Study of press councils explores options for reader complaints



Researchers from Ryerson’s School of Journalism are investigating whether the existing press council system is the best way for disgruntled readers to complain about what they read in newspapers.

The research, by Ivor Shapiro and Lisa Taylor, comes at a time when financial problems in the newspaper industry are undermining papers’ willingness to support the councils. When media giant Quebecor withdrew its membership from the Quebec Press Council and its Sun Media newspapers from the Ontario Press Council, for instance, the councils suffered a major blow, said Shapiro, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism and the project’s lead researcher. The Sun media pullout reduced the number of daily newspapers participating in the Ontario Press Council to 10 from 37.

“The way the press council is traditionally operated is it’s a kind of moral force on a newspaper,” Shapiro said. “The force of the press council is therefore damaged (when newspapers stop participating).”

Press councils were originally established in each province and Atlantic Canada as agencies where members of the public could go to voice complaints about stories and photographs published in member papers. If the council ruled in the complainant’s favour, the offending newspaper was required to print an apology.

Shapiro was approached by Newspapers Canada, the industry organization representing Canadian newspapers, to explore the options for making press councils more relevant now and in the future. Taylor, who has a background in law and policy making, joined the project soon after.

“(Press councils were) a way of the newspaper industry policing itself and being accountable to the public that it served, and it was a really big deal here for a while,” Taylor said.

But complaints to press councils are on the decline to the point where some have now folded; Saskatchewan no longer has one and Manitoba’s has ceased operation. The British Columbia Press Council ruled on only eight complaints in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010 and 27 complaints between 1990 and 2000.

Taylor said the role of press councils has been thrown into question because members of the public now have other ways to express their displeasure in the Internet age, including the comments sections on news websites and social media.

“While people seem to grumble about the media as much as they always have…there seems to be less likelihood that people will resort to a press council.” Social media, she said, means journalism is now a “two-way conversation instead of just the newspapers telling us the way the world is and us quietly reading it.”

The first phase of the research involved gathering information and opinions about media accountability from an online survey that targeted people in the industry, past complainants to press councils, and anyone interested in news and journalism in general.

The results of the survey were then presented to the newspaper industry at the annual Newspapers Canada conference. After outlining the findings at an April 27 workshop, Shapiro and Taylor sought more input from the publishers, editors and others industry representatives attending the conference.

That information, in turn, will guide questions to be asked in the final phase of the research, which will consist of interviews with individuals who have served on press councils, journalists, and members of the public who are committed news consumers. The goal is to identify a “public consensus on what the heck we expect from a press council,” Taylor said.

Topics discussed during the April workshop included the possibility of a national press council and government funding for press councils, as is the case in Quebec.

“There was a fair degree of unanimity at that particular workshop that people did not like the idea of government funding,” Shapiro said. “But all these things are things we’ll explore quite a lot in our qualitative interviews, which is where we’ll really learn what people think.”

Taylor said she is fascinated by how journalism is now more responsive to the public.

“If there’s a way for press councils to capitalize on this partnership that we’re seeing between journalists and their audiences, I’d love to be part of making that happen,” she said.

The researchers expect to complete the study by the end of 2012.