P RESS COUNCILS IN CANADA: MODELS OF PRACTICE AND P ROSP ECTS FOR ALTERNATIVES
Ivor Shapiro, Lisa Taylor & Edward Tubb Ryerson Journalism Research Centre October 2012
P R ES S C OUNCILS IN CANADA
Models of Practice and Prospects for Alternatives
Preliminary report of research ﬁndings Prepared for Newspapers Canada
About this preliminary report" Mandate" Research questions & method"
Research questions " Method "
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Press council goals" Cha#enges and possibilities"
Methods & process " A council’s ambit" Representativeness " Financing" Awareness & other anci#ary activities" Declining industry support & involvement" Provincial/regional versus national"
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The future of press accountability in Canada" Summary of options"
Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
About this preliminary report
This document is a major step in ongoing research into Canadian press councils’ models of practice and future options. While future reports will provide further theoretical content and practical examples that will underpin and further substantiate our observations, this report should nonetheless stand alone as starting point for possible press council reform in Canada. This research has been supported by an arms-length personal donation by Torstar chair John Honderich, made on behalf of Newspapers Canada, to the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Additional funding from Mitacs-Accelerate made it possible for Edward Tubb, a Master of Journalism candidate at Ryerson University, to join the project. Canada’s premiere research internship program enables graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to apply theory in real-world settings, while companies gain a competitive advantage by accessing high-quality research expertise. We invite feedback on this preliminary report and will address any responses we receive in our ongoing reports on this study, which should conclude, with ﬁndings submitted for peer review, in the spring of 2013.
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Newspapers Canada represents more than 800 daily and community newspapers in every province and territory. The newspaper industry is in a state of ﬂux due to new technologies, evolving business models and changing relationships with audiences. At a time when every aspect of the business is being rethought and reevaluated, it is not surprising that systems of accountability and credibility are among the many concerns of newspaper publishers. Newspapers Canada approached the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre requesting a study of current press accountability structures and processes as well as an analysis of options for the future. The research should provide newspapers and their industry association with a range of options they can consider when it comes to responding and being accountable to the audiences they serve.
Research questions & method
1. R E S E A R C H Q U E S T I O N S The study addresses the following questions: (i) How do the existing models and procedures of Canadian press councils compare with one another, and with models operating in other jurisdictions, especially other democracies with vigorously free news media? (ii) What are the purposes of press councils according to their various stakeholders, and how congruent are these purposes with one another? Speciﬁcally, what roles are seen for (a) complaints resolution (b) other activities? (iii) What diﬃculties are or have been faced by existing and defunct provincial press councils in achieving their various goals? (iv) What might be feasible solutions to these diﬃculties? Is the creation of a national press council one such solution? (v) Regarding the prospects for a national council, how might this be ﬁnanced and managed, and to what extent and subject to what conditions could it feasibly (a) include news
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media beyond newspapers, and (b) achieve goals beyond complaints-resolution (e.g. facilitation of news media awareness, broader accountability, and citizen engagement)? 2. M E T H O D Given the breadth of our mandate, we adopted a grounded theory approach. Our preliminary eﬀorts were focused on data collection, primarily through the creation and dissemination of an online questionnaire, which we saw as a starting point—a chance to “take the pulse” of interested parties and to ensure we appreciated the range of relevant interests at play. To be clear, the questionnaire results lack quantitative validity, because respondents selfselected. We disseminated information about the questionnaire by publicizing it through various channels such as Twitter and J-Source; word about the survey was also shared via news media (e.g., Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor, wrote a column about the questionnaire, and TVO journalists tweeted about it). We received just over 500 responses (30 per cent of respondents reported working in the journalism industry, and 70 per cent self-identiﬁed