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How not to do it: Issues of racism mishandled by the Vancouver Sun

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Image: screenshot/Vancouver Sun

How would you like to face Harold Munro's problems today?

The Vancouver Sun and Province, the newspapers he edits, published something he had to apologize for and expunge, after the poorly researched and xenophobic views of a freelance columnist sparked outrage among readers.

His own award-winning reporting staff courageously joined the public backlash on social media, and has so far found his first steps to deal with the situation lacking. Worse, someone is leaking internal emails about this to The Tyee, an online rival publication.

And Munro presumably needs to deal with the dismay of his superiors in Toronto. Top management of Postmedia Network has ordered all its member papers, including his, to lean harder right. In other words, publish more of this kind of stuff.

Talk about being caught in the middle.

That is certainly one of the perils of being an editor-in-chief these days, but so far Munro has not been handling it well.

This stems from a decision a week ago by the Sun and its sister paper The Province to jointly publish an op-ed column by Mark Hecht that cited questionable sources to argue that diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance were bad for social cohesion and should be done away with in Canada. Perhaps the decision to publish it was made in a misguided attempt to conform to the dictates of head office. Perhaps it was made simply because of inattention or the attrition of editors in the newsroom. Needless to say, the column did not go down well in one of Canada's most multicultural cities.

Following the outrage on social media, Munro took the unusual step of expunging the column from the newspapers' website and apologizing to readers who found it in the print editions of the Sun and Province.

He followed up by announcing a series of newsroom changes to make sure the mistake doesn't happen again. But these were roundly criticized by his colleagues, one saying in an email leaked to The Tyee that Munro's response was "weak and tepid."

Another email, also widely circulated in the newsroom, claimed that oversight of the op-ed pages is "clearly lacking or utterly absent" and cited seven recent articles that were "ignorant, bigoted and racist." Two of them were written by Gordon Clark, the editor of the editorial page and the man who seems to have decided on his own to publish Hecht's op-ed.

Such a newsroom revolt is extremely unusual in Canada, but if Postmedia is embarrassed, it is not letting on. Neither Munro, Clark or Phyllise Gelfand, chief spokesperson for Postmedia, responded to my emailed questions.

In my opinion, Munro, who has been editor-in-chief since 2012, could have avoided this situation if he'd done four things differently:

Mistake Number One: An editor's first loyalty should be to readers. But Munro's apology for running the column was inadequate. He said only that it "contained views that do not meet the journalistic standards of the Vancouver Sun." Readers were left to wonder which views, and were given no details about what the newspaper's standards are and how they were violated. Did Munro consider the column xenophobic or racist? What standards were not followed? How can something so offensive slip by responsible editors?

He left his readers -- and his own reporters -- in the dark about this, and managed to alienate everyone. Readers offended by the column will have lost respect for the newspaper's judgment and credibility. Those who agreed with it must feel its disappearance was a violation of freedom of speech or a bow to political correctness. And Munro's staff certainly feel the column undermined the fine work the newspapers' journalists do.

One unaddressed problem is that the Vancouver Sun and Postmedia do not publish their journalistic standards, even though every other major news organization in Canada does. A former top Postmedia executive admitted to me that they have a written set of guidelines that their journalists are expected to follow, but this is none of the public's business. Why would any news organization concerned about its credibility take such a position?

Mistake Number Two: Munro did not appear to consult with his own newsrooms before announcing changes that, he said, would "ensure greater oversight and accountability so that this does not happen again." An editor's second loyalty should be to his own staff. His planned changes -- vague measures to ensure that the editorial board is adequately staffed and meets more often -- clearly came up short. Following the newsroom revolt, Munro has promised more open discussions to agree on changes that will have everyone's support. These have yet to be announced.

Mistake Number Three: Munro's decision to expunge the column was misguided and sent out the wrong message. He left himself vulnerable to accusations that he was trampling on freedom of speech or bowing to political correctness, themes that have already surfaced on social media. In fact, he disregarded guidelines commonly followed in the newspaper industry for “unpublishing” worrisome content.

The Canadian Association of Journalists, Canada’s largest organization of professional news people, studied the issue in 2010 and urged all news organizations to have written policies for expunging content and explain them to readers. The two most important principles it stressed were:

  • "We are in the publishing business and generally should not unpublish: Published digital content is part of the historical record and should not be unpublished. News organizations do not rewrite history or make news disappear."
  • "Ongoing accuracy is our responsibility: Though we should resist unpublishing, we have a journalistic responsibility to ensure the ongoing accuracy of all published content and publish correctives and updated articles as soon as we verify errors and/or new information."

The CAJ said only in rare circumstances should any article be taken down, usually for legal reasons or matters of life and death. If that is done, the reasons why should be communicated to readers to avoid misunderstanding.

It is not known if Postmedia has any policy like this, but it certainly hasn't followed it. When I emailed Gordon Clark about it, he asked me to send him a link to the CAJ's policy.

Mistake Number Four: Munro commissioned what he called a "rebuttal piece" by another academic and ran it two days after Hecht's op-ed appeared. But it was not a rebuttal. It scarcely mentioned any of the claims Hecht made and did not analyze his credentials or verify the appropriateness of the research he cited. In fact, Hecht has no academic credentials to analyze issues of immigration or inclusion. He has degrees in geography and city planning and specializes in conservation and the migration of plants.

Thanks perhaps to the way the Vancouver newspapers tiptoed around the issues raised by his op-ed, the man at the centre of the storm is digging in his heels and pledging to write more.

A statement on his website says he feels he was misunderstood. "When I questioned the dogma of 'diversity, tolerance and inclusion' there were many people that failed abysmally to understand the content and resorted to hysteria and name-calling instead."

The only thing we can be sure about is that we won't have to read about them in either of Vancouver's two major papers.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John's blog

Image: screenshot/Vancouver Sun

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