[NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information for our March 28, 2018 edition. Find the updated story here.]
St. Catharines Standard writer appears to violate own newspaper’s policy in reporting Mayor Dave Augustyn’s assertion
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
As part of what appears to be an ongoing attempt to discredit investigative reporting undertaken by the Voice, Mayor Dave Augustyn has asserted that the newspaper told the Town of Pelham that it does not follow widely accepted journalistic guidelines.
“We’ve asked them what guidelines or standards they use in their reporting and we were told they don’t have any,” the Mayor is quoted as telling the St. Catharines Standard in an article appearing on Thursday.
Augustyn’s statement is untrue.
Augustyn repeated the falsehood Thursday on social media.
In December 2017, at his request, the Voice informed Mayor Augustyn that the newspaper follows the suggested standards established by New York University’s School of Journalism. NYU’s journalism program is widely accepted as one of the world’s most comprehensive.
On December 12, Voice Publisher Dave Burket reminded the Mayor by email that he had already informed Augustyn some months earlier that he was guided by NYU’s journalism standards. Burket added in the email, “In democracies, a free press is not ‘held to’ anything but the same laws that govern everyone else. In Canada, there are no special laws for journalists, no special restrictions that limit our work.”
In another email to Augustyn, Burket set out the steps that anyone with a complaint against the newspaper could take to seek redress.
Standard reporter Grant LaFleche, who wrote Thursday’s article, did not ask Burket to confirm whether Mayor Augustyn’s assertion was true.
Neither LaFleche nor Augustyn have responded to a request to confirm the accuracy of LaFleche’s transcription of his interview with Augustyn.
On Thursday evening at Niagara Regional Council, the Voice asked Augustyn if he remembered the emails referring to NYU guidelines. Augustyn initially ignored the question and walked away.
Some 20 minutes later, Augustyn approached the Voice reporter present and volunteered an explanation.
“I take an oath of confidentiality, and so I thought that my contact with Mr. Burket was confidential,” asserted Augustyn.
“You had not published [the NYU guidelines] online, and so I did not want to disclose that information.”
It was unclear to which oath of confidentiality Augustyn referred, or how this would have permitted him to misrepresent to a third party what he had been told by Burket.
Augustyn ignored follow-up questions seeking to clarify his explanation and returned to his seat.
LaFleche’s failure to ask the Voice whether Augustyn’s assertion was correct appears to violate the Standard’s own code of ethics.
According to the Toronto Star Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide, “Before publication, every effort must be made to present subjects with all accusations — the sooner the better.”
The Star’s parent company also owns the St. Catharines Standard.
Burket informed LaFleche on Wednesday, as he was writing his story, that he welcomed any emailed questions that the Standard wished to ask. LaFleche refused repeated invitations to email his questions and none were received or answered by Burket.
It is Voice policy to conduct interviews by email, in person, and by telephone. Burket says that email is preferred for certain subjects.
“Particularly with politicians, it is useful to retain a paper trail to clear up any later misrepresentations or mis-remembered statements.”
After nearly 21 years answering the newspaper’s queries, Pelham Town Hall abruptly broke off responding to Voice email and voicemail late this winter.
Approximately 500 Voice newspapers dropped at Town Hall were trashed over the course of a month. A media worktable was removed from Council chambers.
These actions have been condemned by national and provincial journalism organizations in Canada and the US. The Canadian Association of Journalists, News Media Canada, and the Ontario Community Newspapers Association have issued statements of rebuke.
John Hinds, the president of News Media Canada, an organization of some 800 daily, weekly, and community papers, including the Voice, says that Pelham’s actions are unprecedented in Canada.
“This is something that you see happen in Turkey, or places like that, not something that you think about happening in Ontario,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve seen an example this flagrant before. Often what we see are things like jettisoning reporters from what should be open meetings, or not providing information when asked for,” Hinds said. “The idea of actually trashing the newspapers and refusing to provide notices and information upon request is something that I don’t think I’ve seen, certainly in my ten or so years [with News Media Canada].”
Rebecca Baker, President of the U.S.-headquartered Society of Professional Journalists, was equally adamant that Pelham’s actions were anti-democratic.
“These types of petty, vindictive acts are beneath any government official,” said Baker.
“When government officials do these types of actions I think it’s just unworthy of the people they serve. This type of illiberalism, this type of media backlash, is something you see in authoritarian—central and eastern European—countries now. It is beneath the public office that you’re reporting on. I would urge the public officials to re-think their position. They need to rethink the definition of public servant.”
The Town’s recent campaign to challenge the Voice’s credibility coincided with news that the paper had won a provincial newspaper association award for best investigative news story. It also comes on the heels of the paper filing a number of Freedom of Information requests concerning the Town’s ongoing East Fonthill land development.
The newspaper’s founding editor, Carolyn Mullin, expressed disappointment with the Town’s behaviour.
“[The Voice] has earned community awards, business awards, and newspaper awards from accredited newspaper organizations, and has been a 20-year member of the Ontario Community Newspapers Association,” said Mullin.
“The ethics discussion seems to be convenient timing on the part of the Town. I haven’t yet seen or heard what ethical issues might be at stake, so why are they calling on an ethical body as their defining membership for who they deal with?”
Mullin, the first Kinsmen Citizen of Year in 1998, is long-known for her community involvement and boosting of all-things Pelham.
“I have always maintained, throughout my career as a journalist and editor at weekly and daily newspapers, trade publications and magazines, that a community newspaper is meant to be that community’s mirror—it has a responsibility to reflect back to the community those happenings of relevance to its citizens, the proverbial good, bad and ugly. This allows that community’s citizens to be armed with the information they need to make informed decisions about their community. How can the Voice, the only publication dedicated solely to reporting the happenings of the Town of Pelham, continue to fulfill that mandate, when the local government puts up roadblocks such as this?”
Updated March 22, 7:50 PM, with Mayor Augustyn’s admission that he recalled receiving email from the Voice referring to NYU journalism guidelines.