When you were the editor

By Kathy English
Toronto Star

It was a highly unscientific, overly simplistic survey, to be sure.

Certainly, to draw any significant or serious conclusions about Toronto Star readers based on the results of my annual You be the Editor challenge, published in recent weeks, would be folly indeed.

But with almost 10,600 readers weighing in – a record number of responses – we can draw out some interesting information about readers’ perspectives on some of the many deadline judgments made by newsroom journalists 24/7.

The survey asked you to “be the editor” and determine whether to publish — or not publish — in 18 real-life questions of ethics, taste, style and usage faced by Star journalists in 2015. In each, I provided a reason to publish – or not. Given space restrictions, these reasons were highly simplistic, representing a narrow aspect of journalistic reasoning.

Not surprisingly, some readers told me their reasons for publishing or not publishing were somewhat different than the pro-and-con arguments I offered. That’s understandable and reflects the reality that newsroom debate about what to publish is always deeper and more wide-ranging than what this light exercise in journalistic decision-making can depict.

Each of these scenarios had evoked some measure of reader complaint to the public editor’s office and in many cases the arguments for not publishing represent the gist of reader concerns.

Survey results show that readers were aligned with the newsroom’s judgments in 12 of the 18 matters in question. That amounts to reader-newsroom consensus in 66 per cent of judgments — or two-thirds of the time.

The highlights:

The Star’s judgments

In all but two of the 18 scenarios, the Star published the content in question.

The first exception was editorial cartoonist Theo Moudakis’ depiction of “Tory in Pride attire” showing Toronto Mayor John Tory outfitted in bare-butt chaps to celebrate Pride week. That was nixed by Editorial Page Editor Andrew Phillips until the cartoonist added full trousers to the mayor. At the time, I agreed with Phillips’ cautious concern that the cartoon might be regarded as a negative, over-the-top stereotype. But in looking more at this one, we have both come to lighten up and agree with those 60 per cent of readers who said they would publish the cartoon as drawn.

Theo Moudakis/Toronto Star

The Star also opted for a no-publishing judgment a year ago when 12 editorial cartoonists at the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo were shot dead. Following considerable newsroom debate, the Star decided not to republish that organization’s incendiary cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. Responding to this dilemma, a slim majority of readers — 55 per cent — say they would have published these cartoons. I agree with the Star’s decision and the 45 per cent of readers who would not have published the images because it would be offensive and hurtful to Muslims in this community.

Closest calls:

Readers were almost evenly split on cartoonist Moudakis’ satirical take on Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise to legalize marijuana, with 51 per cent opting not to publish “A Justin Trudeau Halloween” a week after the election of the new PM. While we received a number of complaints about this cartoon, I agree with the other half of readers here and consider it in line with the wide latitude of editorial cartoonists to skewer public figures and satirize public issues.

Theo Moudakis/Toronto Star

That same 51/49 split showed up in readers’ response to the question of whether the Star should sanitize the swear words in a column about the historical relationships of Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents. That column referred to two iconic quotes: Lyndon Johnson telling PM Lester Pearson “You p—-ed on my rug” and Richard Nixon calling Pierre Trudeau an “a—-le.” The wee majority here opted to publish the words, obscured by dashes. While the Star’s taste policy calls for those dashes in swear words, given the historical import of these quotes I would have published the words in full.

Widest margins of consensus

An overwhelming number of readers – 88 per cent – agreed with the Star’s decision to publish the “bathing beauties” picture taken in Toronto’s Beaches in 1984 by photographer Colin McConnell. As I told those readers who had expressed concerns that the image is sexist, context is everything here. The photo was republished on McConnell’s final day of work with the Star as part of a retrospective of his work over the past 30-plus years and is evocative of another era.

Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

Readers expressed almost the same margin of support – 87 per cent — for the Star’s reference to “ticket scalping” in a Business article about Ontario’s “Ticket Speculation Act” governing the ticket resale market. The minority lined up with the view of the reader who had expressed concern that “scalping” is offensive to indigenous people. I was unfamiliar with this view and in researching this, I found little to support an argument to avoid the word “scalping” in stories about ticket reselling. But I will send this on to the Star’s newsroom style committee for further consideration.