as news consumers) that, despite the above-mentioned inherent limitations of this research, have been instructive, and have assisted in shaping our subsequent work. Of the “news consumer” respondents, just four per cent self-identiﬁed as individuals who had previously complained to a press council. However, in response to a question asking news consumer respondents why they were interested in the issue, almost all selected one or both of two possible responses: (1) “I am an avid consumer of news journalism,” and (2) “I have concerns about how the news media operates.” Other ﬁndings from the questionnaire include the following: • In response to the question “How accountable are news organizations to the publics they serve?” about half of the industry respondents and just over 20 per cent of audience members identiﬁed news organizations as being "somewhat" or "very" accountable; • In response to the question “What do you feel are the chief methods for news consumers who are unhappy with the media to seek accountability from a particular news organization?” audience members most frequently identiﬁed the following options: (1) writing a letter to the editor, (2) contacting the paper's ombud or public editor, (3) contacting a manager within the organization in question, and (4) commenting on the website of the news organization in question; • Both industry and consumer respondents identiﬁed receipt, adjudication and mediation of complaints, as well as publicizing the outcome of those processes, as the current primary functions of press councils; and Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
• Both respondent groups identiﬁed lack of news organization commitment and lack of public awareness and interest as the main challenges facing press councils. After closing the survey, we presented our preliminary ﬁndings at the Newspapers Canada Ink + Beyond conference in Toronto in April of 2012; feedback from that information session helped further guide the substance of our qualitative interviews. Those interviews, which began in May, were concluded at the end of August. We consulted with current members and staﬀ of all ﬁve press councils in existence in Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic); we also either interviewed or received written submissions from a broad range of stakeholders including policy makers, scholars, publishers, journalists, former press council members, former press council complainants and other interested parties, in order to gather more perspectives about what press councils do, what they ought to do, and how to best position and deﬁne the press council of the future. Our literature review was similarly broad (we reviewed internal press council documents, press council decisions, external reports, scholarly papers and media coverage), and included both Canadian and international sources.
Press council goals
In examining the goals that animate a press council, we looked to councils’ own documents as well as how stakeholders deﬁne councils’ raison d’etre. For the most part, answers to the “why?” question fall into the following categories: 1. Accountability: press councils help ensure that member news organizations are responsive to the questions and concerns of their members. 2. Transparency: while one may observe degrees of variation depending on an individual council’s processes, it is nonetheless clear that, overall, press councils are premised on a notion that the resolution of complaints is a public process. 3. Standards: press councils are tasked with guarding and upholding ethical and professional standards for member publications (and, in some cases, any distribution platform related to a member publication). There is a noteworthy division between those who advocate reliance on codiﬁed standards and those who espouse a more ﬂexible, less rules-based approach to the investigation and resolution of complaints; this diﬀerence will be discussed later in this document. 4. Independence: press council proponents often espouse councils’ independence— councils are separate and apart from their member publications, and ordinarily Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
include a mix of public and industry representatives. Respondents frequently emphasized that the existence of press councils thwarts the spectre of government regulation. However, the hallmark of independence may be more apparent than real —most Canadian councils are funded entirely by their member publications, a fact that leads skeptics to question whether in fact press councils are in any way beholden to those who pay for their existence. (The Conseil de presse du Québec’s funding model diﬀers markedly from that of other Canadian councils, and will be explored later in this document.) 5. Representation: Canadian press councils adhere to a common press council model: “ordinary” members of the public + industry representatives. And, within that subset of public members, councils are generally expected to be demographically diverse and representative of a broad range of perspectives, beliefs and experiences.
