Posted in Media, Opinion

Journalists need to leave the echo chamber

Journalism Strategies panel, from left: Moderator Mike Finnerty, Tony Burman, Kai Nagata, Dominique Payette, Judy Rebick

Last week, I attended a panel discussion about the future of journalism, and specifically about public policies to support journalism and whether we still need professional journalists. I resisted going to such a discussion, but decided to go anyway because the panel had some interesting members. Tony Burman, the former CBC and Al-Jazeera executive; Kai Nagata, the disillusioned former CBC and CTV journalist; Dominique Payette, creator of a report calling for accreditation of professional journalists in Quebec; and Judy Rebick, activist and creator of rabble.ca.

If you missed the panel, there’s a video of it online. It’s about two and a half hours long, including questions.

I was excited by the idea that there would be some interesting debate from people with different perspectives on how journalism should be done. But sadly, none of the debate I wanted to see materialized.

It became clear to me as the discussion went on how one-sided it all was. There was no representation, either on the panel or in the audience, of opinions from the right or even the centre-right. There was lots of discussion about the student strike and how the media was covering it, but no one questioned whether the strike itself was a good idea. There was discussion of Quebecor’s battles with Transcontinental in the community weekly war and how it has changed since the lockout at the Journal de Montréal, but nobody saw fit to defend the empire, or even point out that starting a bunch of new newspapers adds to the number of journalism jobs. There was condemnation of openly right-wing activist media like Sun News Network, but no corresponding condemnation of openly left-wing activist media like The Tyee or Rabble.ca.

I say this not because I want to become a Quebecor apologist or student-basher, but because as a journalist the last place I want to be is an echo chamber where everyone agrees on a set of facts that suit their agenda. I want to be challenged on my preconceptions, I want the most unpopular ideas to get a fair chance at being heard and considered. I want people who disagree on fundamental issues to discuss their opinions with each other instead of putting their hands over their ears.

There’s a reason I put the term “open-minded” in the headline of my review of Sun News Network. Open-mindedness is something I find too many journalists lack. And a closed mind is often the biggest reason why a journalist can’t be completely honest with news consumers.

Dominique Payette

Dominique Payette is a former Radio-Canada journalist, now an academic, who was invited on the panel because of her report into journalism in Quebec. It called for the establishment of a “professional journalist” title that would be given out (and could be taken away) by some quasi-government body. I was among many who argued against it because I’m uncomfortable with the government, no matter how arm’s length the distance, deciding who can and can’t be a journalist.

Payette expressed disappointment, perhaps even annoyance, that her report has essentially been shelved. That’s mainly due to the fact that two groups – the FPJQ, which is an association of Quebec journalists, and the Quebec Press Council, which acts as an ombudsman for Quebec media – both want to be in charge of deciding who gets to be a journalist in Quebec. Faced with a journalistic community divided over how to proceed, the government wasn’t about to start legislating what could be a very controversial issue.

But Payette’s interpretation of the reaction was different. According to her, there was a language divide at play. Anglophone media were largely against the report while francophone media largely supported it. She’s right on the first part – anglo media were just about entirely against the idea, for ideological reasons but also because of some of Payette’s other recommendations, like that all journalists be tested in French language skills. But many francophones also came out against the idea.

Payette also cited a language divide in the coverage of the student protests. Apparently francophone media were largely on the students’ side, while anglophone media were largely on the side of the government. This confused me, until I remembered something she said earlier in the evening.

“I don’t read the Journal de Montréal because it has become a right-wing newspaper”

A journal de droite, she said, in case there’s some debate over my translation. According to Payette, there were no longer journalists working there.

Now, there’s definitely debate to be had about journalistic ethics at the Journal, but it stunned me to hear that a person who considers herself an expert on Quebec media refuses to read its largest newspaper. Not only that, but she then analyzes Quebec media as a whole by conveniently ignoring one of its major players. The Journal de Montréal and other Quebecor media were against the licensing of journalists and highly critical of student protesters, but rather than acknowledge that different media have different opinions on important issues, she ignored media she disagreed with and simply resorted to generalizations and caricatures.

Not that there were too many people in the audience to call her on it. I heard only one question that came close, wondering why, if media working for “social change” was such a good thing, right-wing media like Fox News working for their own social change was so bad. The question wasn’t really answered by the panel, who instead pointed out that Fox News viewers are ill-informed and that the opinions it advocates benefit only a small number of people.

It’s sad to see a group of people, who apparently hold quality journalism so dear, seem to take the stance that activist journalism is okay so long as it’s activism on the left. It’s sad to see a crowd that’s interested in journalism openly applaud leftist activist sentiment.

Sun News personalities speak of the “consensus media” where journalists assume the same (left-wing) opinions as all the other ones, perhaps through peer pressure and a desire to fit in, or for some other reason. Coming out of a discussion like this, it’s hard to disagree.

