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Public Neither Trusts Nor Respects Media

   And It Often Has Good Reason Not To  


By Susanna Kelley

The role of media in a democracy is one that is very dear to the hearts of political journalists, including this one. Frankly, it's the reason we get up every day to do this job.

So when I was asked to speak on exactly that topic at an event being held this week by the modern day salon "Why Should I Care," I was very happy to oblige. I shared the podium with Dave Hardy of Hardy Stevenson and Associates who looked at the issues from a corporate and public relations point of view.   

There was plenty to talk about from my point of view: how media is a crucial cog in the democratic process, getting truthful information out to the public upon which they can decide to cast their votes; the many, often dirty and occasionally downright lying tricks politicians and their PR flaks use to try and torque the stories we report on; the influence of the Internet which has so challenged the old media (newspapers, television) and brought both the blessing of instantaneous opinion-sharing and the curse of non-verified and thus often inaccurate  "reporting" by the also inaccurately named "citizen journalists"; the layoffs of now thousands of front line journalists, fact checkers and editors across Canada while media Presidents and CEOs pocket raises as high as 50% (Paul Godfrey at the Post Media); and of course self-inflicted disgraces where the Brian Williams/Amanda Langs/Margaret Wentes of the world are allowed to break the most basic rules of journalism (such as "don't lie to the public, "don't cover a story where you have an intimate relationship with one of the protagonists," and "don't plagiarize"), without penalty or with just a quick slap on the wrist, then they are allowed to continue to pull down six, seven and eight figure salaries (Brian Williams was to make $10 million this year - his six month suspension will presumably halve that to $5 million, then he'll be back on the full payroll again.)  Even the most basic journalistic ethics dictates they all should have been fired immediately upon verification of their blatant transgressions.

But enough about the presentations themselves. You can watch a video of those here.

What was vitally important, however, was the audience's reaction in the particularly hot and heavy question and answer session afterwards.

It was a tough crowd, to say the least.

They had plenty to say about the media in Canada today, and it sure wasn't flattering. 

Some were frustrated with what they saw as the media's ineptitude and, worse, complicit agreement in giving airtime to those who are clearly not qualified to opine on the subjects they opine on anyway, to wit, Jenny McCarthy's ridiculous but harmful claim that autism is caused by vaccinations.

They wanted to know why the media puts together political panels that include PR spinners often suggested to them by a party itself, paid either directly by that party or indirectly through contracts, for loyally toeing party lines in the media, lines such as "the tar sands are environmentally benign," and why such PR flaks are given equal time to highly educated scientists who present solid scientific proof of their opinions.   

They wanted to know why the media in Canada ignores important stories such as where the parties stand on proportional representation.

They wanted to know why the two most important numbers at election time almost never get reported: those being the number of eligible voters and the per centage of that who voted for each party. For without that context, the media masks the fact that only 24% of eligible Canadian voters supported Stephen Harper in the last election, yet he is given 100 per cent of the power.

They wanted to know how much pressure there is on media outlets from the Premiers' and Prime Minister's Offices and other political operatives (answer: lots. The PMO is often on the phone to the heads of the major media outlets in Canada, as are other parties, trying to "shape the narrative" - that's PR bafflegab for torqueing how the story is reported.)

They wanted to know why Sun News Network was allowed to run essentially propaganda as "news" (answer: they're right. SNN was a bastard child conceived in 2011 by an unholy marriage between former Harper PMO PR flak Kory Teneycke and the Quebecor media chain that cared only about money. It was used as a propaganda machine for the Harper view of government for just under four years. (My comments on SNN's propaganda spewing, by the way, exclude host David Akin and frequent Toronto Sun guests Antonella Artuso and Lorrie Goldstein - all three are absolutely solid journalists. But the loud chorus of propagandists drowned their voices of reason out.)

Many in this group of informed and engaged citizens in the audience obviously neither trusted nor respected our media.

Journalism in Canada has been in an ethical crisis for a decade or more, and there's no end in sight.

What's needed, it seems, is a major cleanout at the top of many media organizations.

The failures we are watching are those of middle-aged managers who have rolled over and sacrificed journalistic ethics as they chased ratings and Internet clicks in order to charge higher advertising rates. Many of them have never been journalists.

Journalistic leaders of another day - the Peter Herrndorfs of this world, who oversaw The National/The Journal package on CBC TV and subsequently became Chairman and CEO of TVO - had solid ethics and had been journalists themselves, and brooked no rule-breaking.  (I can testify to this, as he was my boss for a number of years.)

Young journalists are just starting out and afraid.

Good, ethical journalistic leaders naturally demand good, ethical journalism from those under their guidance.

Yes, it was a tough crowd.

And it was right to be.

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : February 19, 2015

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