Tag Archives: journalism ethics

Posted in Media, Opinion

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.

Posted in Media, Opinion

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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Posted in Media, Opinion

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?)
Posted in Media

40 questions about MTL Blog’s ethics (UPDATED)

UPDATE: MTL Blog CEO Charles Lapointe just finished a Twitter Q&A. You can see questions and responses here. 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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Posted in Media

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.

Posted in Opinion, Technology

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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Posted in Media

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.

Posted in Media, Opinion

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.

Posted in Media, Opinion

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.

Posted in In the news, Opinion, Radio

CJAD and Bain: Calmez-vous

It seems everyone was up in arms on Thursday after hearing that CJAD radio had given Richard Henry Bain, the man accused of killing a man at Metropolis on the night of the election, a 40-minute interview in which he was given free reign rein to spout his political views, and on top of that deciding to schedule the interview to coincide with the same moment that Pauline Marois was announcing her new government.

Of course, much of the previous paragraph isn’t true, but that shouldn’t stop us from being outraged, right?

What happened

Here’s what happened on Wednesday, based on what we’ve heard from station management and CJAD staff during interviews since then:

Just after 9:30am on Wednesday, the CJAD newsroom received a phone call. Trudie Mason, who does morning newscasts, took the call. The man at the other end at first wouldn’t identify himself, but eventually said he was Richard Henry Bain and that he was calling from the Rivière des Prairies detention facility. By this point, Mason was recording the phone call.

Mason and the main identifying himself as Bain spoke for 38 minutes. Mason repeatedly asked him to comment on what happened the night of Sept. 4, when Denis Blanchette was shot dead and Dave Courage severely injured in what some suspect may have been a politically-motivated attack on premier-elect Pauline Marois. But the man wouldn’t answer questions on that subject, instead preferring to discuss his political views, including his opinion that Quebec should be split up into its sovereignist and federalist regions.

Throughout the day, CJAD worked to verify that the man speaking was, in fact, Bain. They held on to the story while they tried to verify the caller’s identity. In the meantime, there was a significant amount of discussion – more than Mason said she has ever had in her career on an issue like this – about how to handle the story. Newsroom staff checked the caller ID and asked people who knew Bain to identify the recorded voice. Eventually the confirmation came, from Bain’s lawyer, a bit before 3:30pm: The man in the recording was, indeed, Bain.

The next newscast being at 4pm, CJAD decided to break the story then. Care was made to restrict the amount of audio that went to air. In the end, less than a minute of audio from that 38-minute conversation was broadcast, and 10 seconds of that is just Bain saying his name and where he’s calling from.

There was a very basic discussion of Bain’s political views – and by that I mean there was about enough time to read out the slogan on a bumper sticker. Details were cut out and not aired. The first airing of the news story was immediately followed by a discussion between Mason and Aaron Rand on his show, that went into the process of reporting this story. You can listen to that discussion on this podcast, beginning around the 16-minute mark.

At the same time, a written version of the story was posted on CJAD’s website, with a timestamp of exactly 4pm. The written version includes no direct quotes from Bain, and no link to audio.

CJAD’s sister stations at Astral, NRJ and Rouge FM, also used French-language clips from Bain in their newscasts. You can hear their news story here and an excerpt of audio about a minute long of Bain talking in French.

Blind outrage

Unfortunately, most of this nuance never reached the Twittersphere. All many heard was that CJAD had aired an interview with the man accused of a politically-motivated killing. And so the condemnation was quick and severe. There was even a new hashtag created for the occasion, #NouvelleÉmissionCJAD, in which heinous criminals discuss subjects that their victims would no doubt find highly offensive.

But reading much of those comments, it was obvious how many of them came from people who had not heard the news story. (Many said so when I asked, even adding that they didn’t want to and should not have to hear what was aired in order to judge it wrong.) Comments on social media said the decision to air the interview was a slap in the face to victims, that it was dangerous, and even that it was intentionally scheduled to air at the same moment Marois was presenting her new cabinet as part of some vendetta the anglophone community has against the PQ leader. From the information presented, it’s very hard to come to either conclusion.

Far too many of those comments came from people who should know better than to condemn something they had not witnessed.

The outrage caused Astral to send out a press release Wednesday afternoon re-explaining itself.