I don’t want to suggest that the crowd thought with one mind. There were some in the audience (which had representatives from many media outlets, including CTV, CBC, CJAD, The Gazette, OpenFile, Sun Media, Presse canadienne, Projet J and probably others whose faces I didn’t recognize) who pointed out to me privately afterward how disappointed they were in the political bias. I myself didn’t speak up, which might have given others the idea that I endorsed the sentiments being expressed.

But I don’t endorse them. Nor do I endorse the opposite opinions. I believe most divisive political issues aren’t nearly as black and white as many people make them out to be. I don’t believe that people who disagree with me are either evil or stupid. I don’t believe that journalists should embrace bias simply because the ideal of objectivity is unreachable.

And I don’t believe that discussions in which everyone agrees with each other do much to further enlighten anyone.

(Then again, I could be wrong about this. I like to keep an open mind, after all.)

26 thoughts on “Journalists need to leave the echo chamber

  1. News Guy

    Well said.

    I for one don’t believe that government should have any say as to who should be considered a journalist. Payette is a product of the last 40 years of Quebec society where the state is seen as society’s puppeteer. I am sure that she would also force journalists to take an ideology test along with their french quiz.

    They might laugh off Fox News, but then they are marginalizing the most-watched (like it or not) cable news channel in the United States.

    Reply
  2. Marc

    The echo chamber: welcome to Quebec journalism, particularly on the French side. But the biggest such thing has got to be the Parliamentary Press Gallery (PPG). To these people, Canada = downtown Ottawa.

    And as for Payette, yet another Québecoise boomer stuck in a 60′s time warp who thinks massive bureaucracy and unions are what life is all about.

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      I’m not so sure about your view of the PPG.
      I went to school with Jennifer Ditchburn, noted CP reporter. She grew up in Montreal and often visits family here.
      She’s definitely urban, with an urban POV, but you shouldn’t fault her for that.

      I mean, the biggest split in humanity is rural-urban. It even takes up most of the space in the Bible ;)

      Reply
      1. Marc

        It’s not that there’s no one good at the PPG. It’s that many of them have been there for decades and they turn themselves into activist journalists; you can certainly see that with Craig Oliver. Contrast that to the USA where each time a new administration comes in, all the major media players send a fresh team of folks in. One of the reasons Iggy led the Liberals straight into the ground is that he thought the opinion (for lack of a better word) of the PPG was the pan-Canadian opinion and geared his campaign around that. Obviously, not a good strategy.

        Reply
  3. Mr. Robertson

    It reflects very poorly on Concordia to assemble such a one sided panel and try and pass it off as objective. I was able to tell before hand that it would result in a hatefest against the right, just based on who was in it.

    If you assembled a similar panel with Ezra Levant, Mark Steyn, Eric Duhaime and Jean-François Plante, I wonder what they would say?

    Reply
  4. Michael

    How come you didn’t speak up at the time of the event, but felt the need to write this post?

    I’m not saying it’s wrong, and I actually agree with you, just curious as to what held you back.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      How come you didn’t speak up at the time of the event, but felt the need to write this post?

      For one thing, the number of questions was limited, and I was more interested in hearing what other people had to say than injecting my own opinion. I also thought my opinion was more than could be summarized in a 20-second question.

      But I suspect part of it is also the same reason others didn’t speak up: We’re not really trained to do that. Our instinct is to gather information, to ask questions when we want more, but not to draw attention to ourselves by taking public stands.

      Reply
  5. Beeg

    These are the panel’s discussion questions:

    “Do we need professional journalists to help us be active citizens? Is public policy support for journalism a bad idea, or a necessary alternative to market failure? Do we still need public policies to support journalism if everyone has a camera on their cellphone and access to the Internet?” and “The broad question underlying the evening: why is this an important moment in Canadian history for supporting journalism that supports democracy?”

    (Never mind that the last question implies an answer to the one that precedes it.) Sounds like a pretty ho-hum discussion was inevitable. Meanwhile, Tout le Monde en Parle featured a much more interesting discussion with Alain Gravel and Fabrice de Pierrebourg about the actual practice of journalism (and not navel-gazing about being oppressed as a TV reporter in QC City or the fact that the left never gets a fair shake or that we need rules in place to define who is and who isn’t a journalist).

    Reply
  6. wkh

    Considering the vast funding supporting outlets like Sun News and Ezra Levant, I don’t really care they don’t get on panels like these. They can make their own publicity.

    That said, I don’t understand why you think they should have discussed whether the strike is a good idea. It’s a journalism conference, to discuss journalism. It seems logical to me they’d discuss how it was covered and not the strike itself. It’s not a student union conference

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Considering the vast funding supporting outlets like Sun News and Ezra Levant, I don’t really care they don’t get on panels like these. They can make their own publicity.

