25 reforms to make The McGill Daily almost as professional as “The Harvard Crimson, America’s McGill Daily”

FYI: I’ve now included links to the opinions (positive) of four people on 3 successive drafts of these potential reforms, which bring the list of reforms to its current state.  The opinions belong to …

  • The current ombudsman of the CBC, who was formerly wrote at Time Magazine, presented for CBC Radio and was chairman of the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Link to his comments on the second draft of the reforms.

  • A well-known Montreal journalist — he’s a Concordia alumnus and wrote for TheLink — who runs the website regrettheerror.com and co-wrote the book Regret the Error. He is an associate editor for PBS MediaShift and writes a weekly column for the Columbia Journalism Review. He also gives presentations on how journalists can address errors and develop new policies to help prevent them.

Link to his comments on the first draft of the reforms.

  • A member of the Ethics Committee of the Society for Professional Journalists. She is speaking for herself and not the Ethics Committee. She is currently a professor of print journalism at Marshall University, where she is an adviser for the university paper.  She is also a columnist for the Register-Herald.

Link to her email commenting on the final draft of reforms.

  • Another member of the SPJ Ethics Committee. He also speaks for himself and not the SPJ. He is a journalism professor at University of Kentucky, where he is the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.

Link to his email commenting on the final draft of reforms.

I don’t include their names or email addresses on these blog pages since I don’t want their comments on The McGill Daily to confuse people searching for them on Google, nor do I want them to receive more spam. However, you can find both their names and emails in the documents if you would like to contact them with any questions. (BTW, I also asked a former McGill Daily coordinating editor, 2004/05, who now works at Ha’aretz, to comment on the list of potential reforms. She agreed but eventually dropped out saying she didn’t have enough time.)

Below is the list of 25 reforms, with its short preamble:

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The guiding rules of a university newspaper will affect its level of journalistic accountability, and can promote a certain standard of professionalism. Relative to the rules in place at the newspapers of other “top-tier” universities, the Constitution of The Daily Publication Society is unique. It does, however, share the ideal of non-hierarchical structure with a number of school papers.

For example, The Harvard Crimson is an independent newspaper with unique guiding rules, yet like The Daily, tries to structure the newspaper as a collective and more egalitarian creative effort. Unfortunately, McGill students would recognize in the pages of The Crimson a different level of accountability and attitudes about professionalism than they’ve seen in the pages of The Daily.

In lieu of reforming the DPS Constitution to institute a standard editor’s hierarchy, the following list of internal reforms, reforms of editorial policies, may help The McGill Daily give McGill students more for their money. Several of these reforms, if the editorial staff had initiated them in response to major incidents [in 2007/08] of multiple errors, would have prevented subsequent, similar incidents.

These potential reforms are designed to not complicate the journalism of an individual student contributor who is not an editor. This list makes no additional demands on the reporters.

The potential policy reforms in this list are meant to be the joint responsibility of the editors of the McGill Daily, who number 15 or more and are paid stipends [around $290/month for 13 editors, $145/month for at least 4 other editors, as of 2005-06] in exchange for accepting such responsibilities.

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(1)   Any direct quotes in an article should be double-checked, from the reporter’s recordings/notes, by the section editor.

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(2)   When direct quotes are from published work or from internet sources, they should also receive a final check from the Copy Editor.

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(3)   The Coordinating Editor should do the final, thorough fact-check and proofreading of any article relating to an ethnic conflict, to an issue of a national entity pursuing/defending its self-determination (including First Nations, Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs and Québécois — national entities of particular interest to large sections of the McGill community), or to issues of “race.”

This last check will help The Daily to avoid making inaccurate and potentially damaging claims, with different editors making different decisions on the piece, not always aware of what another editor has checked over, altered or approved.

Although fact-checking is necessary for every article, regarding ethnic issues, inaccurate reporting and Comment pieces with combativeness have the potential to quickly affect the tone of McGill campus life for groups of students. It seems reasonable that when readers’ grievances, whether valid or not, arise about such pieces, these grievances automatically invoke a level of accountability beyond where the buck passes between different editors’ smaller actions and alleged communication failures. This policy will insure that regarding these delicate, contentious matters, students can look to one person as having had full oversight of how the text appeared in its final form in The Daily.

***

(4)   The section editor who originally presided over an article with errors should not write the text for the Errata box without review of completeness and style from the Coordinating Editor or the News Editor.