It’s called journalism

There are some, when challenged on their outrage about this, who say that affording even 10 seconds of airtime to Bain is wrong, that people should not be hearing his political views. I’m sympathetic to that argument, and clearly CJAD was as well.

But the problem is that Bain’s motivations (assuming he’s guilty of what he’s accused of) are, in fact, very important and newsworthy. The man is already being described as an anglophone, even though he has what sounds like a francophone accent and seems to speak French well enough. And people assume this was an attempt on Marois’s life, even though there’s no evidence yet to suggest this.

It may be distasteful for journalists to interview (presumed) bad people, whether they’re convicted murderers or third-world dictators. But what they think does matter, even if we think those views are dangerous. They should be treated with care, perhaps even sanitized and heavily censored, but they should be reported.

So much of what makes this story important is based on the presumed motivations of the man accused of this killing. What the man accused of it says about his views becomes important as a result.

CJAD couldn’t pretend Bain never called them. It had to report the story. It did so carefully and deliberately. I might hesitate to say it was done “with restraint” as Dan Delmar tweeted, since the station did promote the story and slapped an all-caps EXCLUSIVE label on it when it was published. But what actually made it on air was tame.

Unanswered questions

There are some serious questions to ask about this case. The main one is how a man who is sitting in a detention facility had access to a phone for more than half an hour. It was a question that CJAD itself asked on air right away.

And there might be questions to ask of CJAD as well, about whether it was right to air even short clips of Bain’s political views rather than just explaining that Bain called the station and leave it a that.

But if you’re going to criticize them for something they did, please make sure you first have a clear idea of what it is exactly that they did.

Because, like with the shooting itself, context is everything.

Coverage

Unfortunately, I can’t find audio of the actual news story on CJAD’s website. But in addition to the Rand show link above, you can also hear about this from this podcast of the Andrew Carter morning show from Thursday morning.

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.)

Posted in Media, Opinion

Bienvenue, Huffington Post Québec

I suppose I should say something about Le Huffington Post Québec, the new website that is supposed to, as Patrick White writes, “transformer la vision du monde des Québécois.”

It launched this week amid what’s been called “controversy”. It’s funny how easy it is to create a controversy. Just get one person to write something on a blog or in a column, have a bunch of people post links to it on Twitter and Facebook, and then get journalists to ask them for their reaction. Voilà: a controversy.

In the case of the Huffington Post, it started with a blog post from Voir’s Simon Jodoin, accusing people of volunteering their services as writers for the sole profit of the giant AOL empire. (A feeling echoed by La Presse’s Nathalie Collard.) The fallout from that led to some people who had agreed to blog for free (notably Québec solidaire’s Amir Khadir) to change their minds. But not all.

The word “controversy” appears in many stories about HuffPost Québec. The Gazette, Les Affaires (and again), Radio-Canada (and its Triplex blog), CTV, Canadian Press, Branchez-Vous. Bad PR, for sure, but Arianna Huffington dealt with it well when she was surrounded by journalists jumping over each other to talk to her.

(You can read more about Le Huffington Post at Projet J, which visited its offices and covered its launch.)

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Posted in Media, Opinion

Bell Let’s Talk Day: “This is why we do it”

Bell Let's Talk national spokesperson Clara Hughes in an interview with TSN Radio in Toronto (Bell Canada photo)

Today is Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, a day in which Canada’s biggest telecom company raises money to help treat mental illness, and helps bring the issue out into the spotlight at the same time.

Until midnight Pacific time, Bell is donating five cents for every long-distance call and text message sent using its network, as well as every (non-robot) retweet of its Twitter account, to this charitable cause.

I was reminded of this campaign when I watched CFCF’s noon newscast today. It was hard to miss it. Half of the first 15-minute block was devoted to it, with a story by a local reporter profiling someone with mental illness, and an interview with the campaign’s spokesperson, Olympian (and national sweetheart) Clara Hughes.

It didn’t stop there. Later, a health news story about the potential causes of suicide (probably a coincidence because the study just came out), a sit-down interview with an expert on mental illness, and a chat with reporter Tarah Schwartz about a special report on depression airing on Thursday. That’s not including the commercials devoted to the subject and all the other programming that’s airing on CTV, including a special at 7pm.

