Discussing a dilemma

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Members of ONO recently discussed an issue concerning complaints, fairness, balance, and ethical dilemmas. The conversation took place via e-mail. It is re-posted here to serve as an example of the thinking and clarity ombudsmen bring to their jobs.

Dear colleagues,

We have received a complaint from an organisation that was criticised by a number of other organisations. The complaint turns on the allegation that our story was unfair, partial and lacked balance. What makes this a little different is that our reporter tried to speak to the organisation being criticised on two occasions. The organisation refused to comment but says that fact does not absolve the Guardian from its responsibilities to produce a fair and balanced story. What would you expect of your reporters in such circumstances? How would your news organisations make the decision that, in the face of  ‘no comment’, your journalists had discharged their obligations?

Any thoughts would be very gratefully received.

Best wishes

Chris

Chris Elliott
Readers’ Editor
The Guardian, London

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Our Code of Practice requires journalists “to strive at all times for truth and accuracy” (Principle 1), and to “take reasonable care in checking facts before publication (Principle 4).” Whether newspapers have met these obligations in any given set of circumstances depends on the facts of the case. Complaints about a breach of either of these principles will not generally be upheld on these grounds if the reporter has made the call but is met with “No Comment”, unless there are other grounds for investigating and/or upholding a complaint.

Problems can, however, arise in cases where the reporter has contacted the organization (or individual) very late in the day, in circumstances in which they argue they haven’t been given an adequate opportunity to give their point of view, or in circumstances in which a statement they have made on request has been written down or contextualized in the story to imply that it is disingenuous, insignificant, or worthless. Each of these cases has also to be judged on its merits, but the operative Principle in such cases is more likely to be one of the Principles dealing with misrepresentation or distortion rather than the Principles dealing with the need to check.

If a refusal to comment is a factor involved in the publication of an inaccuracy that is significant enough to require correction, then, in my view, the publication of a correction should be facilitated by the newspaper, but should be made by the individual or organization concerned, without the publication having to accept responsibility for the error. Where articles contain significant errors that are the responsibility of the publication alone, then of course the correction should be made by, and with the authority of, the publication itself.

To accept that an organization which had refused to comment is automatically entitled to redress for any injustices, real or perceived, whatever the story said and regardless of the professionalism of the writer, offers a blank cheque to all organizations that want to bully the press into a state of nervous self-censorship, and is almost equivalent to an informal gagging order. To be resisted!

Best

John Horgan
Irish Press Council
Dublin

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Dear Chris

The complainant is being silly. The blame for the story not being fair, partial and balanced rests squarely on its shoulders. It would have come out differently if they had spoken to your reporter. Having said that, they refusal to comment would not have entitled you to knowingly produce a story that is unfair, partial and unbalanced. That charge, however, would hold true if you deliberately included information that know to be untrue or excluded relevant information that is in their favour with a view to “getting them” or punishing them by publishing untruths, with a view to teaching them a lesson not to refuse to comment in future.

Having said that, we have an obligation to ensure the information we publish is truthful and accurate. We are also required to set the record straight in the event what we published is subsequently found to be lacking in veracity. To do otherwise would be to distort the truth. Imagine researchers who have to rely on your article when it’s not true, regardless how that happened. My suggestion would be that you give them the opportunity to set the record straight and state clearly that the new article is being done for that purpose. You’ll have to make it clear they’re now coming forward with information that they had refused to divulge for the earlier article. That should not be taken to mean you’re retracting the original story. I hope this helps.

Regards,

Thabo Leshilo
Public Editor
Avusa Media
4 Biermann Avenue
Rosebank. South Africa

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Chris,

I assume we would all expect reporters to check facts and seek balance in any case. But I believe you have highlighted a general problem: One parts refusal to comment is sometimes used by reporters’ and editors’ as an excuse to publish stories without careful fact-checking.

