Tag Archives: journalism ethics

Bell Let’s Talk: Are all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover it?

On Monday, CTV News President Wendy Freeman appeared at a CRTC hearing in Gatineau looking into the future of local television, and she was asked about the editorial independence of Bell Media’s newsrooms, particularly in light of the Kevin Crull scandal, and journalistic independence code that followed it. Here’s what she said, from the transcript of that hearing:

It’s actually working out very well and what we have done is we’ve put a journalistic independence policy in place and basically so that there is never any interference from anyone that no one can ever influence our news division.

And if someone — anyone that works for CTV News feels that they are being pressured or influenced by someone, that they can come to me and that I now have a place to go if I feel that I am being pressured or influenced. And in the end, it is my choice on what we cover and what we do, and I have the final say.

But the independence policy was distributed across the company and in the end it basically says that no one has the right to interfere in our news gathering and in our news, and in our news editorial decision-making. And it has been going well. Thank you for asking.

Bell Media hasn’t published this independence code, but apparently its journalists can go straight to Freeman with any issues, and she reports directly to BCE CEO George Cope.

Two days later, there’s a test of this independence code as BCE does its annual Let’s Talk campaign to raise money and awareness for mental health. A laudable cause, to be sure, but it’s also an ad campaign with Bell’s logo all over it. (I first wrote about that aspect five years ago, and there was a followup counterpoint a year later.)

This year, as it has previously, Bell Media sent out a press release promising wall-to-wall coverage across its properties, including CTV News Channel, CP24, TSN, RDS, BNN, local CTV News stations and news-talk radio stations, plus newsy shows like eTalk and Innerspace. Everything under the Bell Media umbrella was going to talk about this issue.

So how does that square with the journalistic independence code? How are journalists supposed to feel independent if BCE is having them all report on a Bell campaign?

I put the question to Freeman, and here’s what she wrote back to me:

Thanks for checking in. I can confirm with complete certainty that all decisions to cover Bell Let’s Talk day and it’s mental health initiatives by CTV News outlets are made completely independent of corporate influence. CTV Newsrooms are unequivocally free to choose the news they cover.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is a news story every year that is of significant national interest.  It is being covered by a wide range of news outlets, including the CBC.

Millions of Canadians are engaged, making it Twitter’s #1 trending topic nationally and #2 worldwide. From politicians and the royal family to celebrities and athletes,  Bell Let’s Talk Day is clearly of interest to many, and as a result, newsworthy.

With regard to the press release cited in your note, we often announce in advance our coverage plans for news of national importance and of interest to viewers, always subject to change of course depending on the news of the day.

I’m still a bit skeptical about the influence Bell has over its newsrooms’ coverage. Here in Montreal, CTV News at noon had a five-minute remote interview with Mary Walsh near the top of the newscast (she did the rounds of CTV stations), and later another five-minute interview with a pro wrestler. During both, there was a graphic overlay of how many texts, calls and tweets were contributing to the campaign. That graphic, of course, used Bell’s logo, its colours and its fonts.

Mutsumi Takahashi interviews Shayne Hawke on CTV Montreal

Mutsumi Takahashi interviews Shayne Hawke on CTV Montreal

Does anyone believe CTV News would be doing this if this was a Telus campaign? Or a Manulife one? No, it would probably be covering it like CBC and others are covering today’s events: as an average news story about a trending topic, not a news event that requires special attention.

I certainly wouldn’t expect newsrooms to announce their coverage plans days in advance.

But who can be angry about more attention to mental illness, right? It’s a good cause, so why would a news director choose not to report on it, unless out of some malice? Is it so bad to hand over CTV News to Bell’s corporate PR people for a day for some joint venture for charity?

I’m a bit concerned that CTV News and other Bell Media news outlets are being a bit too passive about corporate interference, despite what Freeman says. I certainly wouldn’t expect any of their newsrooms to note the fact that Bell has many employees that don’t enjoy mental health insurance coverage, for example. (Though that’s a larger issue about freelancers and contract workers replacing permanent employees that’s affecting lots of sectors in the economy.)

But I’m more worried about the slippery slope. When CTV News, Bell Media and BCE see themselves as part of the same family, with journalists and corporate PR working so closely together, it’s easier for people to get the impression, like Crull did, that they have the same interests, or even that one is subservient to the other.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover the same issue on the same day is normal and has nothing to do with the fact that the issue is being pushed by Bell Media’s parent company.

Or maybe I’m just being heartless because I’ve never had a mental illness and I should just shut up and let this one slide.

How independent are newsrooms from their owners?

Depending on your preconceived notions, there is either something very weird or very understandable going on in Las Vegas.

Recently, the century-old Las Vegas Review-Journal was purchased by a company that, bizarrely, refused to disclose who owned it. Eventually it was determined that the owner is Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire who seems intent on spending a lot of his money supporting Republican candidates for political office.

It gets worse. After Adelson bought the paper, but before anyone found out it was him who owned it, reporters were told to investigate judges who were unfriendly to Adelson. Not asked, ordered. And perhaps the most bizarre part of this story is that the newspaper that broke it was the Review-Journal itself.

A newspaper deliberately embarrassing itself is not something you see every day. And the fact that they did that seems to be the main argument in favour of convincing readers that their editorial integrity remains intact.

An editorial published last week includes this unbelievable passage:

You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal’s editors and reporters will fight it. How can you be sure? One way is to look at how we covered the secrecy surrounding the newspaper’s sale. We dug in. We refused to stand down. We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don’t want us to.

How often does a newspaper vow to protect itself from its owner?

And yet, for all the proclamations that the new owners will protect the newsroom and only control the editorial page, the fact that the newspaper’s editor suddenly left the paper doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does that whole judge thing, which still hasn’t been explained. It’s definitely still a scandal, and one that’s getting national attention.

Editorial interference in Canada

There have been several cases north of the border in which the question of ownership interference in newsrooms have come up. Among them:

  • Bell Media president Kevin Crull twice attempts to direct CTV News coverage of an issue affecting Bell. In the first, it’s chalked up to a misunderstanding. After the second, in which Crull’s orders were eventually ignored by CTV National News staff, Crull is fired. Bell cites the actions of its journalists, and its decision to fire Crull, as proof that Bell Media’s newsrooms are independent. But there is not a single measure in place to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
  • Postmedia (my employer) orders Alberta papers to endorse the Progressive Conservative party in the Alberta provincial election. Months later, all Postmedia papers, including its recently purchased Sun Media chain, endorse the federal Conservatives, apparently on orders from Postmedia brass. The editorials in the Sun Media papers are signed “Postmedia Network”, while those in the other papers are unsigned, leading readers to believe they were written and decided on by the individual papers’ editorial boards. Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey states that it’s understood that ownership decides on endorsements, a statement that the chair of the Toronto Star board didn’t agree with.
  • Quebecor Media’s controlling shareholder remains Pierre Karl Péladeau, the leader of the Parti Québécois. Péladeau has placed his shares in trust, but it’s not a blind trust because the trustee cannot sell the shares. Because he is not a member of the cabinet, he is not obliged to use a blind trust, but the rules on conflict of interest weren’t designed for a case where the asset is a media giant. Though it’s whispered and rumoured everywhere that Péladeau was a control freak before he entered politics, there’s little proof that he personally attempted to interfere in any news coverage. When Enquête looked into the issue in 2011, the best it could find was a case where a Journal de Montréal manager tried to fix the results of a list of most influential personalities. Péladeau has repeatedly said that Quebecor’s newsrooms are independent, and specifically points to its collective agreements as proof, even though the Journal de Montréal just about dismantled its union in a long lockout.
  • Groupe Capitales Médias, a company owned by former politician Martin Cauchon, buys six newspapers from Gesca — every one but La Presse. Though there’s been no suggestion Cauchon attempted to interfere with editorial, he refuses to disclose where the financing came from for this purchase (or even the amount). That has led to unsubstantiated allegations from people in the Quebecor camp that Cauchon is merely a puppet of Power Corp., which owns Gesca.