      Sun News Network runs on a shoestring budget. I’m not going to suggest that Ezra Levant is poor or that he doesn’t have a pulpit, but he isn’t having money thrown at him either.

      I don’t understand why you think they should have discussed whether the strike is a good idea. It’s a journalism conference, to discuss journalism.

      My issue is that they seemed to work from the assumption that the strike is something that should be supported. There was no questioning of the premise. And in discussing the coverage of the strike, it was simply assumed that the media (particularly the English media) were simply buying the government line and should have done more to support students. Nobody even hinted at suggesting that the strike was being covered fairly, much less that the media might have been too far on the side of the students.

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        Hmm… The CBC gets around $1 Billion dollars a year from taxpayers. Perhaps people linked with them should be not be included in the panel?

        The only person on the panel currently employed by the CBC was the moderator (though all four panelists did work there at one point). But even if we ignore that, what does taxpayer funding have to do with that? Academics are paid by the government too. Should they also be silenced?

        Reply
  7. David Pinto

    Steve, are you SURE that that picture is the same one you ran yesterday? I dunno, but it looks different, somehow.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Steve, are you SURE that that picture is the same one you ran yesterday? I dunno, but it looks different, somehow.

      What are you talking about? What picture?

      Reply
  8. Ted Bird

    Well said, Steve. I’m always suspicious of media people who go out of their way to identify themselves as “real journalists,” as if they’ve answered some kind of higher calling. Pompous asses with deep insecurities.

    Reply
  9. ATSC

    Good article.

    Would they allow you to enter their club as a “real journalist”?

    These people have dangerous ideas.

    Reply
    1. Jimmy Jack

      Steve works for the English media, so he can’t be a journalist. Only French media get that distinction.

      Reply
  10. John

    Having been a Political Science & Journalism student at Concordia, the bias against right-wing views was very evident at the school. It angered me all the time.

    Reply
  11. Michael D

    AS usual, another great read..two areas where I will comment on……

    The leftist thing..seeing I’m a proponent of blue-collar rocker types like: Lennn, Adams, Mellencamp,Springtsteen, Nelson,etc.. I would probably say if there’s a erception out there that the media people are perceved as holding leftist views, it could be that they don’t want to be seen as supporting big business or corporations with endless wads of cash..They view themselves as a healthy opposition..
    I would rather have a journalist fight for the little guy than an MP in oppostion. Media is better to dig out dirt, for example, in construction scandals than an MP in oppostion..Media keeps government and big corporations on their toes..Amen.

    As for the Transcon vs. Quebecor weekly battle..What war? On the island of Mtl. All weekly papers are owned by Transcon except for the Suburban and and there are other small players like the Hudson paper, outside of Montreal,it’s really colored Transcon….

    Transcon also owns 75% and possibly more in the Atlantic..they also have some presence in Eastern Ontario and holding some presence in Saskatchewan..So Quebecor is not in the game on weeklies in Quebec, nor in the flyers you get at your door every week, Transon has that iron clad with Publi-sac and I know most people look forward to seeing those weekly specials..but won’t say it publicly..
    Transcon, though, is neglectful in English weekly journalism in the southwest..i.e Verdun, LaSalle, Lachine, and also in the South Shore and in Laval,,it would be wonderful to see at least an English weekly regional paper along the lines of the Suburban in those 3 areas..

    Transcon also owns big names in Magazines:Tv Guide, The Hockey News, Elle magazine,Les Affaires,etc. But as for a war in the weeklies in Montreal, there is in fact, unhealthy monopoly.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      media people are perceved as holding leftist views, it could be that they don’t want to be seen as supporting big business or corporations with endless wads of cash..They view themselves as a healthy opposition..

      There’s a joke that reality has a clear left-wing bias, but I think you’re on the right track here. Journalists comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and a lot of what they do is left-wing in that sense. My sense is that being a journalist tends to give you a left-wing bias, whereas being a media owner (or populist commentator) tends to give you a right-wing one.

      As for the Transcon vs. Quebecor weekly battle..What war? On the island of Mtl. All weekly papers are owned by Transcon except for the Suburban

      There’s no war on the island, where community weeklies aren’t really important because of the major papers. But if you look at places like the north shore, there’s fierce competition now that Quebecor and Transcon have abandoned the gentleman’s agreement not to start papers in each other’s territory.

      So Quebecor is not in the game on weeklies in Quebec, nor in the flyers you get at your door every week

      Sure it is. Transcon’s Publi-Sac definitely has a head start, but I wouldn’t count out Quebecor when it wants to start something.

      Reply
      1. Marc

        I would say more than a head start for the Publi-Sac. Apart from it having been around for > 25 years, it has the flyers that really matter, aka. grocery stores. Since I live equidistant from IGA, Loblaws, Metro and Provigo, I like to read them. The only good flyers in Q’s SacPlus is Jean Coutu.