Challenges and possibilities
In this section, we will set out a broad range of issues that are germane to a full appreciation both of press councils’ current realities as well as possibilities for their future form and function. 1. M E T H O D S & P R O C E S S When one looks to other established democracies in the world, it becomes apparent that there is substantial breadth in models of press regulation. International variations on the theme of press self-regulation include the following: • Scope: some regulatory bodies are true “press” councils, while others hear complaints about broadcast and digital content as well; • Mandatory participation: in at least one jurisdiction, press council membership is a requirement for news organizations, while in others membership is entirely voluntary (several jurisdictions either have, or are considering, opportunities to create incentives to join press councils); • Statutory framework: in some jurisdictions (including those in which press council participation is voluntary and/or industry regulated) there is a statutory framework that sets the stage for regulation; • Funding: while most are entirely industry-funded, others receive support from other entities, most often government;
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• Council composition: many councils include both public and industry members, while others are entirely industry-controlled; • Complementary regulation: in some jurisdictions, there is both a council and an ombud, each with its own distinct role in the process; • Penalties: while there are a few jurisdictions in which press councils may impose ﬁnancial penalties, the more common outcome is that any journalistic organization found in breach of standards is obligated to publicize that ﬁnding With minor variations, Canadian press councils’ methods and process are essentially the same: a complaint is received and reviewed; eﬀorts are made to informally resolve the dispute before sending the matter to adjudication; and, if the matter is resolved in favour of the complainant, the oﬀending publication is expected to publish the council’s decision. In some jurisdictions, the process described above is informed by a code of conduct. Codiﬁcation is hotly debated among press council members; members of the Alberta Press Council, for example, report that the council’s code enables it to make decisions that are consistent and defensible, whereas some Ontario Press Council members see a code as an unnecessarily constraining and limiting document, a mechanism that may also give the appearance of pre-judging an issue. One clear beneﬁt of a code is the degree to which it can help ensure predictability and natural justice; a code may help expedite the complaints process by making at least the initial review of a complaint a task that can quickly and easily be undertaken by a press council representative acting independently. It should be noted that a commitment to refer to a code does not require that a council write its own code. For example, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has supplemented its own documents with the Radio and Television News Directors’ Association’s code of journalistic ethics. While a council may prefer to create its own—and continue to develop it in light of its own decisions as time goes on—the use of an outside code could underline a commitment to apply professional consensus standards rather than supporting a perception that a council simply makes up its own rules. In addition to the functions described above, an individual press council may engage in ancillary functions such as outreach, media literacy, public information and education; the degree to which an individual council’s resources are focused on these functions that fall outside its core varies from one jurisdiction to the next. Councils have taken steps in recent years to speed up their processes; however, in an age of instant communication, even these expedited timelines may fall short of public expectations. There are ways to make councils even more responsive, such as vesting more Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
responsibility for initial review in the hands of a council’s executive director or chair. In this way, the full council, or a panel of the council, will convene only where a complaint is deemed unusual or substantive enough to require original consideration. In some international jurisdictions, an ombud has the authority to adjudicate and/or mediate disputes, and refers to the council only those complaints that, in his/her judgment, merit more formal resolution. By way of example, consider the recent objections to work that appeared under the byline of Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente. Concerns about Wente’s journalism were set out in a blog post on September 18; following that, there were two published responses from the Globe’s public editor, a column by Wente in which she responded to the allegations, and disciplinary action taken by the Globe’s editor-in-chief—all in the span of a week and with substantial public input in the form of commentary and debate exploring plagiarism, attribution, media ethics and accountability. Within that week—again, in response to expressions of external opinion—there had even been a change in the Globe’s accountability structure in that its public editor now reported to the publisher, not the editor. Now, consider what might happen had the blogger taken her complaint about Wente’s work to a press council: even when one assumes the most ambitious of timelines, it is entirely likely that resolution would take months. Clearly, there is an element of “apples to oranges” when comparing a public editor’s handling of a complaint to the process by which a press council would adjudicate such a matter; nonetheless, this example illustrates the speed with which the public expects these issues to be responded to and, where warranted, addressed. While most Canadian press councils’ processes reﬂect an unchanged traditional model, some councils have experimented with methods of expediting cases, including with informal settlements facilitated by an executive director, or relying on videoconferencing to hold hearings. That being said, it seems fair to say that there are unrealized opportunities to save time and cost by aggressively leveraging technology, e.g. video hearings and online documentation. An investment in technology that paves the way for on-demand audio and video elements such as archived hearings may also aid in raising a council’s public proﬁle and increasing its relevance. 2. A C O U N C I L ’ S A M B I T The majority of news and information consumed by Canadian audiences is delivered on one of three platforms: print, broadcast or online. That broad statement, however, does not capture the range of sub-categories within, and overlap among, those three platforms. For example, many people who rely on the Toronto Star for news may rarely touch actual newsprint, instead accessing the Star’s journalism through a computer; similarly, even the Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
most devoted of Peter Mansbridge’s followers may rarely, if ever, reach for the television remote to watch The National, since “appointment viewing” is a habit in decline. In short, media convergence has resulted in such a blurring of the lines between platforms that the very term “newspaper” is a reference to something that, while once the focus of a news organization’s eﬀorts and energy, may now just be one of a suite of products the organization oﬀers. “Digital ﬁrst” is the common mantra in most newsrooms, even those that produce a daily newspaper. This evolution leads to a number of considerations related to a press council’s ambit.
