The intersection of global conflict politics and the U of T community often occurs in highly contentious contexts. Subsequently, The Varsity’s editorial decisions are often subject to accusations of inaccuracy or bias that we feel are unwarranted and ultimately misserve the general readership.
Earlier this semester, we published an opinion piece entitled “Who speaks for Palestine?” that revolved around a contributor’s alarm over the content of a guest speaker’s lecture on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The contributor advocated for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli occupation.
Following publication, Hillel U of T, a Jewish organization on campus, publicly accused the article of containing “misnomers and falsehoods about BDS and the reality on campus.”
We welcome reasonable disagreement and debate on highly divisive issues in the Comment section. In fact, we published two anti-BDS letters in response to the pro-BDS article. But making an unsupported comment about the factual basis of our articles serves to misinform readers about already sensitive issues. It overlooks how different sides can use different evidence to reach different conclusions.
Our coverage of the online harassment campaign against Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President-elect Chemi Lhamo was met with similar accusations of misinformation. When our opinion coverage condemned the campaign, defended Lhamo’s Tibetan activism, and supported her presidency, we were accused of being “one-sided” and “biased” because the pieces were not “objective” and did not reflect the views of international Chinese students.
Accusations were made that the publication constituted a “character assassination” of China and that we supposedly have personal connections to Lhamo for “pushing her agenda.”
It is important to understand that opinion pieces in the Comment section are not news coverage. The News and Comment sections operate independently. Expectations of impartial reporting should only exist for the News section. Comment is a space for contributors to comment on issues from any perspective or side that they choose, so long as their arguments are presented reasonably. Expecting balanced arguments or neutrality from Comment articles is, by definition, contradictory.
That being said, context matters with regard to impartiality in News and diversity of opinion in Comment. The story of Lhamo is about the harassment campaign against her despite the legitimacy of her election, which our news coverage correspondingly focused on, and Comment contributors initially problematized.
The story is not about the general history of the conflict in Tibet. But the choice of some readers to interpret our coverage through this lens meant that they associated the ‘lack’ of a ‘China perspective’ as a deliberate stance on the conflict and thus reinforcing the Western tendency to negatively portray China.
Comment is not obligated to false balance for the sake of appearing neutral. A column on the online harassment against Lhamo does not automatically warrant soliciting comments from international Chinese students or groups on campus — they do not carry the same weight for the story in question. In fact, such a strategy would instead imply that being an international Chinese student means being on the ‘opposite’ side and could wrongly associate them with the harassment campaign.
Nonetheless, we reminded readers that if they disagree with our initial opinion coverage from their perspective as international Chinese students, they are always free to reach out and write an article accordingly. What we publish is ultimately a reflection of the interests of our contributors. Indeed, our UTSC Affairs Columnist wanted to provide an alternative perspective on the Lhamo story, and so that is the focus of his column this week.
Making charges against our editorial process on social media without fully understanding it, however, is not conducive to healthy discussion and debate. Discussion on sensitive issues should not devolve into flame wars. Many unreasonable and misinformed comments on social media from all sides compelled us to intervene and moderate for hateful content.
Publishing opinion pieces defending Lhamo is not an automatic endorsement of any position, and this is where the Comment-Editorial divide comes in. Whereas the Comment section is reserved for U of T community members, only editorials represent the opinion of The Varsity’s leadership. This year, the Editorial Board has not taken a position on the Lhamo story. We are obligated to make that known to readers who conflate individual contributors’ opinions with the paper’s as a whole and subsequently make accusations of bias.
Some readers’ concerns were fair. They observed that our news coverage on the Lhamo story was obscured because it was only a subheading in a news article’s recap of the SCSU elections, rather than a full article on its own. This may have contributed to the perception that opinion preceded news coverage, which is typically avoided so the former is not mistaken for the latter. We welcome readers to write letters to the editor or reach out to our Public Editor to discuss possible shortcomings in our editorial process.
We can always do better. But it is also important that readers abide by a certain level of media literacy. This means making informed and fair criticisms so that difficult discussions remain constructive.