MEDIA WATCH

Only news that’s nice to print

George Bain January 26 1987
MEDIA WATCH

Only news that’s nice to print

George Bain January 26 1987

Only news that’s nice to print

George Bain

MEDIA WATCH

Hardly a newsperson would not stand up and, with shining eyes, salute this bit of the creed of the London Daily Telegraph. “An honest newspaper reporter tells his readers everything that he thinks they would be interested in knowing about an event, and also everything that he thinks is important for them to know about it.” In the business, we’ll say at the drop of a hat that that’s what we’re about—the truth without fear or favor, everything on the record, publish and be damned. But complete the quotation from the Telegraph and watch for a shuffling of feet. “The sex, race, social station and general circumstances of a criminal are,” it went on, “normally held to come in this category.”

Um. Well, no, racial tags are to be avoided. Yes, and in certain circumstances, sexual tags. And age. In some newspapers, people may be elderly but never old. And even economic circumstances are to be handled in a gingerly way; the poor may be ever with us, but only collectively, as “the poor,” not as identified individuals. Even rich is capable of being considered slighting in the wrong context.

The Daily Telegraph quotation comes via Paul Johnson’s media column in The Spectator, London, from the annual report of the British Press Council, a body described by Johnson as “dithery, inconsistent and feeble.” He illustrated inconsistency with two decisions involving race. The first was in the case of a man who drank 18 pints of Guinness and 10 brandies, then set fire to his house, killing his four sons. The tabloid Sun, the council said, was entitled to describe the man as Irish as it was not “pejorative and prejudicial”—to which Johnson’s comment was, “the context certainly was.” However, it found four newspapers unwarranted in describing a youth, who murdered one girl and raped five others, as black.

I myself cannot quite accept Johnson’s, or the Telegraphs, evident opinion that, in all ordinary circumstances, there should be no suppression of racial identification in criminal cases. I do, though, wish that editors who don’t accept it either would not beat their breasts and insist that never, in any context, do we practise self-censorship. And I do wonder if perhaps we do not in matters of race tend, at times, to

dress up as high principle what really is no more than a desire not to offend anyone, which is a commercial consideration. Still, principled or not, the effort to avoid racist, sexist or other “ist” slights is real.

Clair Balfour, the Montreal Gazette’s ombudsman, recently reviewed a reader’s complaint—should I say a Sikh reader’s complaint?—about headings, as in “2 Sikhs guilty of conspiring to bomb plane.” Balfour found the use of racial identification avoidable and said that the newspaper should “exercise restraint to prevent headlines or story references from being inflammatory or unfair.” Before coming to that decision, he consulted two Gazette editors, both of whom argued that Sikh was relevant, and one of whom called it necessary—and two outsiders, Rod Goodman, ombudsman at The Toronto Star, and Geoffrey Stevens, managing

The concern of the print media with the avoidance of racist, sexist or other isT slights to readers is considerable

editor at the Toronto Globe and Mail. Without criticizing The Gazette, both said that policy at their own places was, as Goodman put it, “to err on the side of the angels.”

Stevens described a test applied at The Globe and Mail: “Substitute Jew for Sikh and consider whether it would be acceptable [in headlines or stories].” It is a rule that has superficial appeal, but doubts arise on second reading; one would need to know what goes through the mind of Globe and Mail management. Substituting Jew for Sikh does not help us much if the Globe would refrain from using Jew because there is a large and influential Jewish community in Toronto. The question is whether the newspaper would permit pure news judgment to override any such non-news consideration if the accused persons in a similarly politically charged trial were Jews. To my mind, as the Crown in developing its case dwelt to some extent on Sikh-Hindu enmity and the Sikh independence movement in India, the racial identification in The Gazette head, “2 Sikhs guilty of conspiring to bomb plane,” was pertinent, and to

duck it, as The Globe and Mail and the Star did, was nicey-nicey.

Most newsrooms use The Canadian Press (CP) Stylebook as their basic guide in matters of race—and of “age, color, creed, nationality, personal appearance, religion, sex and any other heading under which a person or group may feel slighted.” CP’s first rule under the heading is: “Identify a person by race only when it is truly pertinent. If in doubt, be guided by fairness, sensitivity and taste.” However, the news agency also says that “race is pertinent when it motivates an incident or when it helps explain the emotions of those in confrontation,” a guide that the two Toronto newspapers, and now The Gazette, seem to have subordinated to a non-news criterion based on community relations.

Five newspapers in Canada employ ombudsmen as, in effect, the readers’ agent in the newsroom—Rod Goodman, The Toronto Star; Clair Balfour, The Gazette; Jack Briglia, The London Free Press; John Brown, The Edmonton Journal; Jim Stott, Calgary Herald. It does not follow that newspapers without ombudsmen are indifferent to the views of readers. Nevertheless, it makes a significant gesture of accountability to assign someone to rout out explanations of why this and that was done, and to make those public—and to criticize, also publicly, if the explanations are found inadequate.

John Brown gives another example of the tricky questions that sometimes face them: a social worker at a public meeting in Edmonton said that Vietnamese store owners used their stores for prostitution rings, a statement both newsworthy and reportable. But the speaker, asked about it, acknowledged that the information was secondhand. Police and local Vietnamese denied knowledge. Nevertheless, the story appeared under the heading, “Vietnamese use stores for hookers— social worker.” The lack of confirmation did not appear until the seventh paragraph. Brown concluded that the paper would not have run a story similarly unsubstantiated if it had dug it up itself, therefore it was overdone, particularly the heading.

Another who might have objected to the Journal’s heading was a man who took a complaint, not to an ombudsman but to the Ontario Press Council, a few years ago about the use of the word hooker in heads as a substitute for prostitute. His name was Hooker.