Since starting my second term as Public Editor in May, readers have continued to reach out to me and other members of The Varsity masthead with their comments and criticisms. Though I respond directly to readers who email me, not all responses make it into the pages of the newspaper.
As we near the end of semester, I wanted to round up for you a few of the reader concerns that I left unaddressed in my column during the term, but that thoughtfully challenged some of The Varsity’s practices.
“Students with mental health issues may be subjected to mandatory leave”
In late October, The Varsity reported on the University of Toronto’s Governing Council’s proposed leave of absence policy, designed to support the university in placing students with mental health or other similar personal issues on mandatory leave.
Many of our readers commented on the story, disturbed by the scope of powers the university would be granting itself under the new policy.
But one of our readers wrote me out of concern that The Varsity’s story was misleading. He argued that the article’s headline, “Students with mental health issues may be subjected to mandatory leave,” implied that the ability to suspend students with mental health issues was a new university power. In fact, the university can already mandate leave under the Code of Student Conduct.
The Varsity’s initial coverage of the policy did in fact mention the university’s powers under the Code of Student Conduct, but only near the end of the story, where it states that, “In the past, U of T used the Code of Student Conduct to enforce the leave.”
I don’t think The Varsity’s story intended to be misleading, but I do think it downplayed a crucial detail of the proposed policy. The reader who wrote to me thought that others reading the story would misunderstand the scope of the policy. As someone who missed the detail about the university’s current powers under the Code of Student Conduct when I first saw the story — I can see his point.
Good news reporting is not just about adhering to core principles of journalistic ethics. It is also about clearly and concisely communicating the issues at stake to readers. On this story, we met the requirements for the former, but we could have done better on the latter.
“A New SMCSU?”
In September, The Varsity covered the move by the administration at St. Michael’s College to re-establish the St. Michael’s College Student Union, which had disbanded in December 2016. The story identified the union’s former Religious and Community Affairs Commissioner, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, as a prospective presidential candidate for the new union.
Fairness in reporting implores journalists to reach out to key subjects of their stories for comment. In The Varsity’s case, the reporter reached out to Hernandez-Lum Tong, but did not hear back. The Varsity ran the story with a concluding note that read: “Hernandez Lum-Tong did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment.”
In doing so, the newspaper complied with basic practice in journalism. But good practice also dictates that a story should clearly explain why a subject chose not to respond. The Toronto Star’s journalistic standards guide for example, states that, “if an individual cannot be reached or refuses to comment, the story must state this and if applicable report any reasons why the opportunity to comment was refused.” The Globe and Mail’s Editorial Code of Conduct similarly requires that articles “explain what efforts were made to reach [the subject].”
In Hernandez Lum-Tong’s case, he says he did not respond because The Varsity’s reporter tried to contact him via Facebook Messenger. Since the reporter wasn’t in his friends list, he never saw the message.
The Varsity should have been clearer with readers about the process through which they reached out to Hernandez Lum-Tong. Facebook Messenger is far from an ideal platform for contacting subjects. As readers who use Facebook will know, messages that don’t come from friends are easily missed.
At the same time, Facebook is sometimes the only contact information accessible to The Varsity’s reporters. If — as a last resort — it is used, The Varsity should say so.
Varsity News live-tweets University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board Meeting
Shortly after the end of the last academic year, a Varsity reporter live-tweeted from a UTSU Board of Directors meeting using the @VarsityNewsUofT Twitter handle. Among the 90 tweets posted was one that read, “Yusra Khogali is criticizing The Varsity for ‘character assassination’ of Sandy Hudson.”
In response, a reader wrote to object that the comment had been attributed to Khogali rather than the U of T Black Liberation Collective, the group on whose behalf Khogali was speaking. In the reader’s view, identifying Khogali by name put her safety at risk.
Most key tenets of ethical journalism predate the internet, but it is often accepted that the same or similar principles should apply to a publication’s social media. The Varsity takes safety as seriously on social media as it does in print, and its code prevents it from publishing information that enables someone to “harass or persecute an individual or group.”
But as a founding member of the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, Khogali is a public figure, who made the choice to identify herself by going on record at a public UTSU meeting. The Varsity attributed the comments to Khogali as it would to any other politician or leader.
That said, the context of Khogali’s comments would have been clearer to readers if the reporter tweeting had identified not just Khogali, but also the organization she represented. In fact, The Varsity’s later live-tweeting of a subsequent UTSU meeting where Khogali spoke did exactly this.
I recognize that the limited character length of tweets can pose a challenge, but I hope to see this become more of a common practice going forward.
The broader point is that not all principles in journalistic ethics are clear-cut. In these examples, The Varsity met the minimum standards of ethical journalism, but I think they could have gone further to meet the spirit of these principles as well.