The newsroom shouldn’t be an echo chamber

The Varsity needs to emphasize diversity in its opinion pages

The newsroom shouldn’t be an echo chamber

The Varsity occupies an important role at the University of Toronto because it satisfies two functions: it provides readers with information that they want to know, and it shares information that they ought to know. Sometimes, these objectives exist in tension with each other. Traditional news media, especially print media, is valuable because it emphasizes comprehensiveness. In an era of Facebook algorithms that make it possible to exclusively encounter news that affirms a reader’s personal belief system, there is something refreshing about reading a newspaper from cover to cover. It allows readers to encounter a diversity of subjects, from arts and sciences to sports and business. It should also introduce readers to a variety of thoughtful and carefully articulated political viewpoints.

Indeed, this requirement is entrenched in The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics, which requires The Varsity to remain true to its readers by presenting news and opinion pieces accurately and fairly. This includes providing a balanced and impartial presentation of all relevant facts or substantial opinions, striving to maintain an open dialogue with readers, and giving due consideration to all relevant points of view. This is the minimum standard for responsible and ethical journalism at The Varsity. Failure to meet this standard instigates a breakdown of trust between the newspaper and its readership.

Some readers believe that this trust has been breached. They see The Varsity’s Comment section, which is predominantly filled with left-leaning critiques and political viewpoints, as contradicting the newspaper’s institutional commitment to comprehensiveness, fairness, and accuracy. As one reader articulated, the demographic that publishes in The Varsity “is very much the social-justice left. This is not representative of the university as a whole, but is a product of the current political climate.” Comment Editor Ibnul Chowdhury attributes the Comment section’s political slant to the fact that most Varsity contributors have left-wing views.

The reader conceptualized The Varsity’s Comment section as a feedback loop in which conservative viewpoints are consistently marginalized. This occurs in two ways. First, “there is a sense among non-leftists that having your name on an article that criticizes social justice rhetoric, even if it’s completely correct, will damage future employment opportunities.” According to the reader, issues like race and sexual assault have become so contentious that it’s impossible to challenge aspects of these debates without facing disproportionate public backlash. This deters people from contributing opinions that are not in line with popular intellectual, moral, or political consensus.

Second, the reader fears that The Varsity’s editorial process is more rigorous for pitches featuring controversial opinions than for those that align with the dominant political views of The Varsity’s readership. Chowdhury rejected this assessment. He argued that “making this about ideology shields the real conversation, which is the quality and relevance of contributors’ pitches and arguments.” Any difficulties with accepting reader contributions may be attributable to argumentative issues surrounding the article rather than its underlying political viewpoint.

Nonetheless, the reader I spoke with views the current political climate alongside The Varsity’s editorial practices as a perfect storm that marginalizes unpopular, conservative, and controversial viewpoints. According to the reader, potential contributors whose opinions do not align with The Varsity’s apparent politics begin to self-select out of contributing or are filtered out in the editorial process. In turn, readers who don’t agree with the Comment section’s left-leaning slant gradually stop engaging with The Varsity, since their points of view aren’t represented.

For its part, The Varsity makes a concerted effort to publish diverse political perspectives. During my conversation with Chowdhury, he expressed a sincere commitment to publishing fair, accurate, and comprehensive content within the Comment section. However, this is a task that requires all of us to work together. Readers of and contributors to The Varsity need to engage in a type of political discourse that values self-reflection, respectful criticism, and a willingness to learn from the community. The newsroom isn’t supposed to be an echo chamber; it is a space for diversity and debate.

Morag McGreevey is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at publiceditor@thevarsity.ca.

What do Ford’s reforms mean for campus journalism?

The opt-out model of student fees threatens more than just The Varsity

What do Ford’s reforms mean for campus journalism?

The Ford government’s postsecondary education reforms potentially foretell a precarious future for campus journalism. Premier Doug Ford recently sought to justify the government’s new opt-out model for “non-essential” student fees by pointing to the controversy unfolding at Ryerson University.

The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has allegedly racked up $250,000 in credit card debt. On Twitter, Ford linked to the CBC’s coverage of events and wrote: “I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.” However, as other journalists have noted, in linking to the CBC’s article, Ford’s tweet overlooked a core component of the story: the news was first reported by The Eyeopener, Ryerson’s student newspaper.