Newspapers’ digital content
Canada’s press councils vary in respect to accountability for digital content published by member newspapers. Our research suggests this is an area of marked divergence in the views of member publications and their audiences. Publishers’ concerns about subjecting their digital content to scrutiny reﬂect the degree to which standards for e-content often appear to fall short of those for print material. However, from the perspective of an aggrieved citizen, the print/ digital distinction may well appear to be an irrelevant formality, an impediment to righting a perceived wrong. Reviewing digital content is not without practical challenges as well—simply sourcing the content in question may be impossible for would-be complainants if they were unable to capture the content before it was removed or updated. It is important to note that the inclusion of digital content does not require an all-ornothing response; rather, it presents an opportunity to discuss what content should fall within a press council’s ambit, and the standard by which it will be assessed. Research suggests that readership of printed newspapers continues to decline—as a practical matter, that means that many devoted “newspaper” readers are actually consuming that news on a tablet or smartphone. And, while many study participants refer to newspapers’ greying audiences as a factor that makes a digital focus less relevant, recent US research suggests that more 50 per cent of seniors are online.
Some online publications have sought to become members of provincial press councils, primarily because of the view that press council membership suggests a commitment to quality journalism. In our view, the advantages of granting digital-only membership are clearer than the disadvantages. Presumably, fee structures would need to take into account the smaller budgets of online startups and small ventures. Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
Subject to narrow exceptions, both newspapers and the digital realm are largely unregulated; broadcast, on the other hand, is a federally regulated undertaking, subject to state control on the basis that the airwaves are public space. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is the federal regulator of broadcast and telecommunications in Canada; however, the CRTC has delegated responsibility for hearing and adjudicating complaints about private broadcasters’ content to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. (The CRTC still hears complaints against those few broadcasters that are not CBSC members, most notably CBC and TVO.) The CBSC was born of an initiative launched by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in 1986; ﬁve years later, after reviewing the CBSC’s complaints process, the CRTC announced its “wholehearted support” of the CBSC initiative, and stated that it would refer public complaints about CAB members’ broadcast content to the CBSC for consideration and resolution. Despite the CBSC’s broad mandate to receive and resolve complaints about broadcast content, there is no clear reason why broadcast news organizations could not choose to participate in a media council, particularly if the council was a national one, rather than provincial/regional. Unlike the CBSC, such a council would be focused on journalistic standards, and would be positioned to consider internet content as well as broadcast reports.
Some councils conﬁne their adjudication to content they ﬁnd to be “news” on the basis that opinion writing is not within their purview. In practice, however, that line has become increasingly blurred; for this reason, the exclusion of opinion writing from a council’s purview becomes more diﬃcult to defend. Councils may wish to adopt a diﬀerent standard in assessing opinion writing, e.g. a council won’t question the actual opinion expressed, but may make a ﬁnding against an opinion piece which contains factual misrepresentations.
Complaints against non-members
With the exception of the Quebec council, which will address a complaint (up to and including a hearing) against a non-member, Canadian press councils do not adjudicate complaints against non-members. The arguments in favour of this restraint are obvious: fact-ﬁnding is hampered when only one side participates in the process. In addition, a journalist whose employer is not a press council member is unlikely to participate in a hearing to give her perspective, which may have the eﬀect of damaging her professional reputation. Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
From an industry perspective, this delineation may make sense; however, from a news consumer’s perspective, it’s an unsatisfying reason for a press council to not hear a complaint. If press councils are preoccupied with upholding journalistic standards and oﬀering the public an avenue for potential vindication, then perhaps all complaints— including those against non-member publications—should be heard. Without a respondent, the process will be imperfect—a lack of information may limit the ability of a council to make a ruling and, where there is a ﬁnding against a non-member publication, there is little likelihood that publication will publish the council’s ruling. But this imperfect process would at least ensure that a complainant’s concerns will be aired. 3. R E P R E S E N T A T I V E N E S S
Diversity of panel membership
When press council stakeholders discuss “representativeness,” they are often in fact speaking speciﬁcally of geographic representation. Proponents of provincial and regional councils tend to espouse the idea that only those who know a community can competently assess the journalism that community consumes. This focus on local sensibilities has obvious beneﬁts, though other ways of measuring representativeness seem equally important, such as a mix of rural and urban residents, diversity of race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual preference, profession and age. The issue of age is of particular relevance to press councils. While no one would deny that people of all ages should have a voice in responding to and shaping contemporary news media, the nature of press councils’ work requires volunteers who can devote entire days to preparing for and holding a hearing, and then deliberating upon it. This type of commitment is more easily undertaken by those who don’t have to ﬁt their volunteer endeavours around a busy work or school schedule; quite often, it is retired people whose schedules permit such a commitment. The wisdom and long -range view that seasoned volunteers bring to the table cannot be underestimated. However, given the pace at which media is evolving in terms of both form and function, the availability of retired people for adjudicating complaints comes at the price of age-inclusiveness and a lost opportunity to draw on the experiences and insights of those who regularly practise and consume digital journalisms. Regardless of age, press council public members must be able to assess complaints against the standards of contemporary journalism. As the scholar Jane B. Singer observes, the narrative structure of news is undergoing a signiﬁcant evolution; those changes should compel us to reconsider traditional ethical guidelines such as the maintenance of a Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
professional distance between journalist and subject, and the division between fact and opinion.1 A contemporary press council will want to assess contemporary journalism by contemporary standards and norms; this must be taken into account when considering who should be a press council member.