These two editors should be responsible for writing the final text of all Errata so that they are in the spirit of accepting responsibility for mistakes.

Or, as one group of journalists assembled by the Poynter Institute determined:

Corrections should be written for readers. They should be understandable, forthright and not defensive. Readers should be able to understand the error and evaluate the newspaper’s work.

Errors of omission or incomplete coverage should be dealt with in clarifications, corrections or additional coverage.

Section editors would be able to submit a draft of text for corrections to the Public Editor, if in the future, The Daily chose to delegate the responsibility for reviewing and/or writing Errata to the Public Editor.

***

(5)   When one editor is helping another proofread and fact-checking a piece, the editor whose section the article appears should accept responsibility for the results of the final fact-checking.

Conversely, if the section editor is also the reporter for the story in his/her section, another editor should accept the section editor’s customary accountability for the final fact-checking of the article.

Besides increasing journalistic accountability, these procedures will decrease the chance that fact-checking is neglected when a section editor mistakenly believes that his/her co-editor has already gone over particular segments or aspects of the article.

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(6)   In every case — not only when the reporter requests it — errata that are to be printed in the newspaper should be appended as soon as possible to the the articles they apply to in the online edition.

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(7)   The McGill Daily hasn’t attracted the amount of staff members necessary to establish an editorial board separate from the rest of the newspaper and its editors and reporters, like independent newspapers such as The Harvard Crimson, The Daily Princetonian and The Stanford Daily. However, McGill students can appreciate the conscientious policy of these newspapers on unsigned editorials, which are meant to speak for the paper as a whole. The Stanford Daily explains:

The reason for the division between news and opinions is so that our news editors and writers do not have to take sides on controversial issues. Their only goal is to inform, not to persuade. If they were asked to do both, it could present a conflict of interest for them and could undermine their credibility in the eyes of readers.

The Daily Princetonian concurs:

some readers [may] ask whether the same people covering the news are the ones so publicly declaring their opinions on it. At the ‘Prince,’ the answer is, No.

Our reporters and editors strive for accuracy and fairness in their reporting, and to that end, the news-gathering departments and the Editorial Board are divided, each side independent from the other. […]

As a body that is independent of the regular operations of the ‘Prince,’ the Editorial Board is responsible only to the editor-in-chief […] To preserve the board’s independence, no other editors or writers may contribute to the board, however loudly they might clamor.

The Harvard Crimson in fact has a similar policy but with what we might call a loophole. Although their editorial board is also a separate entity from the rest of the newspaper, writers and editors are can participate if they wish, but they are prohibited from debating, voting or writing for an editorial if they have worked on a story related to the topic. Similarly, The Crimson disallows anyone who participates in the production of the editorial from later working on a story related to the topic. The Daily should at least adopt these measures, which constitute a loophole for The Crimson.

***

(8)   For unsigned staff editorials, after those in attendance at an EdBoard meeting discuss an issue and then holds a vote on the position The Daily should take, the individual points made in the editorial should not require the approval of members of the EdBoard meeting who voted against the position The Daily is taking. — This addresses a habit that has developed at The Daily.

Unlike avoiding a “hung jury” in a legal case, a room full of beginning journalists is not a situation where there needs to be extra pressure for consensus. As the issue has already been discussed before the vote, afterward seeking the approval for individual points can be a recipe for groupthink or for installing social pressures as factors at the voting staff meetings. Moreover, culling the staff members’ approval for each point can help stifle more critical discussion of the topic in the future, while stifling present dissent.

Note: Another concern—which might sound like the concern of a communications theorist—is that the position of the editorial may be distorted by assembling “bullet points” or “talking points” of agreed-upon facts and conclusions, and in the process, departing from the structure of the argument for the newspaper’s position—an argument that some of staff had rejected.

The Daily’s Statement of Principles and Constitution affirm that with its editorials, the newspaper will be a critical forum for the exchange of ideas. To function as a critical forum, there are times when the EdBoard will need to hold the logical framework of its argument higher than a list, however valuable, of individual points of staff consensus.

***

(9)   When deciding to write an editorial that represents “The Daily’s position” on a subject, a position that wins only by a slim majority should prompt the editors to either reject the topic for an unsigned editorial or ask members of the voting staff to write two signed, opposing editorials for the same issue.

The Daily should encourage the writing of dissenting editorials to decrease the potential for group polarization at the EdBoard and to show a more dynamic range of perspective that can better reflect or inform the plurality of McGill students’ outlooks on issues.