There are countless other examples at smaller players, or cases where newsrooms act in such a way as to promote their owners’ interests (a Saturday Night Live preview in a Global TV newscast, or cross-promotion between the Journal de Montréal and TVA).

But how does it work on a daily basis?

I have limited experience working in other newsrooms, though I have plenty of friends and contacts who work for various media. And I can tell you two things for certain:

  1. It’s a caricature that owners, whether a single mega-rich person or the CEO of a publicly traded corporation, call up newspaper editors on a daily basis or write their own front-page headlines or decide how a TV newscast is lined up. The reality is that they don’t have time to do stuff like that, and most of the time they don’t care.
  2. Anyone who tells you a newsroom is completely independent of its ownership is lying.

There are plenty of cases of overt interference. Endorsements are a good example. It’s one of the few times an owner of a chain of newspapers will care about their editorials. There are also cases that are relatively benign, such as Bell Media putting all its news resources into promoting the annual Bell Let’s Talk charity campaign. And there are cases in between, where an editor is asked to run any particularly sensitive stories up the chain to get ownership’s okay, but the latter won’t censor news just because it might make them look bad.

But then there are all the cases of self-censorship, cases in which a journalist or editor will choose not to cover a story that makes the owners look bad, even if there wouldn’t have been any repercussions for doing so, even if they’re protected by their union, even if the owner has promised not to interfere.

I honestly don’t know — and most people in newsrooms I speak to don’t know for sure — whether owners pick up the phone and bark orders at middle managers on what to cover. I can only speak to what I see on the front lines, which is that journalists are almost always free to cover stories as they warrant. And when reporters are reined in, it’s almost always because of a legitimate, journalistic reason.

But it’s not absolute. And when one newspaper owner (Postmedia’s Godfrey) says it’s obvious ownership sets the editorial direction and another newspaper owner (Quebecor’s Péladeau) says it’s obvious newsrooms are independent of ownership, the only thing that’s obvious to me is that people don’t know which is true.

How do we fix this? Well, readers and outside organizations should continue to hold media owners’ feet to the fire to demand transparency, accountability and independence. And owners should make it abundantly clear that their newsrooms are independent, putting in place measures to prevent them from interfering, whether it’s a public editor or ombudsman or other independent body that has the power to expose any such interference.

But I think the better solution is healthy competition in media. If different outlets have different owners, it’s hard for one owner to keep a story under wraps. And if consumers make transparency and trust a priority when choosing what media to consume, the media will do whatever it can to earn that trust.

Montreal newspapers refuse to photograph Taylor Swift concert because of onerous rights contract

If you know any teenage girls, you’re probably aware that Taylor Swift did a show at the Bell Centre last night. You might have heard it was quite a show, with lots of costume changes, and at one point the artist singing her hit song Shake It Off on an elevated, spinning platform.

But you won’t see pictures of the concert in today’s newspapers. La Presse, the Journal de Montréal, Le Devoir, Métro and the Montreal Gazette all refused to send photographers to the concert because they could not accept the terms of a contract the company running Taylor Swift’s tour required media photographers to sign.

Among the terms of the contract, which the Gazette has posted online:

  • The photos could only be used once. Newspapers could not keep the photos for their archives or to use as file shots later on.
  • The photos could not be posted to social media.
  • Swift was allowed to use all photos for non-commercial purposes (including promotion) in perpetuity.
  • Swift or anyone else related to the tour had the right to damage or destroy equipment or data belonging to photographers if the terms of the agreement were not met. And the tour is absolved of all liability for damage or injury to photographers.

Photographers’ protests of the terms of the agreement (which seem to have evolved over the course of the tour) have been made from the beginning, and in particular since Swift wrote an open letter to Apple explaining she was taking her music off Apple’s new subscription music service because it wasn’t paying for the music during the free trial period. Needless to say, photographers saw this as hypocritical on Swift’s part. (Other artists who you’d think would be cool have also been called out on this behaviour, like Foo Fighters.)

Swift’s people (though not Swift herself) responded to concerns by suggesting the agreement has been misread, and pointing out that copyright remains with the photographer. “Any photographer shooting The 1989 World Tour has the opportunity for further use of said photographs with management’s approval,” the spokesperson said, apparently thinking the “with management’s approval” part wouldn’t be noticed.

There were alternatives available. Newspapers that subscribe to Getty Images would have had free access to professional-looking photos of the concert provided to that wire service. Hell, the images can even be embedded for free onto blogs for non-commercial purposes, like so:


But whether these photos can be considered editorial is up for debate. These photos were commissioned by the tour, and using them would have been akin to using handout photos.

This strategy of having quasi-official photos done by Getty Images and muscling other photographers out has been criticized by media in the past. Getty distributes NHL game photos from NHL Images, which gets preferential treatment in terms of arena access and shooting positions during games, much to the annoyance of local media photographers.

Simply put, Getty was not an acceptable alternative.

Last week, the Irish Times took a stand, explaining to readers why it didn’t photograph Swift’s show in Dublin.

Today, Montreal papers joined them:

Newspapers and TV stations are used to dealing with restrictive demands when shooting major concerts. Usually they’re permitted to shoot only the first few songs, from only one particular location, and can’t shoot anything backstage. Most of these demands are accepted, if somewhat reluctantly, because the purpose is to ensure the photographers don’t disrupt the experience for the fans.

But Swift’s agreement isn’t about the fans. It’s a rights grab that serves little purpose other than to piss off local media. And it’s clear local media have had enough.

UPDATE (July 12): Le Soleil in Quebec City upped the ante for a Foo Fighters concert there, by opting to send a sketch artist instead.

(Probably incomplete) list of Quebec journalists turned politician

Remember the good old days when politicians were all lawyers?

Well, actually politicians have come from all sorts of jobs for a long time now, though lawyers and doctors tend to be over-represented. And journalism is among the former jobs of those who enter the political arena. But it seems like recently it’s become more prevalent. Just this week, former Montreal Gazette journalist Sue Montgomery announced she’s seeking the NDP nomination in N.D.G.-Westmount, and former TVA journalist Réjean Léveillé announced he’s running for the Conservatives.