Public and industry representatives
An industry-funded press council must do all it can to ensure that industry representatives (journalists and/or publishers) on council don’t have more say in a matter than a council’s public members. “The simple arithmetic of whether Council board members are independent public members or industry appointees tells only part of the story,” observes Lara Fielden. “The composition of related panels, including management boards, appointment panels … and code committees is also revealing in any consideration of the issue of independence.”2 Some of our interviews left us with the impression that public representatives are sometimes unduly inﬂuenced by industry representatives in reaching conclusions, given that they lack ﬁrst-hand knowledge of how journalism is done. This potential problem is especially acute in jurisdictions in which procedures are often unwritten, and complaints are adjudicated without the beneﬁt of a code (a compelling argument for judicious use of codes). Other tools that may help redress a knowledge/power imbalance between public and industry representatives may include resources accessed through a secure website and development opportunities that allow public members to learn more about the craft of journalism. The foregoing discussion is also an argument for the role of public advocate, as will be pioneered by the newly restructured South African media council. Such a position would almost automatically ensure fair assistance both for uninformed community members and for public representatives in reconciling their perspectives with news-industry traditions. Finally, on the issue of composition: it is not uncommon in international jurisdictions that press council panels are made up of a majority of public representatives, to help ameliorate any real or perceived industry bias. In addition, some jurisdictions have established transparent and arms-length processes for appointing public representatives.
B. Singer, “Journalism ethics amid structural change,” Daedalus 2010 139:2, 89.
Fielden, Regulating the Press: A comparative study of international press councils (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism: University of Oxford, 2012) 26. <http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/ﬁleadmin/documents/Publications/Working_Papers/Regulating_the_Press.pdf>
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4. F I N A N C I N G The ﬁnancial stability of press councils have taken a hit in recent years, with Sun Media papers withdrawing from the Ontario Press Council, Quebecor publications leaving the Conseil and publishers of individual newspapers such as the Edmonton Journal and the Winnipeg Free Press departing their respective councils as well. This hit is aggravated by the fact that, except in Quebec, Canadian press councils are entirely industry-funded. For the Conseil, 60 per cent of funding comes from industry, 22.5 per cent from the Quebec government, and the balance from a private foundation and the Fédération profesione#e des journalists du Québec. While the Québec council’s reliance on government funds makes it an anomaly in Canada, press councils in in Finland, Germany and Belgium 3 receive state funding (and there is a possibility Australia may soon follow). There’s little evidence to suggest that these councils have compromised their independence, but the vast majority of non-Quebeckers who spoke to us are opposed to Canadian or provincial government funding for fear of resulting government interference in the accountability process and, therefore, a loss of press freedom. Compared with their concern about reliance on government, our interviewees expressed markedly little concern over reliance on funding from leading daily newspapers in their respective provinces—despite clear evidence of the potential damage that such reliance can do to councils’ independence and sustainability. After the Winnipeg Free Press withdrew from the Manitoba Press Council, the council ceased operations at the end of 2011 due to the immediate 80 per cent reduction in budget. Given the decline in the number of member publications, it stands to reason that councils in other jurisdictions are similarly vulnerable to the withdrawal of a major publication; this reality may lead to an apprehension of bias (even in the absence of any demonstrated bias), which in turn may reduce a press council’s public credibility. Such real or apparent bias may take one of many forms—in one Canadian jurisdiction, an interviewee suggested that the council had adjusted its structure in order to keep a leading newspaper in the fold. Ensuring funding from multiple sources, rather than relying on one or two major dailies to keep a press council in existence, is an important component of independence. 5. A W A R E N E S S & O T H E R A N C I L L A R Y A C T I V I T I E S Press councils’ activities beyond “core” functions (i.e. the receipt and resolution of public complaints) vary signiﬁcantly from one jurisdiction to the next. Ancillary activities engaged
Belgium, state funding is indirect—the government subsidizes the journalists’ union that funds 50 per cent of the council.