Because it is 2016

Several questions focused on sexism concerns raised by readers. While readers who responded to the survey (and I) agreed with publishing a beefcake shot of our new PM following his election and the above-mentioned beach “cheesecake” photo, a majority — 66 per cent — would not have published a headline referring to a “pretty actress.” And 62 per cent would have nixed a quote from a man who said he was so frightened he “ran away like a little girl.” I’m with the majority here. Readers were split 55/45 per cent on publishing the headline “HRH Princess Cutie” with the first photo of the royal couple — Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge — introducing their yet unnamed daughter to the world. My view: cute baby, cute headline. I don’t see sexism here.

On two questions concerning matters of sensitivity in how the Star portrays mental health matters, readers were almost evenly divided with 52 per cent opting not to publish a reference to “mental patients” but 53 per cent in agreement with the judgment to publish a reader’s letter expressing the view about former PM Stephen Harper’s “dyslexia” on privacy matters. Neither of those references is in line with media best practices for writing about mental health and, to my mind, neither should have been published in the Star.

Trickiest question

Not surprisingly, few readers caught the error of law in the survey’s final question about whether to publish the headline: “UK police capture vault busting thieves” with a story that reported on British police swooping down on suspected jewel thieves and making arrests in the notorious Hatton Garden heist in which thieves bored holes through the half-metre concrete wall to access a vault. A strong majority — 83 per cent — would have published the headline.

The “trick”? Police captured suspected thieves, so labeling them thieves in the headline in effect convicts them before they have had their day in court. Readers don’t have to know this legal stuff, but journalists must. This headline should never have been published.

The full survey and results, with my votes added (+1):

1. A story about reaction in the United States to the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reports that America “ogles” photos of Canada’s shirtless PM and refers to an image posted by NBCNews.com of a bare-chested Trudeau flexing his biceps. Do you publish this photo in the Star?

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Yes: It shows the image of Canada’s new PM that was widely circulated and viewed by many Americans. 68% (+1)

No: The photo is sexist and demeaning to Canada’s new leader. 32%

2. Following several years in which former Toronto mayor Rob Ford refused to attend Toronto’s Pride parade, Mayor John Tory participates joyfully in Pride events, including the parade. Do you publish this editorial cartoon “Tory in Pride attire” depicting the mayor outfitted in bare-butt chaps?

Yes: It is light-hearted cartoon that playfully captures the spirit of Pride and celebrates the Mayor’s participation. 60% (+1)

No: It is demeaning to the mayor. Put on his pants. 40%

3. In running to be Canada’s new prime minister, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promises that his government would legalize marijuana. A week after he is elected PM, a few days before Halloween, do you publish this editorial cartoon entitled, “A Justin Trudeau Halloween”?

No: Depicting the new PM as a parent willing to hand out drugs to children on Halloween crosses the taste line. 51%

Yes: Editorial cartoonists have wide latitude to skewer public figures and satirize public issues. 49% (+1)

4. On the last day of photographer Colin McConnell’s employment with the Star, a retrospective of his work over the past 30-plus years is published. Do you include this photo taken in Toronto’s Beaches in 1984?

Yes: The image is evocative of its era and presented in context with the photographer’s retirement. 88% (+1)

No: The photo is clearly sexist and should not be republished in 2015. 12%

5. The “City Nights” photo caption accompanying this photo taken at the opening gala of the Toronto International Film Festival identifies the woman, pictured second from left, as “Jennifer Tory (Mayor John Tory’s sister).” Do you publish this?

Tom Sandler photo

Yes: Tory is the mayor’s sister. 56%

No: Why should Tory, a highly accomplished RBC banking executive in her own right, be identified by her connection to her brother? 44% (+1)

6. Do you publish this photo of bodies being removed from the Moka Espresso Bar in Vaughan after a shooting that left two dead and two seriously injured?

Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star

Yes: The photo depicts the horror of a shooting that happened in public. 74% (+1)

No: Publishing photos of dead bodies is not in line with the Star’s taste standards. 26%

7. A story and photo about the birth of a new royal baby reported on the world’s delight that the child was a girl. Do you publish this headline with the story and the first photo of the royal couple introducing their yet unnamed daughter to the world: “HRH, Princess Cutie?”

