliate of the CFS.

Kaats declined to disclose any of the specific work Kokobi has done for the UTSU or what other student organizations they have worked for.

According to Memmel, the work that the union has paid Kokobi for is limited to the Student Commons. This includes contractual obligations and operations, as well as governance.

“Kokobi has helped the UTSU review construction plans, design plans, and helped the UTSU negotiate with the University the best possible interpretation of a poorly defined Student Commons Agreement,” said Memmel. “This has involved numerous meetings for which Kokobi has not billed the UTSU.”

He noted that, as of March 25, the union has paid Kokobi $7,113.30 for work spanning a period of approximately four and a half months.

Another outside figure providing consultation to the UTSU has been Boissonneault.

“[Boissonneault] left the UTSU in September, but he still occasionally gives advice and sometimes helps with things like editing documents,” Memmel said.

Boissonneault served as the Associate Vice-President Internal and Services at the UTSU from June 2015 to April 2016 and as an Executive Assistant from June to September 2016. Boissonneault also “did some work” for Kokobi in January and February, he said.

“I know some of the executives well, and I still talk to those executives,” Boissonneault told The Varsity. He confirmed that he sometimes gives advice and helps with researching and editing documents.

“That might not be a very satisfying answer,” Boissoneault said, “but I don’t know how else to characterize my involvement.”

It is unclear whether Boissonneault has been paid for any consulting he did with the UTSU and whether he did formal work related to the union through Kokobi.

Samara Canada holds panel on democracy at Isabel Bader Theatre

Group gives Canadian democracy a B- grade, up from C in 2015

Samara Canada holds panel on democracy at Isabel Bader Theatre

On March 28, Samara Canada, a non-partisan charity that researches the health of Canadian government and offers solutions to perceived problems, organized a panel at the Isabel Bader Theatre to discuss its recent report on the state of Canadian democracy.

The organization awarded Canada the letter grade of ‘B-,’ which is an increase from the ‘C’ grade it received in 2015.

The goal of the event was to examine what can and should be done to strengthen Canada’s democracy, especially in light of the release of the report card.

The higher grade is primarily attributed to the surge in voter turnout in the 2015 federal election, as well as an increase in communication between Canadians and their MPs. Samara recommended areas for improvement like increasing diversity in the House of Commons and raising citizen “participation in formal political activities, such as donating to a campaign.”

The panel featured Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the MP for Beaches-East York; campaigner and consultant Amara Possian; co-founder of Anima Leadership Annahid Dashtgard; and Elamin Abdelmahmoud, a Social Media Editor for BuzzFeed Canada and an editor for BuzzFeed News. It was moderated by Dave Meslin, the Creative Director of Unlock Democracy Canada, a non-profit calling for electoral reform.

The panelists discussed various aspects of democracy, such as the development of fake news and why it spreads so quickly.

“If you post something on Facebook, it will look exactly the same as a New York Times [article] on my feed, which says to you this is equal,” said Abdelmahmoud. “We all sort of forget that we have a terrifying amount of power in terms of shaping what other people see, and that’s sort of given rise to fake news because fake news spreads way easier from person to person because you trust other people and you trust that they’ll give you news that you can actually believe.”

The speakers also discussed at length the role of activism in a democracy, debating the term itself and what it means. Possian suggested that it has almost become an empty word.

“It’s different from being a feminist or a socialist, there are assumptions that come along with that word,” said Possian. “An activist is someone who’s active. And by having a term that puts you in a box where there aren’t necessarily stakes, it kind of becomes a hobby.”

Dashtgard responded, “There’s [sic] so many people in this country that are activists because they don’t have a choice,” referring to members of marginalized communities.

Near the end of the discussion, Meslin noted that Erskine-Smith had the highest rate of disagreement with his party out of all the MPs and asked what could be done to encourage more people to act like him.

Erskine-Smith replied, “It’s a cultural question of how do you build up that culture where people are comfortable doing so, don’t fear reprisal, don’t fear their career will suffer, or accept that their career will suffer but that it’s the right thing to do anyway.”

Japanese Government donates $5 million to Munk School

Donation to launch the Centre for the Study of Global Japan

Japanese Government donates $5 million to Munk School

The Munk School of Global Affairs has received a $5 million donation from the Government of Japan. First announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Japan-Canada summit meeting last May, the donation was formally presented to U of T on March 30.

Last May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to support Japanese studies in Canadian universities. U of T is the first Canadian university to receive such a donation from Japan.

The donation allows for the recruitment of an expert in Japanese politics, who will be designated as the endowment chair. The chair will have a permanent presence within the Munk School and will lead the Centre for the Study of Global Japan.

