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Public Editor: Balancing breaking news and consent at The Varsity

How can student journalists report urgent stories accurately and responsibly?
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Oftentimes, journalists serendipitously discover new information that may serve the public interest, and then, the reporter dealing with that information determines whether it constitutes breaking news. Breaking news refers to anything that is valuable to the public’s interest and embodies a sense of immediacy — something that the public must know now. 

In Nikki Usher’s words, from her book Making News at The New York Times, “immediacy is, indeed, an emergent and contested value of online journalism.” Immediacy as a news value is vigorously debated because it poses the challenge of publishing stories as soon as possible while maintaining accuracy in their coverage. 

This past March, The Varsity reached out to the UTSU elections candidates to invite them to their executive candidates’ forum on March 17, which was later cancelled. Deputy News Editor Lauren Alexander contacted the candidate running for vice-president public & university affairs, Micah Kalisch, via email on March 10 for confirmation that they would be attending the forum. 

However, due to a lack of response, Alexander then reached out to Kalisch on Facebook on March 11. At the time of that conversation, Kalisch was on a break during a 12-hour work shift, when they mentioned that they would be pulling out of the elections and hence may not attend the forum. 

When I reached out to Alexander and the editor-in-chief, Ibnul Chowdhury, they expressed that this new information about Kalisch’s “intentions to drop out” of the elections was seen “as warranting a breaking news story.” 

Later on March 11, The Varsity published a breaking news story online. Readers shared their concerns about the story for lacking the “consent” of the candidate to publish their comments as an official statement. 

Here is what happened. During their conversation, Alexander communicated to Kalisch that she would like to report this information in a breaking news story and requested them for a brief phone call. However, Kalisch was not in the capacity to provide an official statement due to time constraints from work and informed Alexander that they would get back to her the next day. 

Despite this, a breaking article was published, and this is where the issue of consent arises. Chowdhury explained that Kalisch was “taking an action that [was] going to be in the public interest of the U of T community,” which is why The Varsity adopted an approach where “she can give her statement later, she can provide further information later, but the fact that she’s dropping out, that in itself warrants a breaking story.” 

Chowdhury also conveyed that in the communication between Alexander and Kalisch, the latter “made a pretty definitive indication that she was going to be dropping out” and that if the “wording was just even slightly softer, like she’s thinking about dropping out or she is contemplating dropping out, then maybe we wouldn’t have even pursued this.”

Kalisch requested The Varsity to remove the article within hours of it being published since they did not offer comments as an on-the-record statement. However, articles at The Varsity are only removed if they are inaccurate and don’t serve the public’s interest, or if they pose safety concerns for the community. Instead, the news editor reached out to Kalisch for an official comment to make corrections to the online breaking. 

The public also shared concerns about the amount of time it took to correct the article. Chowdhury explained that it took time to amend the article because Kalisch “never gave a clear update or statements for several days.” He said, “We needed to know that further information in order to update the article accurately and also transparently tell the readers what happened in the editor’s note.” 

On March 14, after receiving further comments from Kalisch, the online article was amended “to proportionately reflect new information and perspective on the elections.” The breaking article in its entirety was corrected, shifting the focus away from Kalisch’s potential departure to other issues such as the lack of participation in the UTSU elections this year. The Varsity corrected the headline and subheading, and changed the photo of the article. Later, this amended article was provided in print on March 15, and on March 16, a second breaking article confirming Kalisch’s official departure from the elections was published online. 

The point is that The Varsity should formally establish an explicit form of consent to publish comments at the beginning of every communication between its reporters and sources. I asked an assistant professor of media studies at UTSC, David Nieborg, about how student journalists could ethically and accurately cover breaking news stories. 

You want to be super careful about protecting, essentially, people who might be a bit more vulnerable, your fellow students. As a reporter, you are in a different position of power… because you have a broader platform,” said Nieborg. 

In a public statement on Facebook, Kalisch wrote, “I feel uncomfortable remaining in this election given my own consent in the article was stripped away… I believe the article undermined my credibility to run and gave many people the wrong impression that I am not dedicated to the role.” Kalisch’s comments demonstrate the importance of forming consent to publish comments given the public attention that the newspaper attracts. 

I also asked Jeffrey Dvorkin, the former ombudsman of National Public Radio and the former program director of journalism at UTSC, how student journalists should cover breaking news stories. Dvorkin shed light on the fact that in journalism, the relationship between sources and reporters is a two-way street. 

Dvorkin said, “The source must make it clear from the beginning of the interview that what he or she is about to say is off the record.” It also “obliges the reporter to say, ‘Hi, I’m here as a reporter for The Varsity. So everything we’re talking about is now on the record, right?’ ” Dvorkin added. Sources, especially those running for elections, automatically attract more attention from the community, so it is safe to practise mentioning whether something cannot be quoted. 

The Varsity’s sharp-eyed editors certainly spotted an important story to inform its readers. Nieborg claimed, “It’s a good instinct to want to get the story out. So, that in itself is a good trait as a journalist.” The Varsity has also maintained transparency throughout by offering editor’s comments explaining the corrections made in the article and upon receiving further official comment from Kalisch, they thoroughly revised the article to reflect the story accurately and offer new perspectives from other spokespeople. 

This case serves as a reminder for The Varsity to revisit the third section on fairness in its code of ethics. It states, “(9) Journalists must be forthright in communicating the normal practice of journalism surrounding ‘on the record’ and ‘off the record’ statements with sources and subjects, bearing in mind that some individuals may have little or no experience dealing with journalists.” Practising consent is crucial for building trust between reporters and their sources.

Padmaja Rengamannar is Public Editor at The Varsity and can be reached at [email protected]