Yes: It is a cute headline for a cute baby. 55% (+1)

No: If this baby was a boy would you say HRH, Prince Cutie? 45%

8. A Star Autos article reports that Canadian actor Tricia Helfer bought her first car, a Porsche Boxster, at age 23. Do you publish this headline: “Pretty actress’s first car was a beauty”?

No: Because it is 2015. 66% (+1)

Yes: The car and the woman are gorgeous. 34%

9. An anonymous user on the online social forum Reddit who says he was attacked by a red-winged blackbird in Toronto wrote that “horrified,” he ran away “like a little girl.” Do you include this quote in an article about a Toronto man who was attacked by a red-winged blackbird in Riverdale Park?

No: This is a derogatory stereotype and the source isn’t even identifiable. 62% (+1)

Yes: This is a colourful quotation that expresses the man’s fright. 38%

10. Do you publish this headline with an article about a build-a-bicycle workshop for girls and trans youth in the Regent Park neighbourhood: “Regent Park girls and trans workshop builds bikes and confidence”?

Yes: It accurately reflects the story. 59%

No: In reporting on transgender people “trans” should not be used as a noun. It is an adjective. 41% (+1)

11. A Business article about a change to Ontario’s “Ticket Speculation Act” governing the ticket resale market refers to “ticket scalping” in the story and headline. Do you publish this?

Yes: The dictionary defines “scalping” as someone who buys things, especially tickets, to resell. 87% (+1)

No: “Scalping” is a slang term from the late 19th century offensive to indigenous people throughout North America. 13%

12. An editorial about Toronto budget deliberations headlined “Voodoo budgeting” states that “year after year, city hall is stuck relying on voodoo economics.” Do you publish this?

Yes: “Voodoo economics” is a well-known economic term used since the 1980s when George Bush Sr. used it to disparage Ronald Reagan’s tax cut promises. 80%

No: “Voodoo economics” is considered a racist, derogatory term that denigrates voodoo, the common term for the West African religion Vodun, (also practised in Haiti). 20% (+1)

13. An article about the number of patients that go missing at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) includes a sub-headline that states: “Centre’s stats far exceed other hospitals, but staffer points to its large number of mental patients” Do you publish this?

No: “Mental patient” is an offensive dehumanizing term. People are more than the challenges they face. 52% (+1)

Yes: What’s the problem? 48%

14. A reader submits a letter to the editor critical of Stephen Harper’s stance on privacy and transparency, expressing the view that “in his dyslexia” Canada’s Freedom of Information Act has become “Canada’s Freedom from Information Act.” Do you publish the letter and this headline: “PM dyslexic on privacy”?

Yes: The letter writer was expressing his opinion. 53%

No: This is inaccurate usage, insensitive to those with dyslexia. 47% (+1)

15. Following the news of the murder of 12 editorial cartoonists at the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, do you republish that news organization’s incendiary cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammed?

Yes: The provocative images at the heart of this tragedy are newsworthy 55%

No: These images are offensive and hurtful to Muslims in this community. 45% (+1)

16. A column expressing strong criticism of a Toronto Police tribunal hearing decision sparing Const. Babak Andalib-Goortani more serious punishment for his assault on a protester during the G20 in 2010 opens with the columnist stating, “What’s the use? What is the goddamn use?” Do you publish this sentence? Answers

Yes: Columnists have wide latitude to express their own views in their own voice and tone. 70%

No: The profanity is offensive to many Christians and crosses the taste line. 30% (+1)

17. A column about the historical relationships of Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents referred to two iconic quotes in bilateral relations: Lyndon Johnson telling PM Lester Pearson “You p—-ed on my rug” and Richard Nixon calling Pierre Trudeau an “a—-le” Do you publish these quotes with the foul language obscured by dashes?

No: Why sanitize the historic words of prime ministers and presidents? Johnson told Pearson “you pissed on my rug” and Nixon called Trudeau an “asshole” 51% (+1)

Yes: The Star’s “taste policy” states that swear words should be used sparingly and even then, obscured by dashes. 49%

18. A story reports that more than 200 British police swooped down on suspected jewel thieves making arrests in the notorious Hatton Garden heist in which thieves bored holes through the half-metre concrete wall to access a vault. Do you publish this headline: “UK police capture vault-busting thieves”?

Yes: The headline accurately reflects the story. 83%

No: The headline is not accurate. 17% (+1)

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on 08 January 2016.

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