Note: Group polarization is the process whereby individuals who have different opinions which are generally on the same side of an issue, in deliberation, change their opinions  to a more extreme alternative — sometimes a point of view more extreme than any of the members had before deliberation.

Group polarization affects diverse situations, as we can see in law professor Cass Sunstein’s working paper on the subject. Empirical evidence shows it affecting juries in their awarding of damages, financier groups in making investments, and judges committees that determine the length of a convict’s prison sentence.

Regardless of the staff’s belief in their deliberation and collective agreement as an objective process (—admirably, the paper doesn’t claim any conclusion to be “objective”) it’s reasonable to assume that group polarization affects staff members of The McGill Daily at least as much as it does juries, investors and judges.

***

(10)   The section editor should send to an email address, accessible only to the Public Editor, any online news material that the writer of the article used as a source for facts.

The measure is a small substitute for the archival practices or policies at professional newspapers. It is especially important, since contributors to The Daily (like many other university newspapers) often find background or supplemental information online for their articles.

If a reader contests the claims in those articles or the McGill journalist’s use of those claims, the storage of the actual articles used will help separate the question of the journalist’s conduct from the search for new sources to argue, retrospectively, whether The Daily printed incorrect statements. This distinction is essential for the journalistic education of the whole staff, the journalistic education which The Daily has declared part of its raison d’être.

Magnifying this distinction between journalistic conduct and retrospective fact-checking will also benefit the readers by increasing their ability to be persuasive, concerning a question of journalistic ethics, with the editors and voting staff.

( This rule would actually enforce an injunction in The Daily’s Constitution: “The contributors and voting staff […] must equip themselves with facts to support published statements.”

If the EdBoard would like the information to be accessible by all editors or by everyone on staff, the material sent to the Public Editor could be sent to an additional email address. )

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(11)   A Daily contributor’s letter-for-print in the Letters section of the newspaper should not respond to readers’ letters printed in the same issue. The Daily contributor can respond to the reader in the next issue.

The Letters section provides the one occasion student opinion has the special privilege that Daily writers enjoy: to not be directly argued with in the same pages. Although bimonthly journals often print an author’s response to readers’ letters, The Daily is a biweekly newspaper, which has frequently repeated its commitment to give virtually every reader the power to express him/herself in the Letters section. In the spirit of this principle, the Letters section should give readers a power of voice that is not immediately undermined or undercut by the staff members.

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(12)  A Daily contributor should not write an article that relates to an organization in which he/she is or was a member, or otherwise closely involved. Similarly, if The Daily contributor has signed any petition that would suggest a strong point of view relating to a particular story, he or she should not cover that story.

However, if the editors try to find someone else to cover the story and no one accepts, an editorial note should disclose the writer’s past or present association with the group or petition.

If an editor was a former member of an organization related to a story in his/her section, at least one additional editor should independently fact-check the story.

***

(13)  When a letter writer’s organizational involvements are known by the editors, they should be verified and then placed under the name, if they strongly relate to the position in the letter-for-print.

The Daily should provide a standard electronic form for letter writers to use (which among other things, can verify that someone else hasn’t sent a letter using their name).  In part of this form, the letter writers can provide any relevant organizational associations.  This can help The Daily protect itself from attacks on its credibility.

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(14)   Before covering politically-charged events that organizations motivate individuals to attend — such as demonstrations, lectures or panel discussions — section editors should remind their reporters to try to learn whether individuals they directly quote are involved with any organizations relevant to the story.

If the reporter interviews a person and his/her words parallel the point of view of an organization involved in the event, the reporter should ask whether the person belongs to the group or whether their presence is due to any organization that wanted to bolster a perspective at the event.

( This reform, like the previous one above, will help The Daily’s goal of being a critical forum for ideas and help counter claims that the newspaper lets itself become a mouthpiece for various activist groups according to their events schedules.

To assist its readers’ critical awareness of material, The Daily should do its best to underline the idea of perspective and subjectivity. Including the name of relevant organizations of an author or interview subject is the easiest way to evoke the idea that an organized perspective and discourse may be at work — regardless of the question of the validity of the perspective. )

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(15)   When supposed facts are drawn from other news sources, the reporter should mention the source with the information he or she supplies.