Since the beginning of 2014, I count 14 Quebec journalists or former journalists who sought provincial or federal office by at least entering a nomination race. And since I find no list online of these people, I created one below. I’m adding to it as more announce, and there are undoubtedly plenty of former cases (particularly candidates that didn’t win) that I’m missing. Feel free to suggest additions below.

Some ground rules for the list though:

  • This list includes only actual politicians, meaning people who have sought elected office (entering a nomination race is enough). It doesn’t include journalists who became political attachés or public relations officials. Nor does it include lieutenant-governors or governors-general.
  • I’ve only included those seeking provincial or federal office. Expanding to include municipal, school board or other positions would make this list far too long and obscure to be manageable.
  • I only include those who entered politics after 1955. Sorry, Henri Bourassa.
  • The person must have been a journalist or worked in a related function (news anchor, news radio host, etc.) Just because someone was in the media doesn’t mean they were a journalist. I’ve excluded Lise Payette, for example, even though she was a figure on Radio-Canada before becoming an MNA. I’ve also excluded Pierre Karl Péladeau and others that owned media without being a journalist.
  • The journalism career must have been non-partisan. By that I mean that people who worked for media with obvious partisan political goals are excluded. (Pierre Trudeau is sometimes listed as a former journalist, but the journal he founded was partisan.)
  • I don’t put a limit on the time between when they were a journalist and when they became a politician. But the journalism job must have been a significant part of their careers. Doing an internship 20 years ago doesn’t count.

Here are the names I have so far, the parties they ran for, and the news outlets they used to work for. Those who actually got elected are in bold.

1956: Pierre Laporte (Independent) — Le Devoir — Went back into journalism after losing and re-entered politics as a Quebec Liberal in 1961

1960: René Lévesque (PLQ, then PQ) — Radio-Canada

1965: Gérard Pelletier (LPC) — Le Devoir, La Presse

1966: Yves Michaud (PLQ, PQ) — Clairon maskoutain, La Patrie

1972: Jeanne Sauvé (LPC) — CBC/Radio-Canada — Later served as governor general

1976: Jean-Pierre Charbonneau (PQ) — CKAC, CKVL, Le Devoir, La Presse

1976: Gérald Godin (PQ) — La Presse

1978: Claude Ryan (PLQ) — Le Devoir

1994: André Arthur (Independent) — TVA, CHRC — Lost this provincial election, but was elected federally in 2006

1994: Matthias Rioux (PQ) — CKAC, CKVL

2003: Dominique Vien (PLQ) — Radio-Canada, Radio Bellechasse

2004: André Bellavance (BQ) — KYQ-FM

2007: Pierre Arcand (PLQ) — CKAC, Metromedia

2007: Christine St-Pierre (PLQ) — Radio-Canada

2007: Bernard Drainville (PQ) — Radio-Canada

2008: Gérard Deltell (ADQ) — TQS

2008: Anne Lagacé-Dowson (NDP) — CBC

2008: Éric Boucher (PQ) — L’Actuel — Ran again for Québec solidaire in 2012

2009: Jean D’Amour (PLQ) — CJFP, CIBM

2011: Raymond Archambault (PQ) — Radio-Canada — Became president of the Parti Québécois in addition to a candidate

2012: Pierre Duchesne (PQ) — Radio-Canada

2012: Jean-François Lisée (PQ) — La Presse, L’Actualité

2012: Sophie Stanké (PQ) — Canal M, La Semaine

2012: Nathalie Roy (CAQ) — TQS, Radio-Canada, TVA

2014: Alexis Deschênes (PQ) — TVA

2014: François Paradis (CAQ) — TVA

2014: Armand Dubois (PLQ) — TVA, Radio-Canada, Radio Ville-Marie

2014: Marie-Louise Séguin (PQ) — Radio-Canada — Previously had a career in municipal politics

2014: Dominique Payette (PQ) — Radio-Canada

2014: Yvon Moreau (BQ) — RNC Média

2014: Sylvain Rochon (PQ) — CJSO

2015: Pascale Déry (CPC) — TVA

2015: Jocelyne Cazin (CAQ) — TVA

2015: Sébastien Couture (PQ) — Écho du Lac

2015: Véronyque Tremblay (PLQ) — TQS, TVA, FM93

2015: Martin Leclerc (NDP) — Journal de Montréal, Radio-Canada

2015: Sue Montgomery (NDP) — Montreal Gazette

2015: Réjean Léveillé (CPC) — TVA

2015: Dominique Trottier (NDP) — TVA

7 things francophone media pundits say (or imply) Jay Baruchel said or thought that he didn’t

It was a simple Q&A as a sidebar to a Saturday feature about Montreal actor Jay Baruchel, but the recounting of Baruchel’s reasons for leaving Montreal for Toronto has prompted a lot of debate in Quebec, particularly among the francophone media. We’re barely back at work on Monday and already five francophone pundits have written to condemn Baruchel’s statements, at least one of whom is demanding apologies, and another is diagnosing a mental disorder.

Nevermind that his reasons for moving are clearly more about economics (English movies are made in Toronto, not Montreal) than about politics, or that he’s hardly the first person in history to find Quebec identity politics to be tiresome and annoying. Jay Baruchel has attacked Quebec, and his personal feelings about his life here are apparently incorrect.

It’s notable that none of these reaction pieces actually interviews Baruchel to expand on his 300 words of commentary about Quebec politics. And perhaps for that reason, a lot of the stories about his comments exaggerate his comments, make inferences about his thoughts that are not supported by evidence, or just plain shove so many words into his mouth I’m worried he’s going to choke.

Here’s the pundit count so far:

And here are seven opinions these pundits are outraged over Baruchel having that the story doesn’t say he actually has.

What he’s accused of saying: Quebec is like Syria (Bock-Côté, Durocher, Longpré, Petrowski, Ravary)

What he actually said: N.D.G. “happens to be located in a pretty difficult part of the world.”

It’s perfectly legitimate to criticize Baruchel for lacking some perspective, to point out that there are far more difficult parts of the world than Quebec. But Baruchel never compares Quebec to a third-world country or to war zones like Syria. He merely says it’s difficult.

What he’s accused of saying: Quebec sovereignists are stupid (Durocher, Ravary)

What he actually said: (In referring to the referendum debate) “Aside from that silly stuff, which I wish would just go away but it won’t…”

I guess French doesn’t have the proper translation for “silly”, but there’s a difference between calling an issue silly and saying the people talking about it are stupid.

I disagree with Baruchel. I think the Quebec sovereignty debate is an important one. But I can also sympathize with the argument that we’ve had two referendums already and there’s no serious move to have another one because it’s clear the province doesn’t want it.

What he’s accused of saying: Francophones celebrating their culture and defending their language gives him a headache (Bock-Côté, Durocher)

What he actually said: It’s the “kind of poisonous ethnic dialogue, which really, really left a sour taste in my mouth. It didn’t feel like the place that Mom wanted me to live in.”