The ceremony began with opening remarks from Meric Gertler, President of U of T. He thanked Japanese government official Yasunori Nakayama, who is the Consul General of Japan in Toronto; Gertler spoke of the importance of Japan as one of Canada’s partners and diversity of Japanese studies at U of T.

Following Gertler’s speech, Nakayama emphasized the common values and responsibilities that Canada and Japan share as countries of the G7 for global problems. He expects that this support from the Japanese government will be one step to achieve that goal.

“Japan and Canada, as members of G7 countries that share common values, have a responsibility to make contributions to the world community that ensure peace and prosperity,” said Nakayama. “It is… imperative that our academic institutions are able to conduct extensive research that allows us to properly understand each other.”

College orientations to conflict with classes

Scheduling adjusted to accommodate for Fall Reading Week

College orientations to conflict with classes

The 2017–2018 academic year will start earlier for UTSG Arts & Science students due to Fall Reading Week, meaning that orientation week organizers at the colleges are accommodating for changes in schedule relative to previous years.

Previously, Arts & Science students had a two-day break in November. The new Fall Reading Week will add three more days, lengthening the break from November 6–10.

Due to the lost instructional days, Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, said that “classes will begin on the Thursday following Labour Day [September 7].”

Robinson also stated that the university has “modelled sessional dates for the next seven years.” The university will “only be releasing the dates one year at a time, just in case things have to change for some unforeseen reason.”

The early start to the school year will cut into days that would normally be reserved for frosh week. Robinson acknowledged this fact by stating that “students voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Fall Reading Week and were prepared to make some changes to orientation in order to make up for lost instructional days.”

Orientation organizers have been preparing its frosh week differently to ensure a full experience with the reduced time that is available. The Varsity reached out to the Dean of Students of each college to understand the different plans. Victoria University and St. Michael’s College did not respond.

According to University College (UC) Orientation Coordinators Lindsay Kruitwagen and Michelle Beyn, all colleges will maintain their move-in dates as the Sunday of Labour Day weekend. UC will have optional events on Thursday, September 7 and Friday, September 8, which are the first two days of classes.

UC Dean of Students Melinda Scott noted that the college is also considering hosting events on the weekend following orientation week.

New College Director of Residence and Student Life Leah McCormack-Smith said that the college plans to start its orientation week on Monday, September 4, whereas typically the start day has occurred on a Tuesday.

Moreover, New College will be holding a suite of drop-in academic, social, and wellness programs on the Thursday and Friday.

According to Dean of Students of Woodsworth College, Liza Nassim, the college will be moving the move-in date to Sunday, September 3. Currently, the college is still working with Woodsworth Orientation for Life After Frosh coordinators to plan the frosh week.

Trinity College is also just beginning to plan its frosh week. Kristen Moore, the college’s Dean of Students, explained that her office and the orientation co-chairs are looking at options on programming around the Thursday and Friday classes.

Innis College Dean of Students Tim Worgan explained that the college plans to extend orientation events through the first few weeks of class. The college believes that this method will facilitate a successful transition from high school to university as orientation events will not abruptly end on the last two-day period.

With regards to other inquires on changes to sessional dates, Robinson said that based on the sessional dates for the next seven years, “there will continue to be a ‘make-up Monday’ and a break — although sometimes the break falls on a weekend — at the end of classes and before the exam period starts.”

City Council supports ongoing negotiations with Victoria University on taxes

Motion passes unanimously without debate

City Council supports ongoing negotiations with Victoria University on taxes

Toronto City Council voted unanimously in support of a motion that directs the City Treasurer to enter into negotiations with Victoria University to address the property tax exemptions granted through the Victoria University Act.

The motion had previously been adopted by the Government Management Committee. The motion also allows the treasurer to request that the province amend the Victoria University Act to remove the tax exemptions on land owned, but not occupied by, the university, if the university and the City of Toronto do not reach an agreement by September 30, 2017.

According to the report by the treasurer and City Solicitor, “There is no principled justification for the difference in the tax exemptions between Victoria University and OCAD U, Ryerson and York.” The latter three universities are required to pay property taxes on land owned, but not occupied by, the universities. The University of Toronto enjoys similar exemptions but voluntarily pays the City of Toronto in lieu of property taxes foregone.

The report goes on to say that this difference results in the university’s tenants not having to “pay the same level of property taxes that they would if their leased premises were owned by other universities or private commercial landlords.”

Victoria University is against amending the current tax exemptions. It says that these exemptions were granted in 1951 to incentivize the redevelopment of the neighbourhood into the upscale commercial district it is today. It states: “The City of Toronto has gained millions of dollars in tax revenue that it would not have received if those properties had continued to be used for student residences.”

The land that the institution leases out is part of the ‘Mink Mile.’ In 2015, the Financial Post reported a study by commercial real estate agency Cushman & Wakefield that found the average rent in the shopping district to be at $325 per square foot per year, the most expensive in the country.

