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Public Editor: Reader was right to note lack of balance

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Earlier this week, a reader complained about an article published online about a diamond mine in Northern Ontario. She works in the North in resources and said she knows communities are divided on the subject of development in general and its impact on indigenous people.

The article is about a diamond mine near the indigenous community of Attawapiskat. The headline says, "Diamond mines give economic sparkle to Canada's north."

It was published on the Report on Business part of the website, under Economy and Growth & Productivity. It is part of a series managed by the editorial staff in The Globe and Mail's custom content group. Advertisers buy adjacency to the content, but they do not see or approve any content. De Beers and Forevermark were not the advertiser.

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There is an italic line at the end of the article saying: "Forevermark U.S. organized and paid for the writer's trip. The company had no input on the content of the article." As the article notes, Forevermark is a brand of De Beers.

The reader wondered if this story met Globe standards. This "story was unerringly positive about a project that is extremely controversial in the area – and well-documented in your paper. [The author] does not quote a single person who is not a De Beers employee…. Her trip was paid for by a De Beers subsidiary… I know the journalism usually produced is much better than this story and I was disappointed that a higher standard wasn't upheld," the reader said.

I had two main questions for the editors on this article. Like the reader, I wondered why no one opposing the mine was quoted, and did the editors believe that it met Globe and Mail standards? The story refers to a study by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's Wildlands League which says the mine "poses a threat to aquatic life by contributing to the creation of methylmercury, a neurotoxin that accumulates in fish and other food sources of the people who live in the area."

It also refers to critics of the mine, but doesn't quote any. The criticism by the Wilderness Society is followed by a denial by De Beers, including a quote from them.

Sean Stanleigh, the managing editor of The Globe's custom content group, said that while the reporter attempted to contact outside voices, including the Assembly of First Nations, "interviews did not take place prior to publication. As a result, the story did not meet The Globe's standards for balance, and it should have been held until those comments were secured. At the very least the attempt to reach other parties for comment should have been noted in the story."

The second question was about the paid-for trip. The Globe and Mail's code of conduct allows accepting discounted or free travel arrangements for "certain features" with the approval of a senior editor.

The problem with taking such free trips is that they can make a reader, like the woman who wrote to me, question whether the coverage is independent and balanced. It's important to be transparent, but it's also important to ask whether the free trip was warranted.

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Did that editor feel it fell into the basket of "certain features," which traditionally does not include news or business stories?

Mr. Stanleigh felt that "the spirit of The Globe's code of conduct was not followed. The newsroom traditionally does not accept offers of travel paid by third parties for news and business stories, and while we were transparent with readers through a disclaimer, a senior editor was not consulted prior to accepting the trip and publishing the story. The lesson here is: When in doubt, consult."

In this case, the lack of balance (with no comments from the local community) is no doubt enhanced by the fact that the staff writer's trip was paid for. In this case, as the reader noted, this did not meet the normal standard for Globe articles.

I agree that greater care must be taken and the code should be reviewed.

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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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