        Reply
  12. Michael Black

    But some of the issue isn’t identity, but lack of depth. People know things, that doesn’t mean they understand them. They will repeat back what they are familiar with, and often dont’ see much beyond their noses.

    How can school be criticized when children are there by the age of 5 or 6, if they weren’t in a school like environment of day care before that. There’s no vantage point. University provides a chance for kids to be away from home, and look at that, but it doesn’t give them a different vantage point ot observe school from.

    I always had interests away from school. And when I became interested in hobby electronics, I was
    suddenly in an adult world, the magazines weren’t aimed specifically at children. Getting a ham license forty Someone young in old media hasnt’ experienced something deeper. Someone older in old media likely only saw the most visible of the xisears ago (next month) wasn’t a matter of studying to pass a test, it was about soaking up everything I could because it interested me, and the test wasn’t a burden, it was s sense of accomplishment. I went into high school with more electronics than would ever be taught in that high school. But I also had a vantage point to view schools, I was able to learn on my own, I was aware of the process I was using to learn. So when that English teacher read that book about how to fly a plane, as an attempt at teaching science in grade 7, I could be critical of that.

    Look at the current fuss with the students. They are reliving the sixties, yet it’s the worst of the sixties, and they don’t understand it. They wave the peace sign, as if it will keep the cops from hurting them. But in the sixties, they didn’t flash the peace sign at the Pentagon to protect themselves, they did it because the Pentagon was protected by soldiers, who should not have been the enemy. They are repeating the revolution as romance portion of the sixties, Abbie Hoffman and the weathermen. They can’t say anything about the heroes of the non-violent sixties, because they don’t know about it. The language, the masks, the smoke bombs, the pushing, that was all there back then, and then disappeared when people realized it had gone over the top, yet returned a decade ago with the anti-globalization movement. Nobody can criticize what’s going on if they don’t have a different vantage point. And just like back then, if you don’t fit the party line, you must be the enemy. Old media isn’t helping, the ideology is the same as forty years ago.

    Endless demonstrations happen without violence, so why is the student protest so serious that the government is trying to suppress it, or devalue it with provaucateurs? The simplest reason is that they are simply emulating what they know, that they are their own problem. The current protest is no different from previous anti-tuition demonstrations, except it’s gone on longer and escalated. But at it’s core they’ve always been about making noise, being obnoxious, rather than changing people’s minds, about making real sacrifice, an expectation of having their way. I’ve gone to plenty of demonstrations where the point was to not let something go without comment, it didn’t matter about “having my way”.

    I was called a “political activist” when i was 10 years old. I still have a critique from 1976 about the second demonstration I ever went to, expecting more substance than “honk for the teachers”. I define the world I live in, I don’t follow others. About 1985, I wanted to change “Question Authority” to “Question Assumptions” because too many can’t make change because they can’t question what they are doing. I’ve always been critical of the left, because it needs it, because it matters. I am far more radical than most, yet I don’t speak rhetoric, I don’t follow the pack.

    A mob mentality is horrible (I’ve always noticed it through the left, rather than because I noticed kids at school buying the latest fashion or records). I remember the time I really understood it, on Parliament Hill when VP Bush was visiting. A group runs off towards something I almost follow, and then realize I’d almost f fallen into the mob. Oddly, some months later, I found myself on an ad for CJOH’s evening news, I sure don’t need a mask. A lot of politics is mob, not a random thing but following the pack, unwilling to see a different viewpoint because they can’t be bothered understanding it. So they live with what people they “know” says, be it people in their group or recognized authors, not questioning that, but unable to discern whether an “outsider” is speaking value. The group reinforces itself, right down to the language that is easy to adopt and become an insider by using it, yet excludes the “outsiders”.

    And the sad thing about the students is that they are of an age when the group around them matters so much. That’s the age when buying the same records as everyone at school matters, when following fashion is so important, and so on. One reason this is happening si because there is a large cluster of people about the same, just like in the sixties. The pack reinforces itself, has little tolerance for criticism. It requires little travel to join that pack, may be difficult to resist it. With virtually any other protest, it takes a lot of work to bring people out, nearly impossible to sustain it at this level.

    Old media has been horrible about this. Either cheering for the tactics, or wanting to some the protesters, but I don’t see anyone questioning the very tactics of the students, separate from the cause. Young reporters haven’t seen anything further, older reporters likely only know the ludest of the sixties, so this is like reliving the days when they “stuck it to the man”.

    And if we’re getting picky, the lack of differing viewpoints is because there is no cluster to replace old media. Some guy on the side of the road is still ignored, just like 30 years ago. The internet has been remade into the form of old media, where “authority” gets to speak, and the masses get to comment, too often nothing deep.

    Michael

    Reply

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