Blog by John Miller

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A humble suggestion

Since I wrote about the controversy over a columnist’s activism at my old newspaper, I have been criticized for betraying long-held standards of journalism that say editorial employees cannot be both actors and critics. Journalists, in other words, cannot allow their outside activities to taint the paper’s reputation for objectivity.

Desmond Cole resigned his twice-a-month column on the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed page after he was informed by his editor of the paper’s rule against mixing activism and journalism. His crime? Disrupting a meeting of the city’s police services board to protest the continued use of carding information, something he has written almost exclusively about. I said the Star’s policy is outdated.

The Star’s principal columnist, Rosie DiManno, objected. She did not name me but said most competent journalists understand that “you can’t — shouldn’t —function as ringmaster and audience simultaneously. And you don’t get a pass because you’re black or racialized (an invented word) or female or transgendered or — by all outward measurement — part of a marginalized group.”

She continued: “I’m dismayed this even needs saying. I’m dismayed any journalist would say different.”

Fair enough. She’s entitled to her opinion. But even the paper’s public editor, Kathy English, acknowledged the appropriateness of that policy is worthy of discussion. So, as a contribution to that debate, I offer a policy the Star could put in its place. It reflects current practice better than the standards I wrote for the paper more than 30 years ago – standards that included the policy that led to Cole’s departure

Here it is. (Full disclosure: I have drawn from more contemporary policies adopted by other newspapers, principally the Washington Post and Los Angles Times).

At the Toronto Star, the separation of news columns from the editorial and opposite-editorial (Op-Ed) pages is solemn and complete. This separation is intended to serve the reader, who is entitled to facts in the news columns and to opinions on the editorial and Op-Ed pages.

When reading news reports on the daily news pages, a reader should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the newspaper is promoting any agenda. A crucial goal of our news and feature reporting is to be nonideological. This requires editors and reporters to recognize their own biases and stand apart from them. It also requires them to avoid any open advocacy that calls into question their impartiality about matters they write about or edit. It is unethical to march in the parade and cover it too.

Reporters and editors of The Star are committed to fairness. While arguments about objectivity are endless, the concept of fairness is something that editors and reporters can easily understand and pursue. No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness. No story is fair if it includes irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts. Fairness includes relevance. No story is fair if it consciously or unconsciously misleads the reader or masks some personal agenda. Fairness includes honesty – leveling with the reader.

Besides straightforward news coverage, the Star’s news pages contain other journalistic forms that provide additional perspective on events. These special forms — news analysis articles, opinion columns and others — adhere to the same standards of fairness, accuracy and transparency. They are usually distinguished from news reports by columnist logos, labels or differentiated typography.

On its editorial and Op-Ed pages, writers adhere to different standards. Editorials reflect the newspaper’s opinion about the news, and in the Star’s case, generally follow the ideology of the Atkinson Principles. Columnists appearing on the Op-Ed page are treated differently than columnists appearing in the news pages. These are often people not on the staff of The Star, reflecting opinions about topics on which the author is an expert or has provocative and well-reasoned ideas. They are not intended to give a balanced look at both sides of a debate. They are often solicited by editors from people who are actively involved in causes or consider themselves activists. In the interest of transparency, such involvement is mentioned as an editor’s note in italic attached to the foot of the column. Indeed, the Op-Ed page is seen as a forum to air diverse and challenging viewpoints.