Orignally published on 2021-08-28 23:15:00 by www.thestar.com
In trying to give profile to an article about public attitudes to those who are not vaccinated, the Star stumbled badly in a front-page display, prompting a fierce response from readers, more than 4,000 messages and counting as of Saturday afternoon.
The Aug. 26 article itself tackled a topic that is in the public interest. With a fourth wave pushing COVID cases higher, there are tensions between those who are vaccinated and those who are not. The article explored that theme.
It cited an Angus Reid poll that most vaccinated Canadians are indifferent to the unvaccinated getting sick with the virus, with 83 per cent saying they have no sympathy for those who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine and then fall ill.
To highlight those attitudes, the article drew on several tweets expressing antipathy toward those who are not vaccinated.
Things went wrong when editors used the tweets for a large display on the newspaper’s front page.
“If an unvaccinated person catches it from someone who is vaccinated, boo-hoo, too bad.”
“I have no empathy left for the wilfully unvaccinated. Let them die.”
“I honestly don’t care if they die from COVID. Not even a little bit.”
The article, which appeared on Page 2, provided the context for those remarks. Standing on their own on the front page of Canada’s largest daily circulation newspaper, the tweets were considered confusing, hurtful and inflammatory to many, many readers.
Some of the backlash came from those opposed to vaccines. It’s apparent, too, that many had not read the accompanying article. But there were plenty of subscribers who took offence at the front-page display they considered overly provocative and hateful.
“You as the Toronto Star have an obligation not to promote opinions like this. If you want to make a point about polarization, this is not the way to do it,” one reader wrote me.
It’s clear from the angry commentary directed at the public editor’s office that there was considerable confusion about the source of the comments. Many readers thought the statements were the Star’s view, like a front-page editorial; others thought it was the headline to the story.
No wonder they were confused. I was too.
It wasn’t obvious where the comments were drawn from. There were no quotation marks to clearly signify that these were the comments of others.
The fact that these were taken from Twitter was only noted in fine print at the bottom of the comments and below the fold of the newspaper, and thus not immediately apparent.
The text stated that it was a “polarizing debate.” Yet the selected tweets presented just one side of this debate. Detached from the story, there was virtually no context.
Even among those who discerned the source of the comments, there was strong dismay that the Star would give front-page prominence to such hurtful statements.
“I worked through all of the previous COVID waves. I do not want to work through a wave of hate,” said one, who identified herself as someone who worked in an intensive care unit.
Another reader wondered what message the Star was trying to convey.
“At a time when we should all be coming together, whether you’re vaccinated or not, you as a paper, source of news and influence should not be encouraging division,” wrote a reader. “Your front page says, ‘Simmering divide.’ Clearly you are trying to make it boil over.”
There was anger that the highlighted comments took aim at all those who are not vaccinated and failed to acknowledge those who cannot get a jab because of medical conditions.
“It looks like you are trying to incite people against the unvaccinated. There is a certain element of people who have medical problems that prevent them from getting vaccinated. Not everyone in the unvaccinated group is an idiot or an ass,” said one reader.
“Not up to standards,” she said.
Senior editors were made aware of the readers’ concerns and were quick to acknowledge there was reason to be upset.
“Clumsy, poorly executed and open to misinterpretation,” Star editor Anne Marie Owens said of the design.
The divisive language in the tweets spoke to the tensions highlighted by polling data, Owens said. Yet the front-page layout invited confusion rather than helping make the point.
“It’s hard to distinguish the headline from the highly contentious comments,” she said.
“With any image, there’s a first impression. We know that’s the power of a front-page display but there is a responsibility too. This particular front page didn’t live up to that responsibility and we’re sorry about that. By not being clear, we sowed confusion.”
No doubt the article would have stirred reaction even without the front-page presentation. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen how stories about vaccinations and public health measures inevitably provoke a backlash that too often targets journalists. Such reactions cannot deter the Star from writing such stories.
In this case though, the poor execution of the front-page design unfortunately exacerbated that reaction. The Star wound up stoking the very divisions it sought to write about.
Greater care should have been taken.