Letters to the editor are an essential platform for The Varsity’s readers to publicly communicate with the newspaper’s leadership. These letters hold the newspaper accountable for its editorial decisions by creating a direct line of communication between The Varsity and its readership.
The inseparable connection between accountability and criticism means that The Varsity faces an ethical imperative to publish letters that level substantive criticism at its decisions.
Therefore, when a reader complains that The Varsity “is afraid of public opinion and scrutiny on itself — and is willing to abandon the principled stance of transparency for the pragmatic preservation of its readership and reputation,” I take this feedback very seriously.
The reader who reached out to me has sought to contribute to The Varsity numerous times. And although their writing has been published by The Varsity twice, many other proposals for publication — including several letters to the editor — have been rejected by the Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton and Comment Editor Ibnul Chowdhury. Although Denton and Chowdhury offered various explanations for these rejections — a failure to make necessary edits, lack of relevance to U of T readers, and so on — the reader views the repeated rejections as reflective of The Varsity’s reluctance to publish politically conservative viewpoints.
The reader wrote to me: “I have noticed a disproportionately left-leaning and politically liberal stance represented across The Varsity’s pages — and in particular, the Comment Section. The fact that these pieces elicit representation whereas mine (conservative in nature, but pertinent to students of the university) leads me to suspect that the paper is not representative of all students — seeking to only represent those aligned with the leadership’s moral and political views.”
I reached out to Denton and Chowdhury for their responses to this allegation. Both stated that The Varsity has no problem publishing letters to the editor that are critical of the newspaper and its editorial practices. They drew attention to Andrew Kidd’s criticism of The Varsity’s coverage of the University of Toronto Students’ Union Annual General Meeting and Rachel Chen’s criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of Faith Goldy during the mayoral election, which were both published last semester. Looking at the data, The Varsity has indeed published more letters to the editor than the newspaper did last year, suggesting an increased openness to reader feedback and public accountability.
Denton told me that, as a general rule, The Varsity publishes all letters to the editor. However, there are some exceptions. The most common reasons for declining to publish a letter to the editor are when the content of the letter is hateful, such as making arguments that are racist and sexist, or when it levels ad hominem attacks at specific writers or editors. The newspaper also declines to publish letters that are too lengthy, or factually misrepresent its coverage, editorial processes, or official stances on issues.
Denton explained that “while we are open to critical engagement from readers, we are under no obligation to publish materials that needlessly harm our reputation. Legitimate, substantive criticism from readers is an important part of building trust with our readership, but unsubstantiated criticism is not.” For Chowdhury, legitimate, substantive criticism must satisfy three criteria: the content is logically and fairly argued, relevant to the University of Toronto readership, and does not promote or advocate hate in any way. Within those confines, any view is publishable.
But given The Varsity’s wide policy to publish critical letters to the editor, why do some conservative readers still feel that their viewpoints are not welcomed by the newspaper? According to Chowdhury, “The political leaning of the opinion pages is a question I’ve grappled and discussed with fellow masthead members over the course of the semester. I don’t deny that most opinion pieces, where politics is concerned, do lean left.”
Chowdhury hypothesizes that the political bent of The Varsity’s opinion pages is a natural reflection of the newspaper’s left-leaning contributor base, which may also be reflective of the student body. While The Varsity does publish conservative perspectives — whether in defence of free speech, Premier Doug Ford, or pro–life demonstrations — Chowdhury notes that the readership tends to respond most favourably to progressive views. Nonetheless, Chowdhury would like to see more political balance and conservative voices in the newspaper’s opinion pages.
After speaking with Denton and Chowdhury, it seems that The Varsity’s leadership is in accord with the reader who reached out to me: both would like to see a newspaper that embraces public accountability, legitimate criticism, and diverse viewpoints. The tension between both parties, then, is a breakdown of expectations. The Varsity should be clear from the outset about the process it follows when choosing which letters to the editor to publish. That way, prospective contributors can formulate their thoughts in a style that satisfies The Varsity’s criteria for publication and, in the event that their writing is not published, understand the reasons for the decision.
Selecting which opinion pieces to publish is undoubtedly a subjective exercise and the decision ultimately rests with the editor-in-chief. But this should not stop The Varsity’s leadership from striving to be fair and consistent in its decision-making process.
The Varsity must continue to be self-reflective about the viewpoints that it publishes — the newspaper should reflect the breadth and diversity of its readership. Increased transparency about the selection criteria for publication helps to further this goal.
Morag McGreevey is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.