Star public editor: If readers were the editor 2013

By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

A record number of readers — more than 5,500 — weighed in on the Star’s recent annual You be the Editor challenge.

By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

A record number of readers — more than 5,500 — weighed in on the Star’s recent annual You be the Editor challenge.

The most significant conclusion of this revealing reader data: in the majority of cases, most readers were aligned with the judgments made by the newsroom in 2013, including — overwhelmingly — the challenging judgment call to purchase and publish a controversial video showing Mayor Rob Ford in a seemingly inebriated, out-of-control rant.

With 15 real-life questions of ethics, taste, style and usage faced by newsroom journalists, readers opted for the same calls as the newsroom had made in all but six scenarios.

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Here’s how readers — and I — weighed in on judgments made by the Star’s newsroom in 2013.

1. A news report on the funeral of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a.k.a., “the Iron Lady,” reports that Thatcher was laid to rest with prayers and ceremony, plus cheers and jeers as some bystanders turned their backs on her coffin. Do you publish this headline: “Iron Lady rusts in peace”?

Yes: 14% No 86% Clever, yes, but in bad taste. The nays have it.

2. A Business article about the top expenses entrepreneurs can write off on their tax returns includes the perspective of an accountant cautioning that there is a reasonable limit to what Canada Revenue Agency will allow and states: “If you’re claiming a Jacuzzi, you’d better be in the right business, or the CRA will rip you a new one.” Do you include this quote?

Yes 72% No 28% Crude, but the tax accountant did make his point quite vividly. Still, I would have been inclined to red-pencil this one.

3. A Wheels article about Aston Martin cars includes the words of a Toronto doctor, who said he bought a $180,000 model instead of a Porsche 911 because “The last thing I want, after everything I’ve done, is for people to look at me and say ‘there goes another douchebag in a 911’.” Do you publish these words?

Yes 59 % No 41% “Douchebag” is OK in the Star? As an editor told me, it may indeed now be common parlance but I’m not there yet.

4. A reporter writes about a man with Down syndrome who has launched legal action regarding online material. Do you publish this headline: “Down syndrome man sues for $18 million after picture altered online”?

Yes 46% No 54% The man is not the syndrome. Better to write “Man with Down syndrome.”

5. Actor Seth Rogen visited the Star’s test kitchen to sample poutine from Smoke’s Poutinerie. “On seeing the takeout boxes filled with five pounds of fries, smoked meat and gravy Rogen exclaims: “Jesus Christ.” Do you publish his words?

Yes 63% No 37% Many readers told me this was deeply offensive to Christians. I would have nixed the blasphemous quote but I’m out of step with the majority.

6. A 57-year-old grandmother denied refugee status in Canada is arrested and threatened with deportation while in hospital following a heart attack. A reporter describes her as “an elderly woman.” Do you publish this?

Yes 18% No 82% Repeat after me kids: 57 is not elderly! As one reader told me, “it’s the prime of life.”

7. When a 72-year-old woman is killed in a fire in her home, Toronto police deem it a homicide and tell reporters she had ties to the sex trade, citing incidents in 1997 and 2000. Do you report this information?

Yes 60% No 40% If police report this fact, the Star should not censor it.

8. In a provocative column about “sanctimonious” cyclists, a popular columnist expresses her opinion that cyclists “have risen to No. 1 on my list of People Who Should Be Shot.” Do you publish this?

Yes 45% No 55% Columnists have wide latitude to express opinions that provoke. In dismissing a complaint about this column, the Ontario Press Council agreed.

9. A Toronto high school teacher is fired for handing out profane jokes to his students. A reporter obtains the handout filled with more than 100 vulgar jokes about women, sexual violence, racism and dead babies. Do you publish these jokes?

Yes 28% No 72% The Star rightly did not publish these vulgar jokes. Believe me, they crossed the line.

10. The day after Rob Ford admits to having smoked crack cocaine a source comes to the Star with a video showing him in an angry, seemingly inebriated rant threatening murder. The source seeks $5,000 for the video. Do you pay for and publish the video?

Yes 72% No 28% A tough call for the Star but given the huge public interest in the mayor’s character, a sound judgment.

To continue reading this column, please go the where it was originally published.

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