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Public Editor: Journalism needs to focus on accuracy, fairness and independence

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Words matter, accuracy matters, fairness matters, independence matters.

With journalism under attack these days south of the border, journalists need to focus on the basics of the craft and not become defensive to the swirling charges from Donald Trump that they produce "fake news" and are the "enemy of the American people. SICK!" (His tweets.)

In the past month, readers have (a few of them jokingly) used the term "fake news" to describe an out-of-office response on a Globe phone line, an opinion column on the need for gun control and a so-called "anti-Russian" tweet by a columnist – when none of those things were fake.

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Another reader warned Globe writers and editors about casually using the term, and so adding to the confusion: A recent column on the Women's March in Washington had said the marchers presented themselves as the face of contemporary feminism. "That, unfortunately, is a sort of fake news," the columnist noted. But the Peterborough, Ont., reader correctly said that "wishful self-presentation is not fake news. Stories about a child-sex ring operating out of a pizza parlour are fake news."

Words matter. Terms such as "fake news" should be used only in quotes or if fully explained, because the term has morphed from meaning true and deliberate hoaxes into a political weapon used to attack news or opinions a person doesn't like.

A few readers wondered why The Globe was using the term "refugees" to describe people crossing the Canadian border from the United States. Are they refugees, asylum seekers or migrants? Unfortunately, a story on Monday described them using all three terms, which is confusing and inaccurate.

"Refugee" is a legal term, and The Globe's own Style Book refers to the United Nations convention on refugees as people who, "'by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,' have left their countries of habitual residence and are unwilling or unable to return there."

The Style Book continues: "This distinguishes a refugee from other immigrants, who may have any number of reasons (economic hardship, family ties, a seeking of better opportunities) for leaving their native lands. … In Canadian stories, reserve the term refugee for those passed by the refugee determination process. Others should be called refugee claimants, would-be refugees, people seeking or claiming refugee status etc."

Unfortunately, that hasn't been happening in these recent stories. Where possible, the reporter should ascertain whether the person is a refugee or an asylum seeker, and use the correct term. Or, a Globe editor noted, "asylum seekers" should be used if the reporter does not know.

Accuracy is a bedrock of good journalism and even minor mistakes stand out. Last Saturday, an article about presidential scandals incorrectly said Bill Clinton became only the second president in U.S. history to experience an impeachment trial after Andrew Jackson in 1868.

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I received many notes about that one. "First lesson: Don't try writing this stuff from memory. It was Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln's assassination, who was impeached in 1868. President Andrew Jackson died (unimpeached) in 1845," a Toronto reader said. And he is right. It may be a minor mental slip, but it stops readers and makes them wonder about accuracy over all.

Fairness matters. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was challenged by journalists about the ethics of his winter holiday with a billionaire; and then, Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose was held to the same standard in terms of the questions raised. In both cases, such information was not readily given to the media – it had to be ferreted out. Even though the cases were not the same, the questioning by journalists was equitable.

Many weeks, I receive e-mails and calls from readers complaining that some columnists are unfair to Mr. Trump. My view is: You don't tell a columnist what to think or say, and there is no need to achieve a balance when it comes to opinions. What matters is the news coverage is fair, so that you can make up your own mind. In the case of Mr. Trump, the test should be whether he is being held to the same standard of behaviour and decision-making as other leaders (as in the recent case of the Canadian political leaders), and I think that is generally true in The Globe's coverage.

And independence matters: While it is crucial for readers to know what is happening in their governments, their courts, the businesses they follow and the world, journalism must also get outside the stream of institutional news to do stories in the public good. Some examples: the series Unfounded, about how Canadian police handle sexual-assault allegations; and stories on solitary confinement, suicide and the military, tainted medical marijuana, and murdered and missing Indigenous women.

To step outside that swirling cauldron of attacks and counterattacks, journalism needs to keep its head, maintain an independent mind and pay attention to the basics of accuracy, fairness and attention to detail. And that will help maintain readers' trust.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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