Journalistic ethics, the BC Press Council, and the mayor's attack on the Rossland Telegraph
In light of the Mayor Greg Granstrom’s vehement public letter—attached below—charging me and the Telegraph with “defamatory” comments, I contacted Rollie Rose, executive director of the BC Press Council, for comments he might offer on the matter.
Rose said he had received the city’s complaint and had written a response—also attached below—but because the Rossland Telegraph is not a member of the BC Press Council, he had not kept his response to the mayor and council on file.
“I can recall writing back that [the Telegraph] is not a member of the Council, so our Code of Practice does not apply to you,” Rose said. “I also said something about council having lots of problems without also having problems with the media.”
I asked specifically about the Code of Practice—a list of 12 items that codify standard journalistic ethics, and which we have reprinted below this article. I said I agreed with the points’ ethical foundation and was confident I had not violated any of them.
“Just because you don’t belong to the Press Council doesn’t make you immoral,” Rose said.
Rose has lots of experience on both sides of the fence after 40 years in the newspaper business and five years as mayor of his community.
“I had to get out,” he said, saying being mayor wasn’t for him, even though he knew what he was getting himself into from the years he’d spent covering council meetings as a journalist. “You want to do something good for your community, but politics get in the way.”
I asked about the complaint process and said I would be happy to engage in any means that would help settle this problem.
First, Rose said, the mayor or the city would have to file a formal complaint.
“He would have to cite the item in the Code of Practice that was breached, and he would have to provide evidence,” Rose said. “Just because they don’t like what was written is not the basis for a complaint. But I get that a lot, especially from politicians.”
“I take the story and judge it against the Code. Lots of times that kills the complaint right there. Most complaints we’re able to settle between the editor and the complainant.”
Rose gave one example, however, of an editor for a paper just outside of Penticton who was fired earlier this year after the BC Press Council adjudicated in favour of the complainant.
Secondly, Rose said, for the complaint to proceed, the Telegraph would have to become a member of the Press Council—at the expense of annual dues—and agree to publish “verbatim” whatever decision the Press Council came to on the matter.
The complaint would be assessed for merit before being sent to a three person review panel composed of two public and one newspaper representative.
Most complaints are dismissed at this point, Rose said, but some move on to adjudication by the whole board. The board is composed of six public and five newspaper representatives, including the Vancouver Sun, Post Media, and Castanet.net.
I asked about the only example of an error that the mayor has so far used to accuse us of wrong-doing: I published a comment with erroneous information. Soon after publishing, I learned that the information was incorrect and offered an immediate retraction and apology. On receipt of a letter the following week from the aggrieved party, we published a second retraction and apology.
“That’s valid,” Rose said, “that’s more than good enough.”
Point One of the Code of Practice states: “A newspaper’s first duty is to provide the public with accurate information. Newspapers should correct inaccuracies promptly.”
On another topic, Rose said changes may be in the offing for the BC Press Council, particularly due to the rising phenomenon of Internet news agencies. Toronto’s Ryerson University is running a national study on all the press councils in Canada, Rose explained, to see what can be done to improve them and to provide some standardization.
“Within a year,” Rose suspected, “we could become a national press council with provincial offices.”
Below we have reprinted the 12 points in the BC Press Council’s Code of Practice. Although the Rossland Telegraph is not a member of the Press Council, we wholeheartedly subscribe to the ethical position encapsulated in these 12 points. We encourage feedback from anyone who feels our coverage has violated this code.
A newspaper’s first duty is to provide the public with accurate information.
Newspapers should correct inaccuracies promptly.
2. OPPORTUNITY TO REPLY
Newspapers should give individuals and organizations a fair and timely opportunity to reply to inaccuracies when the issue is of significant importance or when reasonably called for.
Newspapers should strive to balance an individual’s desire for privacy with the requirements of a free press. Privacy concerns, therefore, must not unduly inhibit newspapers from publishing material or making inquiries about an individual’s private life when it can be shown that these are, or are reasonably believed to be, in the public interest.
4. COMMENT AND FACT
Newspapers should defend their hard-won right to exercise the widest possible latitude in expressing opinions, no matter how controversial or unpopular the opinions may be, and to give columnists, editorial cartoonists and others the same latitude in expressing personal opinions. However, newspapers and journalists shall strive to avoid expressing comment and conjecture as established fact.
Newspapers and journalists should use straightforward means to obtain information and photographs. The use of subterfuge is only acceptable when the material sought after is in the public interest and can not be obtained by any other means.
Unless the information is directly relevant to the news story or opinion column newspapers should avoid publishing material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, gender, religion, marital status, physical or mental disability, age or sexual orientation
7. NEWS PHOTOGRAPHS
With the advent of technologies that make image manipulation possible, newspapers will take care to publish news photographs that are fair and accurate representations of reality. Any technical manipulation of a news photo that could mislead readers should be duly noted in the newspaper.
8. INTERVIEWING OR PHOTOGRAPHING CHILDREN
Journalists should approach assignments involving children with due regard for the well being of the child or children in question.
9. SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS
Newspapers should not identify child victims of sexual assault without the consent of the child’s parents or guardian. In the case of adults, newspapers should consider if the identity of adult victims, even if they want to be identified, is in the public interest.
10. FINANCIAL JOURNALISM
Journalists should not use for their own profit financial information they receive in advance of its general publication.
Newspapers are free to support financially any political party or candidate they choose. However, if such a financial donation is made close to or during an election campaign the newspaper is reporting on, disclosure must be made in the newspaper during the campaign.
11. CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
When the Press Council adjudicates a complaint against a newspaper, the newspaper concerned shall promptly publish the full text of the decision.