Campus newspapers perform vital investigative and communicative roles, holding student organizations and university administrators accountable for their conduct. These campus institutions are also largely financially dependent on student fees, which, at public universities, are ultimately beholden to provincial policies.

As Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton wrote in his recent letter, “money from student fees comprises the majority of our revenue and we could not survive without it. The financial uncertainty of whether or not we would receive enough student fees in any given semester… would debilitate our operations.” In other words, the provincial government’s postsecondary policy reforms pose an “existential threat” to campus journalism as we know it.

Supporting strong campus journalism is neither a liberal nor a conservative value. It is, instead, a shared Canadian tradition that reflects our collective commitment to free press and engaged democracy. Student journalism is a vital component of U of T’s identity, as it is for academic institutions across Ontario. In addition to providing a robust exchange of ideas and information, The Varsity offers critical training for students who may shape the field of journalism.

Of course, the journalism we support must be thoughtful and productive. In response to Ford’s tweet about the Ryerson scandal, The Varsity published a photograph of the RSU executive Edmund Sofo and Ford posing together at an Ontario Progressive Conservatives Youth barbecue in August. The decision to publish the photograph was criticized by readers, who failed to see how the image was newsworthy in this context. In my opinion, this criticism is well-founded. The Varsity’s reporting seemed more akin to a political campaign response than appropriate journalism.

However, The Varsitys shortcoming in this respect doesn’t delegitimize its broader function in our community. Indeed, the existence of the public editor column, in which I am free to criticize the newspaper and its editorial decisions, demonstrates the seriousness with which The Varsity undertakes its mandate.

As the public editor, I typically look inward, holding The Varsity accountable to journalistic standards and mediating the relationship between readers and the newspaper. But, with the newspaper’s future jeopardized, I find myself in the unusual position of looking outward and examining the consequences of the Ford government’s political reforms on students’ capacity to produce high-quality journalism.

Relegating student journalism to a hodgepodge of volunteer efforts and social media commentary — which is one possible outcome of these reforms — would be a profound disservice to U of T. It would reduce the quality of the news conveyed, diminish our collective role in training future journalists, and denigrate a symbolic space in which we, as a community, can engage in thoughtful self-reflection about who we are, what we represent, and the values to which we aspire.

Morag McGreevey is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at publiceditor@thevarsity.ca.

Whose voices are heard at The Varsity?

An inquiry into which letters to the editor are published and the political viewpoints they represent

Whose voices are heard at <i>The Varsity</i>?

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 Varsitys coverage of the University of Toronto Students’ Union Annual General Meeting and Rachel Chen’s criticism of the newspapers 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 Varsitys 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 prolife 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 publiceditor@thevarsity.ca.

The case for transparency in the newsroom

Increased diversity and trustworthy reporting both require openness with readers

The case for transparency in the newsroom
The recent editorial “Putting colour in print” polarized readers who felt that The Varsity Editorial Board’s discussion of diversity and objectivity missed the mark. Freedom of the press is a privilege and a responsibility, as it is the job of journalists to bring untold and undertold stories to light. In doing so, reporters and editors implicitly must answer the question: whose stories are worthy of attention?

 

The Varsity Editorial Board argued that a diverse newsroom helps newspapers answer the question with sensitivity and nuance. The editorial contended that “personal identity, which includes race, class, gender, and more, cannot be divorced from one’s professional journalism. Identity informs what is valued, reported, discussed, and published.” A newsroom where journalists of colour are empowered to write about the stories that they think are important helps to identify gaps in a paper’s coverage, and enables reporters to share news in a more accurate and nuanced way. The net result is positive: newspapers do a better job of representing diverse communities, and readers acquire a more comprehensive understanding of the world around them.

 

One reader embraced The Varsity Editorial Board’s call for diversity, but wished the paper had gone further in examining its own shortcomings. “Student publications aren’t perfect, but The Varsity editorial board is correct to argue that student journalists have a responsibility to do better. Let’s see some real critical self-reflection from all publications, including campus papers,” they wrote. Campus newspapers hold a particularly important position within the broader field of journalism because they often serve as a jumping off point for careers in journalism.  The Varsity Editorial Board presents an opportunity to model a diverse and inclusive newsroom that may eventually be carried over into larger establishment newspapers like the National Post and The Globe and Mail.