Baruchel makes it clear he likes the diversity of language in Montreal. But it’s the “editorial subject matter in Quebec” and the political debate over language that is making his head hurt. He also wants to be able to go outside and speak in English without it becoming “a loaded or political deed of any kind.”

What he’s accused of saying: Montreal has been taken hostage by sovereignists who refuse to die (Bock-Côté)

What he actually said: Nothing that under even the most ridiculous of interpretations could come close to saying this.

What he’s accused of saying: He’s afraid the Charter of Values will return (Bock-Côté, Durocher)

What he actually said: It’s the “poisonous ethnic dialogue”, not the law, that was the problem.

The Charter isn’t coming back, at least not in the form presented by the PQ. But the people who defended it are still here. The debate hasn’t disappeared.

What he’s accused of saying: French should not be the language of power in Quebec (Bock-Côté)

What he actually said: (In Toronto) “when I go outside and speak English, it’s not a loaded or political deed of any kind.”

There’s a difference between what language someone speaks on the street and what language is spoken in the National Assembly.

What he’s accused of saying: He was traumatized by the 2012 election because the PQ won it (Longpré)

What he actually said: “The last election was very traumatic in a way.”

Longpré assumes Baruchel is either wrong or being misquoted, and provides no evidence for why her interpretation, based on a translation of an article, is more correct than the original article it’s based on.

Baruchel’s comments are controversial even if anglos quitting Quebec for both political and economic reasons has been a cliché for decades. And let’s have a difference of opinion with him over those reasons. But let’s not be outraged about things that were not said.

UPDATE (June 4): Unsurprisingly, some of the columnists mentioned here (Durocher in particular) challenge my assertion that they’re putting words into Baruchel’s mouth by saying they’re not quoting him saying these things.

To be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of making up direct quotes. But it’s clear from the texts they write that they’re attributing opinions to Baruchel that he doesn’t actually express. When Durocher writes “Indépendance = idiot” in a headline, one reasonably infers not that this is her opinion, but that she thinks this is Baruchel’s. When Bock-Côté writes “la défense du français, c’est super vilain”, it’s clear he’s sarcastically mocking what he believes is Baruchel’s opinion. And when just about everyone mentions Syria, it’s clear they’re challenging a comparison they don’t believe is fair.

We can play semantic battles over what precisely was quoted or alleged here, but the implications of these columns and blog posts are clear, and what matters is what conclusions a reasonable reader would come to after reading them.

I’ve added the words “or imply” to the title of this post for added clarity, but I still believe these columnists are challenging opinions they have projected onto Baruchel that he didn’t express.

François Bugingo admits to fabricating his international reporting

UPDATE (May 29): Bugingo admits to “romancing” stories in a long Facebook post, but still believes the “veritable lynching” by the media as a result of it was unfair.

“François Bugingo: des reportages inventés de toutes pièces” reads the headline today in La Presse: An investigative report by Isabelle Hachey reveals the Quebec journalist famous for his international reporting lied about his trips abroad and reported as first-hand accounts things he merely heard about or did not exist.

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Can CTV News and BNN be trusted to report on themselves? Depends on Kevin Crull’s mood

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won't say.

Bell Media President Kevin Crull made a major gaffe that cost CTV News its integrity.

CTV News has a solid reputation for integrity, built from decades of strong journalism and a deeply entrenched culture of professionalism. It’s not perfect, and it’s vulnerable to the same biases that affect all other media, but I have no doubt that if a source tried to use financial or other pressure to affect how a CTV News story was told, that person would justifiably be told to get lost.

So when people start spouting conspiracy theories about CTV News coverage, I’m very skeptical. Yeah, them not reporting on some minor thing involving a competitor could be direct orders from Bell Media’s president, but more likely it’s because some assignment editor didn’t think it was newsworthy.

Now, I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink the assumption that CTV News wouldn’t throw away decades of work building its reputation because of a senior executive’s narrow-minded attempt to intentionally bias a story.

On Wednesday, the Globe and Mail reported that Bell Media President Kevin Crull interfered in news coverage of last week’s CRTC decision involving channel packaging, effectively ordering CTV News President Wendy Freeman to forbid Bell-owned news outlets from interviewing CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais.

The report, based on sources that would not be named publicly, was damning:

Mr. Crull told Ms. Freeman he was in charge of the network and that Mr. Blais was not to appear on air again that day, according to accounts of the exchange.

After the call, sources say, Ms. Freeman contacted CTV staff to tell them of the directive from Mr. Crull and not to use clips of Mr. Blais, telling some she felt she would be fired if they did not comply. Other CTV employees were concerned for their jobs, according to a source.

Hours later, Blais issued a statement expressing concern about CTV News’s editorial independence. It amounts to little more than a wag of the finger, and does not suggest any consequences if Bell continues to act in this way. It says complaints should be directed to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, but doesn’t say the CRTC itself or its chairman will complain.

Finally, after initially downplaying the story through a spokesman, Bell Media issued a statement credited to Crull apologizing for his actions:

I reached out to the CTV News leadership team to let them know I felt the focus on the CRTC itself by CTV and other Canadian news organizations would be better placed on a broad and necessary discussion of the impacts of the CRTC’s decisions on consumers, our team members, and our business.

It was wrong of me to be anything but absolutely clear that editorial control always rests with the news team. I have apologized to the team directly for this mistake. Indeed their strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion only heightens my appreciation of their independence, integrity and professionalism. It is crucial to note that CTV’s coverage of the CRTC’s decisions was fair, balanced and extensive, and stands up in comparison to coverage of the issue by any Canadian news organization.

In short, I’ve re-learned a valuable lesson from the best news team in the business.

Re-learned indeed. Because this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2013, Crull was accused of trying to meddle in CTV News coverage of a policy issue affecting Bell. There too, Bell’s statement said news decisions rest with the news team and are not directed by Crull. I asked Bell’s spokesperson if there was a failure of communication there, and if the news team should have been better educated that Crull does not direct news coverage. The response I got was a refusal to comment further.

Crull’s apology is a good step, but an entirely empty one. It contains no mention of any measures to prevent this from happening again. It fails to address the accusation that Crull told Freeman “he was in charge of the network” or reassure CTV News and BNN employees that their jobs are not in jeopardy if they cover a story in a way that Crull or BCE don’t like.

Crull credits the “strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion” even though the reaction was the exact opposite of that. No one called Crull to defiantly say he had no business interfering in news coverage. They followed his order until finally by the time of CTV National News they decided to ignore it. Then they anonymously complained to the Globe and Mail. Nothing about this was straightforward.

That’s not a complaint against CTV News staff. It takes a lot of guts to go against the boss. My point is that if he thinks he has no influence over CTV News, he’s out of his mind. If the Globe’s report is accurate, Wendy Freeman thought she’d be fired. That’s serious, and it requires a much more serious response than “oops my bad but it was no big deal”

Crull also says “CTV’s coverage of the CRTC’s decisions was fair, balanced and extensive” which means either he thinks it doesn’t matter that they censored the commission’s chairman because they eventually stopped censoring him, or he doesn’t think it’s important for a TV story about a major CRTC decision to include comments from the CRTC.

