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CanWest's Ottawa Citizen

Sean Kilpatrick

If you want to understand why the mainstream media are suffering a loss of confidence, a decision of the Ontario Press Council-a decision that is almost impossible to find on the Council's website - would be a good place to begin.

Here, from the Council's press release, is the gist of the rather complicated case it adjudicated:

"A total of eight columns authored by David Warren and published over a three-year span were the focus of complaints by Carol Wainio. She claimed four contained factual errors and four contained statements lacking proper attribution."

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On the four complaints related to factual errors, the Press Council sided against Mr. Warren and in favour of Professor Wainio on one; on the three others, it found that "the sources relied upon by Wainio appeared substantially more reliable and persuasive than those relied upon by the columnist," but ducked ruling on them by arguing that it is "a non-profit corporation with no statutory mandate and without the authority to summon or compel the attendance of witnesses or the production of documents. Where, as is the case here, a columnist chooses to rely on one set of sources, and the complainant on another, the Council has no reliable means of adequately and conclusively determining which is correct."

As to the complaints related to attribution of sources-the most serious complaint that can be leveled against a journalist - the Press Council ruled that Mr. Warren:

"failed to meet generally accepted journalistic standards relating to attribution by either:

(a) using the words or assertions of another author or spokesperson without revealing that the words were not his own; and

(b) misusing the words or assertions of an unidentified author or spokesperson by failing to quote them fully and/or accurately."

Though the Council issued a press release on its decision yesterday - and the release was picked up by CP around mid-day - I was unable to find news of the decision in any of today's papers. And it's not as though this is a routine matter. Indeed, in the full text of the ruling, the Ottawa Citizen itself receives a slap on the wrist from the Press Council:

"The Council has no reason to believe that the publisher was aware of the possibility of any attribution faults at the time of publication. However, that possibility became known once the complaints were filed, at which time, in the Council's opinion, the Citizen had an obligation to confer with the columnist to explore the attribution allegations and provide an adequate response to the complainant's assertion that the columnist had failed to meet accepted journalistic standards relating to full and accurate attribution."

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What the Council does not divulge - either in its press release or in its decision - is that the Ottawa Citizen refused to attend its hearings into the complaint. For a powerful news organization that routinely demands accountability from others, its behaviour in the case of Professor Wainio's complaint reeks of hypocrisy.

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