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in by press councils may include: community outreach, media literacy, commenting on aspects of journalism ethics and press accountability in the news, promotion of press freedom, etc. Thus the scope of a press council’s work may be drawn very broadly, or be circumscribed to the core function of dealing with citizen complaints. We suggest that the potential functions within a council’s mandate be enumerated with reference to three key questions: (i) Does the function or role contribute to or enhance the council’s “core” work of complaint receipt and adjudication? This eyes-on-the-prize question may become less crucial when and where a press council is well-established and sustainably funded. (ii) Might the function or role be viewed as self-serving? Any function that might be perceived as lobbying on behalf of news-industry members ought to be approached cautiously, if at all. (iii) Is the function or role capably fulﬁlled by another existing entity? For example, while a focus on the public’s right to know may seem consistent with a press council’s core function, there are several other organizations already at work on this front. 6. D E C L I N I N G I N D U S T R Y S U P P O R T & I N V O L V E M E N T Earlier this year Lara Fielden, a visiting fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, observed that Canada “is grappling with a hemorrhaging of publications from the regulatory fold, and the associated closure of press councils.” 4 In many respects, the Canadian situation is not unique; however, the Canadian regime of provincial and regional councils may be distinguished from other nations in which press councils are a national undertaking. The practical problems created by the evolution of multiple provincial/regional councils (most notably the duplication of services) have been compounded by changes in the industry, which is now dominated by corporate entities that publish in multiple provincial jurisdictions. As a result, delineation along provincial boundaries, while obviously important to those who prefer a “local” solution, no longer reﬂects industry realities. For some members of the public, this situation might suggest reason for a statutory requirement of press-council membership, such as exists in Denmark, or other novel legislative incentives, such as the provision in Ireland’s Defamation Act that deems presscouncil membership a relevant consideration for courts considering a libel action.
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Our understanding of defamation law in Canada leaves us unable to see how the inclusion of a reference to press council membership in a statute would change the questions before a court in a defamation action here, and in any case, for the Canadian press-council stakeholders with whom we spoke, government involvement of any kind is antithetical to the idea of press freedom and, indeed, to the spirit, at least, of section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There is also the more practical constitutional problem that newspaper publication is a provincial, not federal, undertaking and would thus require legislative initiatives in all provinces and territories. 7. P R O V I N C I A L / R E G I O N A L V E R S U S N A T I O N A L Absent the aforementioned, and clearly undesired, statutory initiatives, we have been unable to identify any options that are likely to reverse the trend of publishers leaving their respective provincial/regional press councils. This in itself constitutes a major argument for a national media council with a broad mandate that provides an accountability mechanism available to news consumers from coast to coast to coast. It stands to reason that if a national council were created, it should build on, rather than simply replace, the expertise developed by members of the existing provincial/regional councils. Rather than a ﬁxed system of council members, a pool of potential panelists could be drawn on to hear complaints according to factors including regional representation, expertise and availability. In addition to preventing the complaints process from being unduly hampered by availability, this model would ensure that current press council members interested in being part of the new council could continue to do so, at least until their terms would have ended with their “old” councils. In addition to panel membership, a national council could draw in other ways upon the signiﬁcant contributions that provincial and regional press councils have made to press accountability. A new, national code might be based on existing codes used in Canadian jurisdictions. And decisions made by provincial and regional councils over the past 10 years or so could be reviewed and, where not inconsistent with each other or with newly established policies, be reproduced and relied upon for their precedential value. How could such an operation be made ﬁnancially sustainable? One strategy might be to adjust the terms of membership in Newspapers Canada, adding a national media council to the broad range of key services it provides to members including education, marketing, awards programs and industry research reports and statistics. This could have the eﬀect of encouraginging publications to see funding for the national council as simply a beneﬁt of membership; if a publication did not want to fund a press council, it would be compelled to withdraw from Newspapers Canada, and thus lose access to the suite of services that come Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