 

Another reader, speaking from the other end of the spectrum, expressed concern that the editorial privileged identity politics over objective reporting. Arjun Singh commented that “unbiased reporting can, and must, exist. Furthermore, actions and accomplishments, not race, must measure the standards of commitment to journalistic codes and ethics.” Singh argues that journalists “ought to keep their worldviews outside” their reporting because they may “distort” the facts. Singh is correct that unbiased reporting occupies an important role in journalism. Just as we expect professionals in other fields to put aside their personal opinions while at work, journalists have a professional responsibility to report the facts with precision and thoroughness.

However, the ideal of perfect journalistic objectivity may be a fiction. As the editorial suggested, journalists’ lived experiences inform the facts they find compelling and the voices they find newsworthy. The news that The Varsity covers should reflect the racially, economically, and sexually dynamic community it is meant to serve. Having a diverse masthead furthers this objective.

Although the two readers’ responses to “Putting colour in print” come from very different perspectives, an answer to both of their critiques may be increased transparency in the newsroom. Transparency helps readers hold the newspaper accountable for its editorial practices, ensuring that the news published in The Varsity reflects the diversity of voices at the University of Toronto. Transparency is also helpful for building trust regarding the paper’s substantive reporting. A newspaper’s credibility stems from the accuracy and impartiality of its reporting.

Understanding how the reporting came to be — especially the professional practice of journalism — helps readers understand the type of information they are accessing, with all of its strengths and vulnerabilities.

This is where the role of a public editor comes in. I seek to break down barriers between The Varsity and its readers by responding to reader feedback, commenting on issues in journalism, and advocating for greater transparency, diversity, and accountability in the newsroom.

With this goal in mind, please reach out to me at publiceditor@thevarsity.ca if you have any questions or criticisms about The Varsity’s editorial and reporting practices.

Reflecting on the coverage of Faith Goldy

Context is important when covering controversial candidates

Reflecting on the coverage of Faith Goldy

Toronto’s municipal election is behind us. Mayor John Tory was easily re-elected to a second term with 63.5 per cent of the vote, while his main rival Jennifer Keesmaat pulled in 23.6 per cent. But it was The Varsity’s coverage of third-place contender Faith Goldy — who won just 3.4 per cent of the popular vote — that caused the most concern for readers.

Goldy is a far-right media personality with ties to white nationalist views. Prior to being fired from The Rebel Media for appearing on a neo-Nazi podcast, Goldy hosted a segment on whether Canadian immigration is leading to a “white genocide.” In other words, Goldy espouses views that are morally repugnant to the vast majority of the University of Toronto community.

The Varsity was faced with the difficult task of acknowledging Goldy’s candidacy, while delineating her fringe views and low levels of popular support. At times, The Varsitys election coverage fell short of this responsibility. The Varsity failed in two main areas: its imprecise coverage of the protest that broke out during the mayoral transit debate co-hosted by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and its imbalanced coverage of Goldy’s candidacy.

Precision is important

According to one reader, “there has been a pattern of coverage of Faith Goldy that has quite honestly left me confused. While I understand mistakes happen, I have come to expect better.” This “pattern” refers to two moments of editorial oversight.

The first was The Varsity’s October 1 cover, which featured a photograph of UTSC students and pro-Goldy protesters at the transit debate. As Rachel Chen noted in her Letter to the Editor, the cover offered no context about who Goldy is or why she was excluded from the debate. It also failed to explicitly distinguish which debate attendees were bystanders and which were protesters.

The second incident was The Varsity’s publication of a Facebook video with the title “Protests erupt at mayoral transit debate.” Like the October 1 cover, the title of this video offered no context about Goldy’s controversial politics. According to Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton, it was an accident — The Varsity did not intend to publish the video with that title. Denton informed me that when “it was brought to our attention (within minutes), we immediately renamed the title of the video and ensured that the caption on Facebook clarified beyond doubt who the protesters were supporting and what Faith Goldy represents.”

Neither incident was intentional. However, Chen was correct when she wrote that “in a situation involving something as heavy as white supremacy… it is the responsibility of the newspaper to make sure they provide enough context.” The Varsity should be held to a heightened standard of conscientiousness when reporting about Goldy because her views are so antithetical to those of our community.

Journalists always have a responsibility to be accurate when affiliating any person, or group of persons, with offensive and extreme political viewpoints. This is of particular importance in campus journalism, where readers often know the individuals being featured.

