Earlier this summer, The Varsity hosted an “Ask me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit. A reader asked our editors where they thought the newspaper “leaned on the political spectrum.”
It’s a hard question for newspapers. The Varsity — in line with most traditional mainstream media outlets — aims to be objective. But like other newspapers, it often gets accused of bias, most often with reference to the articles in its opinion pages.
A newspaper’s comment section exists to provide opinions on the news, so in one sense it should be biased. Still, newspapers try to embrace a range of opinions in these pages, and for good reason. When all opinion pieces share the same point of view, readers are right to wonder if “toeing the party line,” not thoughtful analysis, determines what gets published.
Responding to the reader’s AMA question, Editor-in-Chief Jacob Lorinc reflected on the commentary written by the paper itself — its unsigned editorials. He conceded that the newspaper’s editorials have lately had a left bent. Admitting he couldn’t point to a recent conservative-leaning board, Lorinc was quick to remind readers that members rotate two to three times per year, so things can quickly change.
But here’s the thing. Just as The National Post leans right and the Toronto Star leans left, The Varsity is always going to be a somewhat left-of-centre publication. It reflects — with some distortion — the campus and city that sustain it. And neither is particularly conservative. Both Torontonians and more educated Canadians — the kind you might find on campus — tend to vote Liberal or NDP. When these are the groups you both draw your writers from and write your stories for, it is hard to see how The Varsity could be anything but.
That said, The Varsity leadership works hard to shed this reputation — as it should. When newspapers too eagerly endorse a set of views, readers are right to doubt whether they are reading facts or partisan talking-points.
In her last column as The New York Times’ Public Editor, Liz Spayd warned against partisan journalism, writing that “whether journalists realize it or not, with impartiality comes authority.” She pointed to the damage the Venezuelan media did to its reputation with Venezuelans during Hugo Chavez’s presidency when, in the absence of any real partisan opposition, it assigned itself the job. The public stopped believing the media was a fair observer of Chavez’s regime.
The Varsity faced a big challenge last year in figuring out how to fairly cover the Jordan Peterson controversy. I was impressed by the self-awareness of its politics that The Varsity brought to its reporting on the issue, and the range of opinions it published. Though I know some readers disagree with me, articles like this or this suggest The Varsity gave real space to more conservative voices writing in opposition to limits to free speech.
Still, I can see why conservative readers often feel shorted. Take, for example, the three most prominently placed articles in The Varsity’s online comment section at the start of the school year. The first article, on diversity in film, argues “more work still needs to be done to ensure women of colour are granted the visibility they deserve.” The second piece, by the editorial board, argues that nationalist rallies have no right to organize on campus. Only the third piece could be said to have more conservative elements, though even here the author advocates wholeheartedly in favour of Canada’s principle of universal healthcare coverage.
The Varsity will naturally gravitate left. It needs to — and for the most part does — carefully monitor this habit. What it shouldn’t do is abandon impartiality altogether. Newspapers that become too ideological or partisan are no longer pursuing the truth or holding power to account. And if they aren’t, who is? In the age of overtly partisan outlets like The Rebel and fake news article generators, I don’t want to find out.