with Newspapers Canada membership. While this means that all Newspaper Canada members would by deﬁnition fund a press council, they could refrain from identifying as a “member” of the national council if they were opposed in principle. For Quebec, a province that is served by a relatively well-funded, vigorous press council principally in the French language, consideration could be given to establishing a complementary relationship between a national council and the Conseil. The notion of a smaller council that exists within the geographic catchment of a larger press council is not without precedent in Canada: the country’s very ﬁrst press council was established in Windsor, Ont., in 1971. After the Ontario Press Council was established a year later, the two councils agreed to not duplicate each other’s eﬀorts. Similarly, the Conseil and a national body might agree to let a would-be complainant decide which council should investigate and adjudicate their complaint; in that case, it would also make sense for each council to agree not to consider a complaint already made to the other council. (Given that the Conseil’s French website oﬀers considerably more resources to the public than does the English version, an anglophone alternative might serve news consumers well; possibly also, the Conseil could agree to hear complaints about French-language journalism from the rest of Canada.)
The future of press accountability in Canada
In recent years, Canadian publishers have in large numbers abandoned press councils, a development that barely registered on the public’s consciousness. It’s not as if the issues aren’t interesting —in fact, they are the very issues that are often highlighted in stories that truly resonate with the public, as evidenced in the sustained media coverage of the Leveson Inquiry in the United Kingdom. Here in Canada, even news consumers outside Toronto seem engaged in the story of a mayor at war with the news media, and the question of whether media coverage of the mayor has been fair. The Globe & Mail’s recent plagiarism acknowledgment similarly engaged a national audience; late last month, as we watched an apparent breakdown of the “public editor” model of press accountability unfold, many discussion spaces (both physical and digital) were consumed with analyzing, commenting on and (of course) arguing about the matter. The episode oﬀered news consumers a real-life case study, and gave them the opportunity to think carefully about journalists’ ethical obligations. That silver lining aside, it seems clear that the current national framework for journalistic self-regulation and self-managed accountability is broken in many respects. Few news Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
organizations have ombuds or public editors, and the independence of those that do exist is not widely accepted; in any event, even an ideally-resourced ombud would not necessarily be seen by citizens as a complete answer to the challenge of accountability. Meanwhile press councils are now entirely missing from the landscape in two provinces and the three territories, the Atlantic region’s council is being “restructured” after a period of sporadic activity, and digital journalism receives little consistent attention from most councils. Indeed, the entire system was built before the social web and rests on an assumption that journalists own accountability as much as they own the news, when in fact they own neither. To varying degrees, similar problems are being sorted out across the globe—at the time of writing, the Press Council of South Africa had just announced sweeping reforms to press regulation; the report to the Australian government has recommended an “enforced selfregulation” model of press accountability; and, in November, the report into tabloid journalism practices in the U.K. is expected to be released, with potentially massive impact on press freedom. Clearly, the time has come for Canadians either to accept that the country’s system of media self-assessment is neither comprehensive nor consistently eﬀective, or for steps to be taken to reform the system. The foregoing pages have alluded in several ways to the nature of possible steps in this direction. In the next and ﬁnal section, we will be more speciﬁc.
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Summary of options
In what follows, we summarize key points discussed in this report, highlighting, under each of this document’s headings, potential decision points concerning the future of press councils in Canada.