If Crull is serious about respecting the editorial integrity of CTV News and protecting it from himself, some serious measures need to be put in place, because otherwise we have only Crull’s assurance that this won’t happen again after it already happened at least twice (and possibly more — Dwayne Winseck quotes a BNN employee saying it was common for Bell brass to get special treatment in their news coverage).

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is not the appropriate body to deal with this. It acts based on complaints, and if anonymous sources hadn’t come forward to the Globe and Mail, no one would have known about this intrusion.

Crull needs to do more than apologize. He needs to launch an independent investigation into the editorial integrity of Bell Media’s news operations when dealing with stories about Bell. He needs to put a stronger wall between himself and CTV News/BNN, which prevent him from contacting news managers about news coverage. And he needs to offer guaranteed assurance that whistleblowers exposing attempts to meddle in CTV News coverage won’t be punished for coming forward.

Meanwhile, other large media companies should similarly put in place measures to protect their newsrooms’ integrity: Quebecor, Shaw Media, Rogers, Cogeco, Transcontinental and others often put their journalists in positions where they have to report on their parent companies. What assurance do we have that they aren’t getting similar orders from their CEOs about how to do it?

Yes, this is an argument about vertical integration. But non-integrated companies are not immune to this kind of interference. Even the smallest community newspapers can have publishers who put the bottom line above journalistic integrity. The difference is that CTV News has the budgetary resources to hire an ombudsperson or other independent person who the public can trust to blow the whistle whenever journalism is threatened by self-interest.

Until these major steps are taken to restore and preserve trust, unfortunately Mr. Crull’s actions have caused CTV News to lose the benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE: CTV National News included a story about Crull. It did not include any interviews with Crull or anyone at CTV News.

And the Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey has a more satirical take on the news.

Nobody is above conflict of interest — but everyone thinks they are

What is a conflict of interest?

Simply put, it’s a situation where one person’s duty to an organization, a cause, a person or something else is in conflict with that person’s relationship to some other organization, person or cause, where the best interests of one might not be in the best interests of another.

It sounds a bit vague, but conflicts can be all sorts of things. You could sit on the boards of two companies doing business with each other. You could be in a relationship with your supervisor. You could be a police officer arresting a family member. Or you could be a journalist whose reporting might affect a company that is earning you income on the side.

This past week, two examples have come up of high-profile journalists being in potential conflicts of interest because of their side jobs, and of failing to disclose such conflicts to their audience. And in each case, the mentality of the person at the centre of it all seems to have been that since they would never allow themselves to be corrupted by money, they’re not in a conflict of interest.

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Logical arguments for and against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

I woke up yesterday to horribleness. My Twitter feed was filled with people tweeting and retweeting breaking news about an attack on a publication in France that left many people dead. It didn’t take long to conclude that these people died because of things they drew.

Later, and again this morning, there was a lot of debate over whether other media should republish the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo created that so offended Muslims, particularly those that depicted the prophet Muhammad. Depicting the most revered figure in Muslim history is forbidden by many in that religion, because it could lead to idolatry.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, many of its cartoons have been denounced as racist toward Arabs and other races associated with Muslim countries. The publication regularly pushed the boundaries of good taste and respect, sometimes intentionally just for its own sake.

So is it appropriate to republish them? Arguments have been made on both sides. French newspapers in Quebec generally republished them out of solidarity with the people who lost their lives for the sake of satire. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis makes a passionate argument in favour. CBC’s Neil MacDonald makes a more eloquent argument:

English media, including my employer the Montreal Gazette, chose not to out of respect for Muslims who had nothing to do with this attack. The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief explained the decision, so did the New York Times and CBC, and the Gazette’s editor-in-chief has been doing the media rounds explaining its decision.

The rhetoric on social media has been particularly vitriolic, accusing those who published the cartoons of being racist, and accusing those who didn’t of caving to terrorists.

I’m not here to cast judgment, merely to lay out the arguments on either side. But before I do that, let’s lay down some things we all agree on:

  • No one deserves to die for making fun of someone else, for saying something discriminatory, or for offending anyone or anything.
  • Freedom of expression means the freedom to decide for yourself whether you will or will not publish something.
  • Denouncing a decision related to freedom of speech is an exercise of that same freedom of speech unless it somehow prevents the other person from expressing him or herself.

Now, onto the arguments. If you come up with good ones that aren’t on these lists, put them below in the comments and I’ll add them.

Arguments in favour of publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  • This is what these people died for. Continuing self-censorship does a disservice to their memories.
  • The public can’t get a complete idea of the story without seeing the cartoons at the centre of it.
  • What about non-offensive cartoons depicting Muhammad? This isn’t about racism, this is about being scared of religious backlash.
  • Where does it end? If a religion finds the colour red to be offensive, would we be obligated to refuse to use that colour out of respect?
  • We talk about and publish all sorts of things that offend people, while explaining that they’re offensive. People are smart enough to understand that it’s not an endorsement.
  • Because regardless of everything else, we must stand on the side of free speech.

Arguments against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  • If publishing the cartoons would have been offensive before, that shouldn’t change because some people died.
  • The story can be explained without having to show the cartoons.
  • We don’t know which cartoons (if any) are the cause of this attack.
  • The cartoons are racist, and we should not propagate hate speech out of a sense of solidarity.
  • If this had been a similar story, but the offending images were signs that said “kill all [N-word]s”, would we be obligated to publish them uncensored or would simply describing them have been sufficient?
  • We could publish the less offensive cartoons, but that would be misleading, because it’s the most offensive ones that led to the attack.
  • The media routinely censor disturbing imagery, including video of a police officer being shot dead in this very story. How is that different?
  • Because Ezra Levant. (Seriously, what’s changed since the Jyllands-Posten affair that he’s no longer the only one who wants to republish the cartoons?)

40 questions about MTL Blog’s ethics (UPDATED)

UPDATE: MTL Blog CEO Charles Lapointe just finished a Twitter Q&A. I’ve updated this post with what he said, some of which answer the questions, others don’t.

MTL Blog has its logo proudly stencilled on the windows of its storefront office on St-Laurent Blvd. on the Plateau

MTL Blog has its logo proudly stencilled on the windows of its storefront office on St-Laurent Blvd. on the Plateau

Since it launched in 2012, a website called MTL Blog has been increasingly popping up in people’s Facebook feeds, with short stories reporting on the viral news of the day. Its Facebook page is very popular, and your friends are probably among its 66,000 likes.

Recently, the blog has come under pressure from critics, who accuse it of everything from stealing their content to sensationalizing the news to getting basic facts wrong in their reporting.