The Varsity isn’t just a conveyor of news; it is also a conveyor of community. What might appear as an impersonal photo in National Post or The Globe and Mail has more immediate repercussions on a university campus. Given these stakes, The Varsity should have aspired to the highest degree of clarity when reporting on the pro-Goldy protest at the mayoral transit debate.

Legitimizing Goldy’s candidacy

The Varsity was also criticized for giving Goldy’s campaign too much coverage. Last week’s edition included a full-page feature on Goldy, titled “The Faith Goldy effect.” The author, Anastasia Pitcher, was careful to contextualize Goldy’s politics in relation to their white nationalist origins and condemn the politician’s views as “unambiguously hateful.”

Nonetheless, the question remains: should we be giving a politician who espouses such views a full-page feature in The Varsity? Pitcher’s article anticipates this question and argues that “a forbidden message has power and allure. [Goldy] has said, ‘the more they try to silence us, the more people are starting to pay attention.’ For once, I have to say that I agree with her.” However, the reality is that this article gave Goldy greater exposure — more people know Goldy’s name now than before.

The danger of giving Goldy a voice in The Varsity is the risk of legitimizing her xenophobic views. Even if the newspaper’s coverage is largely critical, it grants Goldy ostensible legitimacy as a political figure. As Lucas Granger argued in a Letter to the Editor, “giving [Goldy] a platform to spew her hatred in order to debate her and try to take her down civilly is a false dream and can only win her more support.”

This brings me back to the refrain that context matters deeply when covering controversial political candidates. Context matters in specific circumstances, as in the mayoral transit debate, but also in a broader, institutional sense. We as readers, writers, and editors of The Varsity must be aware of the legitimizing power that this newspaper holds, as we seek to wield it wisely.

Morag McGreevey is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at publiceditor@thevarsity.ca.

An invitation to readers

Introducing Morag McGreevey as The Varsity’s new Public Editor

An invitation to readers

In her inaugural column as The Varsity’s first Public Editor, Sophie Borwein wrote that “if there was ever a golden era of newspaper journalism, this isn’t it.” Her words still ring true. And so, readers of The Varsity, this is your invitation: to write, challenge, and engage with our campus newspaper this year. To enable me, as your new Public Editor, to advocate for better, more transparent, more ethical journalism.

The concept of a public editor isn’t a new one. In Canada, the role dates back to 1972, when The Toronto Star appointed an ombudsman to arbitrate between the newspaper and its readers. Although the position is more recent at The Varsity, my predecessor Borwein made great strides toward modelling what thoughtful public editing looks like on a university campus.

Despite this precedent, the role of a public editor continues to feel fresh, urgent, even slightly undefined. The function of a public editor has remained constant over the years: to advocate for readers, hold newspapers accountable, and promote the public interest. But the challenges facing newsrooms, and the concerns articulated by audiences, have undergone a fundamental change. How can campus journalists present news accurately and impartially in the age of social media? What is the most responsible way of addressing reader concerns in an increasingly polarized political landscape? And when readers’ interests come into conflict with traditional journalistic practices, who should be privileged? By answering these questions, publicly and critically, I hope to narrow the distance between readers and reporters, and increase The Varsity’s credibility through accountability.

As an ex-journalist and third-year law student, I am aware that law and journalism don’t share the same procedural and substantive mechanisms for arriving at the truth. In journalism, the body politic — you, the reader — plays a much more critical role in demanding fair, accurate reporting. The standard of balanced reporting that we require of The Varsity emerges from our shared expectations of journalistic integrity. But this relationship cuts both ways. Just as its readers shape The Varsity, our campus newspaper provides an identity for the University of Toronto community. Where words have real power, The Varsity must be conscientious about the narratives it puts into the world and be aware of the stories it leaves out. As Public Editor, I can’t make every private concern public, but I can help steer the larger conversation to the things that matter most to our community.

My voice, on these pages, reflects an aspirational journalism in which ethics, facts, and balanced critical analysis are always at the forefront. I am, of course, aware of my own fallibility. That is why I invite you to reach out to me at publiceditor@thevarsity.ca with your questions, comments, and criticisms. My hope is that, together, we might hold each other accountable in a democratic exchange of news, opinions, and ideas.