1. METHODS AND PROCESS 1.Should a press council’s adjudications be based on a written code of ethics? Pro: enables decisions that are consistent, predictable, defensible—and potentially more expeditious, at least in initial review; provides a guide for public representatives on a council. Con: rigid, constrains decisions; may give impression of prejudging. 2.If a code is used, does the council need to write its own code? Pro: enables the council to create its own guidelines. Con: guidelines less likely to be widely accepted. 3.Should a council delegate substantial responsibility for initial review to, for ( example, the executive director, chair, or an ombud?( Pro: more rapid timelines; the initial review would rely on precedent and/or code. Con: discretion devolves to individual rather than group. 4.Should a council conduct some/all hearings via conference call or online connections rather than in-person?( Pro: saves cost while allowing for geographic diversity of council/panel membership; enhances potential for public awareness and accountability through video archiving of hearings. Con: in-person hearings allow for a more informal conversation with the parties; some council members are more comfortable with hard-copy documents than digital versions.
Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
2. AMBIT 2.1.Should a press/media council review digital content produced by member newspapers? Pro: print/digital distinction seems irrelevant to audience; digital audience growing faster than print audience. Con: some publishers consider quality bar lower for digital content; practical challenges in capturing material before updating. 2.2.Should digital-only publications be admitted to membership of a council? Pro: expands accountability to these publications; provides broader base of membership. Con: requires the establishment of a separate fee structure and membership criteria. 2.3.Should broadcast news organizations be admitted to membership of a council? Pro: expands journalistic accountability to these organizations (including for their substantial digital content, for which they have no current external accountability forum); provides broader base of membership. Con: Might be perceived as opening a door to regulation of non-broadcast journalism. 2.4.Should councils consider complaints about commentary? Pro: the line between news and commentary has become increasingly blurred, though diﬀerent standards are appropriate depending on a journalistic piece’s place along the news-opinion spectrum. Con: might be perceived as stiﬂing the free expression of opinion. 2.5.Should councils consider complaints against non-members? Pro: provides an opportunity for public to seek accountability for non-members. Con: hampers fact ﬁnding; undermines due process.
Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
3. REPRESENTATIVENESS 3.1.Should aggressive steps be taken to ensure greater diversity, including of age, among the members of press council panels? Pro: allows panels to beneﬁt from diverse perspectives and, speciﬁcally, the experience of digital natives; promotes perceived representativeness. Con: substantial practical diﬃculty in attracting non-retired volunteers. 3.2.Should steps be taken to educate members of council panels, especially public representatives, in contemporary practices and standards of journalism? Pro: empower public representatives to reconcile their perspectives with newsindustry traditions. Con: could be perceived as condescending. 3.3.Should council processes be restructured to include the role of a public advocate in reviewing initial complaints and/or in hearings themselves? Pro: ensure assistance for complainants and/or public representatives in reconciling their perspectives with news-industry traditions. Con: this would be a paid position, thus adding to the cost of maintaining an effective council. 3.4.Should adjudicating panels routinely be composed of a majority of public representatives who are appointed by as arms-length entity? Pro: ameliorate real or perceived industry bias. Con: respondents could feel concerned that the deck is stacked for complainants; adds a level of administrative complexity.
4. FINANCING 4.1.Should state or philanthropic support be sought as an additional or alternate source of press council funding? Pro: diversification of funding reduces over-reliance on any one source of funds; other sources of funding reduce the financial burden born by the industry.
Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012
Con: regardless of who funds it (and how many different funding sources it has), council may still be subject to criticism it is beholden to funders.
5. ANCILLARY ACTIVITIES 5.1.In addition to complaint resolution, should a council engage in ancillary activities, such as outreach, media literacy, public information, and education? Pro: these activities are consistent with some of a council’s underlying functions, such as improving public understanding and trust in the news media; may increase council’s public proﬁle. Con: may dilute resources and focus; council could become seen as advocate for press rather than a neutral adjudicator.
6. DECLINING INDUSTRY SUPPORT AND INVOLVEMENT 6.1.Should governments be encouraged to make press council involvement mandatory? Pro: would ensure a robust, well-funded council; all valid complaints would be fully addressed. Con: antithetical to the notion of a free press.
7. PROVINCIAL VS NATIONAL 7.1.Should a national media council be created? Pro: ensures universal access to press accountability mechanism for all Canadians; increases likelihood of more stable funding; consistent standards for publishers whose content crosses provincial/territorial boundaries; reduces or eliminates duplication of services. Con: potential loss of provincial/regional councils’ institutional knowledge and local/regional identity; danger (especially if administered in Ontario) of loss of credibility among Canadians elsewhere.
Shapiro, Taylor & Tubb - October 2012