For example, “The military action left at least 20 civilians killed” is not acceptable when the alternative is “The military action left at least 20 civilians killed according to The Guardian newspaper.” The ethic regulations of Canadian University Press, to which The Daily’s Constitution has bound itself, state that journalists should not

take information from other sources without corroboration […] Journalists should not report unsubstantiated opinions as fact […] All information should be confirmed and corroborated from more than one source, unless urgency and the public interest demand it.

If an article in The Daily is repeating information from another news source without indicating the source, the article in The Daily is putting forth information as fact without confirmation or corroboration.

Additionally, as Prof. Robert Buckman, a member of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, has said in regard to a case of second-hand journalism at The Daily:

Facts should be checked and verified and other viewpoints explored; just because something is in a press release or a Web site does not mean it’s true or accurate. That constitutes professionalism.

Another, more pragmatic, reason for attribution is that if the information does turn out to be wrong, the error is attributable to that source. Let the source take the blame, not you. Readers are not stupid; they will discover if you’ve got your facts — even if they are someone else’s facts — wrong. You don’t want to damage your paper’s credibility. That kind of damage can linger long after you’ve graduated and someone else has taken over the paper; they will have to live down their predecessors’ carelessness or lack of ethics.

To help protect The Daily’s credibility, this rule should also apply in the editorials “by the newspaper”—i.e., unsigned—and in Comment pieces by students who are Daily editors.

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(16)   If sources relate different figures from different accounts of an event, in most cases, one figure should not be used as corroborating evidence for the other. When figures from different accounts conflict, and each account seems plausible at the time, the reporter should relate the different figures of each account.

For example, if a source says, “The governor of the province said he has received reports from hospital officials that at least 10 were killed in the accidental bombing of a funeral,” and another says, “the mayor of City X says he has received reports from local officials that 20 were killed at the funeral,” this does not provide corroboration and license for the university newspaper to report that “at least 10 were killed” or “at least 10 were killed, according to sources.” Instead, the student reporter might write, “There were conflicting reports of the event. The governor of the province said to The Daily that his office was told of 10 or more killed, but The Guardian quoted the mayor of City X that 20 deaths were reported.”

To help protect The Daily’s credibility, this rule should also apply in editorials “by the newspaper”—i.e., unsigned—and in Comment pieces by students who are Daily editors.

***

(17)   Conclusions that are the would-be result of an ongoing legal controversy should not be stated as decided fact. Legal opinions should be traced to the lawyers who share that view or legal organizations.

If the reporter and editor believe there is a strong consensus on a legal issue, the reporter can directly indicate that consensus. For example, he/she would write “a policy which most experts in immigration law view as illegal search and seizure under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” as opposed to “a policy which is illegal search and seizure.”

The ethic regulations of Canadian University Press, to which The Daily is bound, state: “Journalists should not report unsubstantiated opinions as fact […]” Reporters and editors should not debase the principle of legality by obscuring points of fact and turning the principle into rhetoric.

( Of course, indicating a consensus of professional opinions still puts the newspaper in a more vulnerable position than citing specific sources of opinion. )

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(18)   As the Board of The Daily Publications Society has to be in a position to judge the current quality of news reporting in The Daily, Board members who the students have elected should not write for the News or Features section.  Similarly, these Board members should not write any Culture piece that largely contains material which could fit a News or Feature article.

This guideline applies to the 6 members of the Board who represent the general student body. Of course, it does not apply to the 3 representatives of the newspaper staff on the Board, who are often current editors of the newspaper.

The policy would also prevent the worst-case scenario of a conflict of interest: a Board member chosen to represent the student body might contribute a News story that readers protested contained inaccuracies or gross bias.

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(19)   Before starting his position, the Public Editor should receive an information packet from the DPS Board. The packet would describe (a) several cases at professional and university newspapers, in which journalistic conduct resulted in negative consequences for the newspaper or members of its staff; and (b) several cases where a pattern of news coverage resulted in large-scale loss of reader’s confidence in the newspaper.

Ideally, the Public Editor should also have a session of ombudsman training, or an information session with a professional ombudsman, before starting his/her position.

***

(20)   The Public Editor should have a blog on The Daily’s website (which now has 7 blogs, two of them in fact not relating to journalism—about recipes and bicycling in Montreal), where the Public Editor can comment on anything in the newspaper that might not fit well into his/her twice-per-month column, or cannot wait until the next column will be printed.

