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.