Those accusations culminated in this blog post, titled “a love letter to Montreal”, in which the website starts off by saying “you’re welcome, and we’re sorry,” and by explaining how great it is with its “unmatched knowledge of events, parties, and general goings-on,” its “daily fountain of relatable content, one that never runs dry,” its “modern testament to the Montreal lifestyle” and its “level of interaction and interconnectedness” that “media megaliths” cannot match.

The letter was instantly derided as “terrible“, “incredibly bad“, “arrogant and insincere“, “breathtakingly tone-deaf“, “douchebaguerie arrogante“, “the worst apology ever” and “infinite arrogance“. The sentence “hate us, and we rebuttal” was oft-quoted as both an example of the website’s issues with the English language (which it also apologized for) and its self-centredness.

So after ignoring it for months, I decided to look into this website. During that process I learned a lot more, hearing accusations it asked for money in exchange for news content, that it employed unpaid reporters and photographers, and that it threatened legal action against websites that criticize or parody it.

I even heard an allegation that MTL Blog itself was stolen from one of its founders.

This is serious stuff. So I asked MTL Blog’s owners, Charles Lapointe and Josh McRae, and its news editor, Michael D’Alimonte, for an interview. All three signed the “love letter” (though Lapointe now suggests he was not an author.)

A week later, with no response, I called up Lapointe and identified myself. After realizing who I was, he asked if I was the guy who was bad-mouthing them on Twitter. He accused me of acting in bad faith and refused an interview. But he said he would be “happy” to answer questions sent to him by email.

I compiled a list of 20 questions and sent them on Aug. 5. I reiterated that I would be happy to meet in person or conduct an interview using whatever medium they would prefer.

I quickly got a response: “Although I do appreciate your interest in MTL Blog and your call, unfortunately nor I or my team has the time or resources to be able to answer your questions,” Lapointe wrote.

Instead, Lapointe directed me to this glowing profile written by a website called The Run-In, which did not answer most of my questions at all.

As I spoke to more people who had things to say about MTL Blog, my list of questions grew to 35 and finally 40. I sent those to Lapointe as well.

His next email to me made it clear he would not respond to my questions, and it had nothing to do with a lack of “resources”:

What I have seen from you online is not something I would like to associate myself or my brand with.

Never mind that I’m not seeking to “associate” with him or his brand.

All my emails were also sent to McRae and D’Alimonte. I never got a response from either of them.

(I also contacted Alex Melki, who hosts the MTL Blog TV series. He agreed to an interview but politely reneged after speaking with McRae and Lapointe, relaying their concerns that I would use it against them.)

So what follows in this long blog post with its intentionally clickbaity and (formerly) sensationalized headline are those 40 questions, as I asked them. Some of them are based on statements made to me that cannot be absolutely verified because the only people who would actually know are the people making the statements and either Lapointe, McRae, D’Alimonte or some combination of them. Nevertheless, all three of them have been given the opportunity to comment on these statements and had chosen not to do so before today.

Instead, Lapointe said he has agreed to only one interview about the criticisms of his website, with freelance journalist Pierre Chauvin, whose story about MTL Blog is posted on Jesse Brown’s Canadaland website. It, too, fails to answer many of the questions posed below.

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Bell says emails about pro-Bell study are not an attempt to influence CTV News coverage of Bell

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won't say.

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won’t say.

Dwayne Winseck, an Ottawa-based media analyst, came out with a rather shocking allegation on his blog on Tuesday: Bell, which is in the middle of a very public battle with the Conservative government and others over rules for an upcoming auction of wireless spectrum, sent memos to news directors at CTV asking for them to cover a study that was favourable to Bell’s position.

Attached to that post is a Word document with partially redacted emails. One is from Kevin Crull, the president of Bell Media. Titled “Fw: Wall Report 2013”, it gives some highlights from a report that came out in July that seemed to show wireless prices in Canada were lower than the U.S. The recipients of this email included Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News.

The other two emails are forwards of the report, one by Chris Gordon, who runs Bell Media radio and local TV news, and the other by Kevin Bell, general manager of CTV Vancouver Island, apparently forwarded from Gordon.

“Kevin is asking if this report can get some coverage today on Talk Radio. National news is covering for TV,” Gordon wrote in his email. “Kevin Crull our President wants us to give this report some coverage. It’s a report on phone charges in Canada,” Bell wrote in his.

Damning charges, if they’re true. Michael Geist picked up the story on his blog. Since neither of them had comment from Bell, I went to get one myself.

Here’s their statement, issued through Scott Henderson, VP of communications for Bell Media:

The Wall Report was a key news story covered by most major news outlets. CTV News and Bell Media Radio provided fair and balanced coverage and stand by their journalistic integrity.

Our news divisions are independently managed and have the full power to make editorial decisions, as outlined in the CTV News Policy Handbook (excerpted below).

2.32 Stories Concerning CTV or Affiliated Companies

Stories concerning the CTV Television Network, affiliated companies or shareholders should be covered in accordance with the same standards of fairness, balance and accuracy applied to any other story. Stories should be neither underreported nor over-reported. Reports on our parent companies, Bell and BCE should include an acknowledgement that they are the owners of our networks. CTV News employees invited to participate in stories should be treated with the same standards as other contributors.

2.33 In-Kind interviews and Product Reviews

Our journalism must remain free from undue commercial influence. If we compromise our principles for financial gain, we damage our credibility and the audience will turn away. If you receive a request to cover an event, review a product or interview an individual who has a commercial relationship with the company, that coverage should be proportional to the event’s newsworthiness.

From time to time, as President of Bell Media, Kevin Crull communicates to his Senior Leadership Team items of interest to the business. Kevin Crull’s e-mail with the Wall Report attached did not request coverage by Bell Media news properties.

Regardless, there is never any expectation for our news divisions to cover issues affecting the company – those decisions rest with the news directors alone and are based on the newsworthiness of the issue. When these issues are covered by Bell Media news properties, we are transparent with our viewers and listeners by acknowledging that Bell is our parent company.

In short: Yes, Kevin Crull sends emails like this one with news about stuff affecting Bell. But no, these emails should not be interpreted as Crull directing CTV News to cover these issues.

I asked Henderson whether the statement in Chris Gordon’s and Kevin Bell’s emails suggest a communication failure here. His response: “We have no further comment.”

In case you’re curious, here’s how CTVNews.ca covered the report: a Canadian Press story (which tends to be a good option when news outlets have to post news stories about themselves) packaged with a video of a CTV News Channel interview with the person who did the report. The video ends with a disclaimer from the anchor that CTV News Channel is owned by Bell Media.

I’ve seen enough CTV News reports about its parent company to know that it doesn’t toy with its reports to make the big bosses happier. But Crull and his executives must be well aware of the pressures that journalists face when it comes to stories about their employers and parent companies, and how much easier it is to follow a suggestion from a boss than it is to argue against it. Not to mention that the amount of importance given to a story is just as important as the content of those stories.

And while it’s perfectly fine to say in an official policy that CTV News deals with its parent company fairly, emails like this from the boss give the opposite message. The head of Rogers or Public Mobile or Option consommateurs can’t send an email to every BCE employee by simply pressing a button. If anything, Bell and Bell Media should be extra careful about even the appearance of possible conflict or interference in news coverage, and this seems to be the exact opposite of that.