The Toronto Star has reported that Victoria University had offered the City $100,000 annually in lieu of property taxes for up to five years.

In response to the vote, Ray deSouza, Bursar and Chief Administrative Officer of Victoria University, told The Varsity, “Victoria University is pleased to resume our discussions with City of Toronto officials. As we have stated in the past, Victoria University is committed to work in the best interests of our students and Victoria University.”

When asked if the province would be willing to amend the Victoria University Act as requested by the City of Toronto, Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development spokesperson Sean Greson said that they are aware of the ongoing negotiations between the two parties.

“In the past, the City of Toronto has been able to reach an agreement with the University of Toronto (subject to similar exemptions) that was satisfactory to both parties. We encourage the city and Victoria University to continue their negotiations and find a resolution that ensures the ability of the university to provide high quality education to students and addresses the concerns of the municipality,” Greson said.

APUS Executive Director, UTSU Speaker spar over livestreaming at Board of Directors meeting

Livestreaming ultimately allowed following debate

On March 31, UTSU Board of Directors Speaker Billy Graydon asked for Campus Police to be called to escort Danielle Sandhu, Executive Director of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors meeting.

“Please leave the room,” Graydon told Sandhu. “Can someone call Campus Police and have her escorted?”

Mathias Memmel, UTSU Vice-President Internal and Services and President-elect, called for a motion to eject Sandhu from the meeting for livestreaming the meeting on the APUS Facebook page; Graydon ruled in favour of the motion.

The motion to prohibit livestreaming of the meeting was made at the beginning of the meeting when Sandhu was not present; justifications of the motion included the fact that some board members did not feel they could speak freely while being livestreamed.

Graydon’s ruling and request were not favoured by everyone in attendance. Tka Pinnock, UTSU Executive Director and the anti-harrassment officer of the meeting, intervened and declared that Campus Police would not be called.

“Miss Sandhu’s employer [APUS VP Internal Susan Froom] is here. We will let the employer deal with it… We will not be calling Campus Police,” Pinnock assured those in attendance.

Graydon rescinded his request to call Campus Police and later stated that he was “incorrect in making that call.”

Pinnock appealed the ruling and requested Sandhu to stop livestreaming. She said that she “[wanted] people to understand that… if I went to an APUS meeting, I’d expect a certain amount of courtesy that I’m trying to extend to… my colleague.”

Graydon reversed his ruling to eject Sandhu. Sandhu tried to ask a question, which Graydon ruled out of order. Froom requested that Sandhu stop livestreaming but said that she may live tweet.

Graydon accepted the concession from Froom and reiterated that he had reversed his ruling. Sandhu made a request to ask her question, and Graydon said she needed the permission of the board to do so.

Memmel then pointed out that the livestream was still up. Sandhu persisted in asking her question, and in response, Graydon reversed his reversal and asked her to leave the room.

“You have spoken out of order on multiple occasions. You continue to persist in doing so and you continue to livestream a meeting after you have been directed by both the board and a number of individuals to stop doing so. Please leave the room,” Graydon told Sandhu.

At this point, a five-minute recess was called. After the recess, Graydon apologized, citing the university’s Policy on the Disruption of Meetings as justification for the removal and saying that his recollection of the policy was “flawed.”

The policy is meant to uphold a “standard of conduct,” which allows “the maximum opportunity for dissent and debate,” taking into account the university’s obligation to “uphold freedom of speech and the freedom of individuals and groups from physical intimidation and harassment.”

The policy also recommends measures to be taken “if disruption occurs, and in the opinion of the chair of the meeting freedom of speech is denied.” Calling for Campus Police is not part of the recommendations outlined by the policy and Graydon acknowledged that “the policy does not specifically require that Campus Police be called.”

Graydon considered the act of “livestreaming after the board has expressed a clear desire not to have that happen is sufficiently disruptive as it makes board members, or some board members, uncomfortable in carrying out their duties.”

Nour Alideeb, President of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), said the request to call the Campus Police was “completely inappropriate.”

“It’s a really weird dynamic because Danielle Sandhu is Executive Director of APUS but she’s also a woman of colour and [Graydon], the position that he holds as speaker of the board, but also a white male and the power dynamic there,” Alideeb commented.

Alideeb also noted that the UTSU is meant to be “a space that really promotes social justice and working against and combatting police brutality and the issues around that so making a threat like that was completely inappropriate, regardless of what policies are in place.”

Memmel agreed that “[Graydon] shouldn’t have asked that Campus Police be called.”

According to the policy, “Governing Council should be kept informed… of threatened or actual denials of freedom of speech, and of any measures that have been taken to deal with the situation.”

Graydon says that the UTSU is “still deciding how to proceed.”

The board subsequently voted to allow livestreaming.