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(21)   No blog posts on The McGill Daily’s website should be anonymous. Anonymity is reserved for unsigned editorials, which the staff has voted on and which are meant to speak for the newspaper as a whole.

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(22)   The CUP wire service should not be used to reprint any stories from Concordia’s newspaper The Link, nor to reprint any CUP-wire stories about events in Montreal, unless the stories are supplemented with reporting from The Daily.

Readers of The McGill Daily and Concordia’s The Link should be able look to each newspaper to cover their Montreal beat effectively, and should be able to compare the coverage of the two papers.

In its editorial pages and Comment pieces by individual editors, The Daily frequently avows its belief in media diversification. Printing Montreal news stories written only for The Daily is the way it can follow the principle of media diversification in its own backyard.

***

(23)   When an entire article has been reprinted from another source, an editorial note should indicate the original source for the reader.

When an editor has adapted the text so that the version in The Daily is different from the original, the editor should indicate for the reader the changes that occurred — the more specifically, the better — in order to help the reader gain a more critical awareness of the perspective of The Daily editor (or of the author, for that matter, if he/she decided to approve large-scale changes in order to gain readers among McGill students).

***

(24)   Any Errata box for the issue should be printed on page 2, in order to help alert students to what was incorrect in articles from recent issues, and also to help students evaluate whether certain problems are repeating themselves over time.

Although the Page-2 practice is far from universally followed, it would be a progressive measure in The Daily’s case, since the CUP Ethics rules to which The Daily is bound state:

The publication should rectify in print, at the first available opportunity, all culpable mistakes, recognizing its responsibility for everything published. These corrections should be in a position of prominence comparable to the one in which the original error appeared.

That the relative placement of sections and articles is different each issue suggests The Daily should adopt the Page-2 practice to fulfill its CUP obligation insuring the prominence of corrections.

***

(25)   There should be a system of internal warnings for editors to prevent repeat mistakes, as there is at the National Bureau office of the Canadian University Press, co-founded by The Daily.

If, in the view of the Coordinating Editor or the Coordinating News editor, an editor significantly violates any of the Daily/CUP Ethics guidelines or editorial policies such as listed above, the editor should receive a private warning from the Coordinating Editor or Coordinating News Editor. After three violations alleged by either of those editors, an immediate poll of the voting staff and/or the editorial staff should be compulsory on whether the contributor should face consequences.

This procedure should extend to any Daily editors in their work as reporters/writers.

This procedure should extend to all Daily contributors on a question of plagiarism, either accidental or with intent, or of fabrication.  No private warnings apply in these cases.  For example, if either the Coordinating Editor or the Coordinating News Editor identify in a Daily article text or ideas that significantly resemble text or ideas in other published work, this question necessitates to an immediate poll of the editorial staff and/or the voting staff.

Such votes are stipulated by The Daily Constitution. The reform merely makes sure the votes described in the Constitution are actually scheduled after a certain number of problems have occurred. The Daily’s Constitution does not say how to bring the issue of a contributor’s dismissal from a position/committee/staff to a vote, only that there must be a vote. (The policy at the CUP is two verbal warnings, then a written one, and then the CUP Board will decide on dismissal.)

Of course, the voting staff and/or editorial staff are free to vote not to reprimand a person and have minimal discussion before the vote, even if this leaves a large group of readers upset.

Minutes relating to these staff votes should be recorded and sent to the Public Editor by the day after the meeting.

In this way, the collective structure of the newspaper will support accountability, and address whether editorial policies are effectively promoting good journalism.

In the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Raymond Brossard, the managing editor of The Montreal Gazette said, “It’s easier to ignore things by sending them off to the ombudsman.” Instead, Brossard requires that “department editors address all corrections, and […] that department heads talk with reporters who have made the mistakes. He also requires that these reporters submit a written explanation of why the error occurred to both him and the department head. ” (RRJ, 5/1/2006). In this way, he says, “more people are involved.” This bringing-out-into-the-open is what the provisions of the Daily’s Constitution suggest.

The collective nature of a newspaper should not work to hinder the addressing of mistakes along with the reasons for those mistakes. Promoting individual accountability within the collective structure is not only part of The Daily’s responsibility to its readers, but also for part of its stated mission to educate future journalists. The collective-style newspaper should utilize its own structure to promote accountability for errors. In point of fact, it can only utilize its own structure, since it lacks certain mechanisms of accountability that are built within a traditional editors hierarchy.

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