I leave my position as public editor much as I began it — dealing with criticism of The Varsity’s coverage of student politics. One of the earliest emails I received as public editor was from a student leader who felt that The Varsity’s editorial condemning financial mismanagement by student societies did not “bode well for future relations between campus media and student leaders.” This month, I’m dealing with complaints from Trinity College students, upset about the newspaper’s coverage of comments made at its student elections and of the Trinity College Meeting’s vote to revoke part of its Co-Head of Arts’ honorarium.
The Varsity appointed me as its first public editor last year in part because it felt that trust between the newspaper and its readers had eroded. My hiring was often assumed to a be a reaction to criticisms of the newspaper’s coverage of Jordan Peterson, but I’ve learned that nothing triggers accusations of bias quite like negative coverage of student politics.
Some tension between student politicians and the campus newspaper is unavoidable, but the relationship at U of T appears to be particularly strained. Judging from the complaints I have dealt with as public editor, there is plenty of blame to go around.
On the one hand, The Varsity sometimes seems all too eager to expose the poor behaviour of student politicians. Its recent, hastily published story on Trinity College’s Heads of College debate is a case in point. The story claimed that one of the Co-Head of College candidates stated in the meeting that Trinity’s satirical debate club, the Lit, had used college funds to buy marijuana. In fact, he had said only that the Lit intended to use funds for this purpose; the confusion came from a discrepancy between the college’s transcribed minutes and its audio recordings of the meeting. Worse still, The Varsity published the story before the candidate who allegedly made the statement was able to comment.
The first story was followed by a second report that again covered Trinity College student politics without comment from the individual at the centre of the controversy. This report covered Trinity’s vote to rescind part of its Co-Head of Arts’ honorarium. The co-head in question was not extended the opportunity to comment.
Student politicians feel that The Varsity has a tendency to assume the worst of them. When the journalist reporting the Trinity story posts on Twitter, “Student politics never ceases to amaze me,” The Varsity is only reinforcing this view. No wonder student leaders are distrustful of the newspaper’s coverage.
But if The Varsity is always on about the bad behaviour of student politicians, it may also be because student politicians seem to engage in a lot of it. I know that Trinity has a number of dearly held traditions, but asking candidates running to be student leaders to play a game of ‘fuck, marry, kill’ with the names of current student heads — as reported in The Varsity’s story — is likely to appall at least some people. Beyond that, it is a careless thing to do at a public meeting on the record.
Nor is the Trinity College example an isolated instance of bad behaviour among student leaders. It has been a thread that has run through my time as public editor — I began the position just after videos surfaced documenting Islamophobic behaviour at a party attended by St. Michael’s College Student Union representatives.
Student leaders can make their own decisions about how to behave. Yet too often, they do not seem to recognize that they are public figures — elected representatives who serve constituencies and oversee considerable student funds. Their behaviour is a matter of public interest, subject to coverage in the pages of The Varsity.
This means that student politicians should anticipate criticism from The Varsity. But they should also have an expectation of fair coverage, based in journalism’s basic ethical principles and practices. For student leaders not already familiar with these principles, this means, among other things, that:
- The things you do and say in your capacity as a student leader are of public interest. The Varsity can write about them.
- If you speak at a public forum or on the record, The Varsity can quote you. That does not require your permission.
- If a story in The Varsity would include a criticism or accusation directed at you, the paper needs to make a genuine effort to contact you for comment.
- You can decline to comment. If you do, the published story should reflect this.
From the complaints that I’ve received as public editor, it is clear to me that student politicians don’t always understand what constitutes fair coverage in journalism. It is also clear to me that The Varsity’s coverage isn’t always fair. Next year, if only for the sake of my successor, I hope to see improvement on both sides.
This brings me to the end of my time as public editor. To the student politicians, broader student body, and all other The Varsity readers: be vocal in your criticisms and praise of the newspaper’s content. Whether or not you believe me, I promise you, the newspaper hears you. With every complaint, comment, or criticism, you make The Varsity a better newspaper.