At best, these emails show an embarrassing communication failure within Bell Media that needs to be corrected quickly. At worst, they’re indicative of a serious issue of journalistic ethics within the organization, and of the need to separate the business operations of Bell and Bell Media from the editorial operations of CTV News, BNN and Bell Media Radio.

Either way, those who are already convinced that vertical integration is ruining the Canadian broadcasting system have another talking point to bring up about the Evil Bell Empire.

28 people who were joking about America turning 2,013 years old

It’s amazing how much of journalism these days consists of someone searching for something on Twitter and then being shocked at finding that thing that’s being searched for.

On Thursday, a few people had the bright idea to search for people who posted on Twitter that the United States turned 2,013 years old on July 4. Of course that’s ridiculous and a sign that the U.S. education system has failed miserably.

Or maybe they were all kidding. Don’t bother checking that, just publish and shame! It doesn’t matter how young they are, they must be ridiculed, post haste!

Here’s a post on something called Twitchy that lists “30 people who say America turned 2,013 years old today.” Wow, those people all sound super stupid.

But let’s go through them one by one, shall we?

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Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman unveils herself

Lesley Chesterman does her debut column on Radio-Canada's Cap sur l'été on Wednesday.

Lesley Chesterman does her debut column on Radio-Canada’s Cap sur l’été on Wednesday.

Restaurant critics have the best and worst jobs at newspapers. They get paid to eat at fancy restaurants all the time, and have the power to make or break them with a review. On the other hand, they’re not recognized in the street because they can’t have their picture in the paper. They have to toil in obscurity so they can remain anonymous while reviewing.

At least, this is the way it used to be. Lesley Chesterman, the fine dining critic for The Gazette, came out and abandoned her anonymity in last Friday’s paper. She did so because she had accepted to become a contributor to the Radio-Canada television talk show Cap sur l’été, which would necessarily put her face in public.

That was the tipping point. But as she explains in her piece, anonymity had already become difficult to maintain:

No doubt, the anonymous approach to restaurant reviewing is desirable, but as the years wore on, it also became less and less doable. A constant challenge was that I knew some chefs long before I began reviewing, and once a waiter has you pegged, he will blow your cover every time you show up in a new restaurant (waiters move around a lot). Also, as a freelance writer, my articles are not just limited to restaurant reviews. I write many feature stories about chefs for several publications, and though I often interview by phone, I have to meet chefs face to face as well.

However, the greatest challenge to anonymity that is unmasking countless critics at a rapid pace is social media. Unlike in the early years, today I have little control over who takes my picture and posts it on the Internet. Though I have asked people many times to delete pictures of me from websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., eventually you don’t even know who to contact to remove an image. I accepted the fact that anonymity is a pipe dream, but I still strove for it.

Despite this, she’ll still at least try to maintain some sheen of anonymity, reserving places under fake names and paying in cash. But being recognized will be an unavoidable consequence:

Chesterman’s first appearance on Cap sur l’été, doing its “Un monde de saveurs” column, was taped on Friday and aired on Wednesday. You can watch it here and marvel at her impressive command of the French language.

It’s hard for journalists to turn down free gifts

No free gifts.

It’s a simple rule, really. It seems so easy to understand, so hard to get wrong. In the past few months, as we’ve heard stories about Quebec politicians and civil servants getting free things from construction companies, we’ve become collectively outraged. How could people not realize how obviously unethical this all is? How could people be so stupid?

The assumption, of course, is that they’re not stupid or naive, but evil. They’ve done wrong because they want to be corrupt, they want to profit from their positions and screw the taxpayer for personal gain.

Frii böoz

Last week, as the Charbonneau Commission was getting yet more scandalous detail of the too-cozy relationship between government officials and the companies they hire, a story came out of Winnipeg that raised a few eyebrows among the journalistic community. Ikea, the Swedish retailer, opened a store in the Manitoba capital, and invited media and bloggers to a party the night before, where they were given free alcohol, gift bags and a 15% discount (CBC’s video shows the crowd cheering as the latter is announced, though it’s unclear how many of the cheering fans were journalists and how many were bloggers, marketers and other invited guests).

CBC Winnipeg apparently didn’t like this whole thing, and focused a story on the ethical problem. (The story doesn’t make it clear who brought up the ethical issue in the first place, leaving me with the impression that it was the CBC itself – and that it hid this with the use of the passive tense in its headline and lead paragraph. Marc Weisblott also points out that CBC itself regularly gives out freebies during its media events.)

The CBC story got picked up by a media ethics blog, which took aim at a couple of bloggers bragging about the swag they got.

It’s not that an Ikea opening in a city like Winnipeg isn’t news. But a lot of the news surrounding it has been of the fluffy variety (quizzes, anyone?). A Winnipeg Free Press story, which reads almost like an advertisement, has three bylines. The Free Press also provided this bit of “investigative journalism” (in their defence, used with tongue in cheek) about how long the walk is in the store. Dozens of stories have been written on this store by the FP alone, most of them in a positive light.

At the Winnipeg Sun, the event was important enough to send a handful of journalists, who livetweeted the event, taking pictures of themselves with the merchandise and even bragging about the free wine they were getting.

Imagine, for a moment, government officials bragging on social media about all the free stuff they were getting from construction companies.

Now, I’m not saying that all these journalists are on the take, or that the free stuff they got prompted them to be more positive about Ikea when writing their stories. But I wonder if this opening would have gotten this much media attention if Ikea hadn’t been so … welcoming … to journalists.

Tough decisions

As I’ve become more known in this industry, I’ve been invited to more of these kinds of events. There was The Beat’s exclusive first anniversary party, and a party (mainly for advertising clients) at Astral’s new radio studios, both of which I went to more as a way to chat with the people I cover than because of the music or free food and booze. It’s always kind of awkward when I have to come up with an excuse for why I’m not drinking away their promotion budget like everyone else.

It’s hard to say no when things are offered to you. Much of journalism requires getting access to people and places that normal people aren’t allowed or have to pay a price to reach. Journalists – particularly those in entertainment – get free swag sent to them all the time, usually in the form of cheap branded stuff, stuff they don’t really have much use for.

I myself haven’t been perfect. I let a certain radio DJ entice me into stocking up on candy. I’ve let a couple of sources pay for a (modest) meal we’ve shared, mainly to avoid the awkwardness of getting into an argument on principles. In these borderline cases I’ve relieved my guilt by making an equivalent donation to the Gazette Christmas Fund at the end of the year, but I should probably be more firm about these kinds of things.

It’s hard to set a clear line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. You can be fundamental like the New York Times and say no gifts whatsoever. You can be practical like other companies and say no gifts over, say, $20, to distinguish the silly swag junk from the stuff that people really crave.

What’s important, I think, is that journalists understand why they’re being given free stuff. Companies aren’t stupid. They know that giving free stuff to people in media works, if not to ensure positive coverage then at least to ensure some attention (which means free advertising).