To some extent you can surely argue, that the “no-comment”-people only have themselves to blame for misunderstandings or misrepresentations. But blame-game or not: For us the priority must be given to informing the public correctly.

All the best,

Jacob

Jacob Mollerup
Listeners and Viewers Editor
Danish Broadcasting Corporation

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If the journalists made it clear in their reports that the organisation refused to give a comment, I don’t think there’s anything wrong.

Just the other day, the Estonian public broadcaster did a critical story of a government department in charge of internet domain registration. The story said the department had declined “repeated offers by our
reporters to comment on the accusations”. So the story lacked the government department’s point of view, but I don’t think journalism ethics was violated here. And in our case, the department has not complained (yet?) about one-sided coverage. It seems the facts were well checked.

Best regards
Tarmu

Tarmu Tammerk
Media Ombudsman
Estonian Public Broadcasting Company

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Chris:

CBC’s policies contain the notion that individuals and organizations
have the right not to participate and that CBC journalists should do
their best to reflect the context as fully as possible. Of course, at
the end of the day, if there is no other source of context but the
individual or organization, and he/she or it refuses to comment, that
refusal should not prevent a journalist from doing a story as balanced
as he/she can make it.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman
Toronto

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Chris,

Here in Argentina (we are having more problems every day), I would argue simply that the source of the complaint specify the quibbles and even express an opinion on the content. However, the reporter would definitely have the right to add a paragraph of explanation as to the work done.
This is not what I remember happening in the UK, but here at Perfil it is a necessity. Sometimes the exchanges are quite entertaining, if usually tetchy.

best,

Andrew Graham-Yooll
Perfil, Buenos Aires

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I find it interesting that the complaint relates to partiality and balance. Unless I am missing something, that seems a slightly different complaint than inaccuracy.

Obviously, a news organization has an obligation to ensure the facts of a story are accurate, regardless of whether a story subject will comment. It sounds like the reporters involved may have done that. As much as possible, reporters must also be diligent about presenting “all sides” of a story. Bu that can be a little more difficult and nuanced than getting the facts right if one side is not talking.

If the facts of the story were accurate, we would consider offering the complaining organization an opportunity to respond in a published letter to the editor, rather a published correction. We would tell the organization that they could not assail the accuracy of the story but could put forth the views they believed should have been included to “balance” the original article.

Cheers,
Shawn McIntosh
Atlanta Journal Constitution Public Editor
Atlanta, GA

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Hallo!

I think you should publish the story, if the company twice has been asked to comment and don’t want to, they should stand by their decision. It would be totally wrong if people and companies can stop an article or a subject just by refusing to comment.

Kind regards

Janne Andersson
TV4 Sweden

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My own view is that the reporter and the news organization retain the responsibility to be fair and accurate in their response even if the object has no comment after attempts to get comment. If there is trustworthy, verifiable information on the record elsewhere that makes the other case it should be sought and included. I don’t think such articles have to be “balanced” in terms of equal space and comment because there may not be any real balance to such a story, but it should be fair in going the extra mile to gather all relevant information.

Mike Getler
PBS Ombudsman
Washington, DC

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Hello,

The complaint seems unfounded if (and only if) the report was indeed accurate. If not the organization has the right to ask for a rectification (correction), but not a justification.

In France, the law is so strict that anybody quoted in an article has a “droit de réponse” meaning the newspaper is obliged to publish his answer. This is a problem because generally, it gives to the person or the organization a free tribune (platform) without any way to comment on it. So, we end up most times negotiating the size and legitimacy of this answer.

The “no comment” tactic poses more or less the same problem: the only solution is to quote them saying this in the article and, afterwards, negotiate their answer: nothing if there is no error, a simple precision if the error is trivial, a real tribune (or another article) if the error and the prejudice is heavy.

Best wishes

Véronique Maurus
médiatrice
Le Monde
Paris

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Dear Colleagues,

I have had more than a dozen replies and all have been really helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond.

Best wishes

Chris

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