And not to get too far into Media Ethics 101, but rewarding this activity discriminates against those without the big budgets. Those mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have a social media strategy or an event planner who can ensure journalists get nice gift bags. Hell, many of them don’t even have the time or money to send out a press release to all the mainstream media in town. Think about that too when you’re getting all this attention from the people with lots of money.

Journalists are always going to be a special class. They’ll have free access to events they’re covering when everyone else has to pay. They’ll get to meet celebrities that everyone else can only dream of getting an autograph from. They’ll get their requests for information quickly upgraded to a higher priority. And often they’ll get special treatment just because.

These are great privileges, in some cases necessary to do their jobs properly. But it’s up to journalists to ensure that these privileges aren’t abused.

What happened in Winnipeg is an example of such abuse. A minor one. I’m not calling for anyone’s head. I just ask that these journalists think a bit more next time and look their gift horses a bit more squarely in the mouth, and not to be excited at the prospect of shiny things being put in front of your faces. Not to let your sources get you drunk. And certainly not to brag about that to your less privileged audience.

Unfortunately for us, it’s the stuff that we want the most that is the most unethical to take.

And if Quebec politics has taught us anything, it’s that “c’était Céline Dion, quand même” isn’t an excuse people will accept for something that looks so much like quid pro quo.

The journalistic fraud of “exclusive”

I’m going to tell you a secret about journalism. Some of the most thoroughly-researched reports, the ones splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines and given top billing in newscasts, take a gamble on the truth.

It’s not just the sensationalist media like Sun News or the Journal de Montréal, it’s La Presse, The Gazette, Le Devoir, CTV, Global, CBC. It’s almost everyone (I’m hedging my bets here – I don’t know of any media that outlaws this practice by policy).

It happens almost every time journalists or their editors use the word “exclusive”.

Now, it’s very rare that they get this wrong. It’s like betting that Université Laval wins the Quebec football championship (says the frustrated Stingers fan). And when it does go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. Nobody gets sued, nobody loses their job, it’s just a bit embarrassing when someone points it out.

La Presse reports as “exclusive” a story that also appeared in Le Devoir the same day.

Take this story. It happened a year ago. La Presse finds out that Bixi is expanding to Longueuil, and presents it as an exclusive. But Le Devoir also found out, and published its own story that same day. Le Devoir didn’t use the “exclusive” label, but did write “a appris Le Devoir”, which is, of course, correct.

I tweeted about it, and there were some giggles, but that was it. No scandal here.

So how does this happen?

For most journalism, particularly for the mainstream media, the source of stories is easy to figure out. Some stories come from the police media spokespeople, reporting on the car crashes and crimes and other events that required emergency services. Some stories come through press releases or other ways that companies push the media to talk about them in a good light. Some stories come out of things said publicly by politicians or published by government bodies. Some come at prearranged sporting events, or special screenings given to journalists. Some stories are stolen from other media (“matched” is the term – crediting the other media only when the story has facts that can not be confirmed).

But then there’s the rest. The stories that require real work. The ones that require months of investigation through talking to sources and filing access to information requests. That ones that come because a journalist is the only one paying attention to a story when it breaks. And the ones that are handed to journalists on silver platters by people who may or may not have personal agendas wanting to see secrets exposed.

When these stories are published, the question comes up: Is this an exclusive? Does some other journalist have this? Could anyone else also possibly be reporting on this?

For long investigations, the answer is almost always no. I mean, what are the chances that another journalist has also been working for days, weeks or even months on this same story and is going to publish it the same day? Virtually impossible.

For stories based on polls, exclusivity is contractual. Exclusive polls are paid, with the understanding that the company or companies that pay for it get first dibs at reporting its results. And even if another poll comes out that reports the same thing, a newspaper can still say that their particular poll is exclusive to them.

Stories that are leaked to journalists, however, are more likely to suffer the embarrassment of being proved wrong. After all, if someone wants to leak something, they might tell more than one journalist about it. In these cases, journalists are extra careful, relying on how much they trust the source when that source says that he or she hasn’t told any other journalist about this story.

“Exclusive”, at its very basic, is the statement that “no other media is reporting this story”. But it’s impossible to prove this kind of negative. Even if you could poll every single news outlet that might have an interest in a story (and there are a lot of them out there), they’re not going to tell their competitors about a major investigative story they’re working on.

So it’s a gamble. The journalist asks “what are the chances that someone else has this?” and if the answer is “infinitecimally small”, then the “EXCLUSIVE” label is slapped on. And fingers are crossed that the infinitecimally-likely doesn’t become true.

Sun News bills the translation of a two-year-old TV interview as “EXCLUSIVE” and “BREAKING” (the story online has since been updated)

Redefining “exclusive”

This week, there was a less ambiguous abuse of this term by Sun Media. It published a story on Thursday afternoon reporting “exclusively” about comments Justin Trudeau made about Albertans running the country.

They knew about the comments because Trudeau made them two years ago on an episode of Les Francs-Tireurs, a current affairs series on Télé-Québec. They just haven’t been reported much in English until now (though the segment’s end, with Trudeau demonstrating how to fall down stairs, did go a bit viral).

The Sun story (which was also referred to as “breaking” in the hours after it came out) was uniquely about Trudeau’s comments. It had no new exclusive information. So was it an exclusive? Can publicly-available information be considered exclusive if you’re the first to report on it in your language? Arguments could be made either way.

It’s one thing to argue that information contained in a publicly-accessible government database, compiled by a reporter, could be considered “exclusive” even though others could have just as easily found that information. But that’s a far cry from re-reporting information contained in a publicly-broadcast television interview.

What’s worst about this is that public mocking of the Sun News “exclusive” hype detracted from the story, which is perfectly fair game. Trudeau’s comments are newsworthy, and seem to fit the narrative of a politician pandering to Quebec by demonizing another part of the country. Trudeau predictably walked the comments back and apologized for them, and the situation rightly got coverage in mainstream media. But none of that required Sun News to call the story an “exclusive.”

It’s particularly sad that the story is by David Akin, one of the more respectable figures associated with Sun News Network. I’m hoping that the decision to play this as an exclusive wasn’t his but an editor’s, and his loyalty to his employer is preventing him from contradicting them on it.

I’m not sure how Akin and Sun found this story, either. Did a Conservative opposition researcher leak it to him because the Tories were worried about losing Monday’s by-election in Alberta? Or was Trudeau’s past researched in light of his decision to enter the federal Liberal leadership campaign? Or do Sun Media journalists just spend their downtime looking through Télé-Québec video archives?

Explaining process is important in journalism, because transparency builds trust. But too often, these kinds of stories don’t explain process. They don’t explain what turned a journalist onto a story, even if that might be very revealing. And they don’t explain why they think a story is exclusive to them, because often they can’t explain it.

So next time you see someone say a story is an “exclusive”, ask yourself how they know that. Chances are, it’s just a (really good) guess.

And I’m telling you that exclusively.