A year ago, I asked similar questions about this campaign, and whether the perfectly laudable cause justified the apparent intrusion of Bell Canada into the editorial decisions of CTV’s newsrooms. (One could argue that many have simply decided to join this cause without being ordered to, which is possible, but there’s a reason we’re not seeing as much coverage of this on CBC and Global, and do we really think it would get so much airtime on CTV if this was, say, a Telus campaign?)

There are also questions to be asked about Bell’s motives in this. Every large company puts profit ahead of anything else, and it makes sense for a company whose reputation is as poor as Bell’s to spend millions of dollars making it seem more human. And it sends the message that if you really want CTV News to pay attention to your cause, no matter how positive it is, you need to get Bell onside.

But rather than rehash all that, I’ll share an email that was forwarded to me by someone from Bell Media, who I’m guessing saw my tweets critical of the campaign today or was directed to last year’s blog post. It was sent from a viewer of CTV’s Marilyn Denis show, which also devoted segments to mental health today, including one on postpartum depression.

He added only: “This is why we do it.”

I’ve redacted the person’s name since it’s not important.

Subject: Thank you thank you thank you

Hello Marilyn

My name is ***, mother of 4 girls 8,6,4 and 5 months.

I started my last pregnancy with depression and it is becoming a giant battle!

I feel darker and darker and the show today made feel good and thank to CTV, let’s talk day. It is good to know that I will talk and search for help.

What a show thank you again.

There are a lot of thing behind my depression, I have in Canada for 17years no status, with 4 children provide a good life. Being a great mother and wife. Keeping on packing weigh. Being there sometimes became a burden etc….but I do it because I love my family.

Well I just wanted to say thank to you and CTV for this day Let’s talk.

I never wrote to a show but the one today saved my life.

By the grace of God!

There are worse reasons to abuse one’s power.

Posted in TV

Ethics don’t matter on TV

A couple of disturbing stories have come to light recently about Quebec television broadcasters’ attempts to censor things that might affect their bottom line.

The first was the revelation from La Presse’s Hugo Dumas that producers of dramatic programming for TVA were being asked to not show characters using iPhones. This, apparently, because Quebecor owns both TVA and Videotron and Videotron doesn’t offer the iPhone to wireless customers.

That prompted a reply from Quebecor VP Serge Sasseville that actually admitted Dumas’s story was true, but said that this was simply a case of a sponsor (Videotron) wanting its products depicted in the programming it sponsors. He offers the example of Ford sponsoring Radio-Canada’s series 19-2, and seeing Ford vehicles being driven in the show.

Dumas in turn replied to the reply, saying the argument seemed to suggest that Videotron sponsors all of TVA’s programming, and calling that reasoning preposterous.

Interference from a broadcaster into dramatic programming for business reasons is bad enough. But as Sasseville’s comparison points out, we’re well past that point already.

The second story is the decision of RDS to refuse to show a commercial from comedian Mike Ward that makes fun of the Canadiens. To be precise, they refused to show the ad during Canadiens games.

Their argument, and it’s a really stupid one, is that RDS is the official broadcaster of the Canadiens, and it’s unacceptable that an ad that runs during Canadiens games makes fun of them.

Some have noted that RDS is now owned by Bell, which is a stakeholder in the Canadiens and owns the naming rights to the Bell Centre, among many commercial deals between the telecom giant and the hockey team.

Both of these moves are ridiculous, and both reek of giant media empires abusing their ownership powers to mold programming in one area so it matches the business interests of another.

It’s not that many steps from this to each media giant having its own imaginary universe, each with its own set of maybe-true facts.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Is selling out okay for a good cause?

Clara Hughes is the spokesperson for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to raise awareness about mental illness

Let’s talk.

The phrase, and the face of Canadian Olympic star Clara Hughes, are all over the media today in a campaign organized by Bell Canada. It’s planning to spend $50 million over five years on this program, and today it’s giving five cents for every text message and long-distance call by a Bell customer to mental health initiatives.

To promote this, the campaign has pulled out all the stops, and has … partnered … with news organizations to spread the word. CTV, which Bell is in the process of purchasing, has devoted just about everything it can – including TSN and MuchMusic – to the campaign, forcing each one to mention it somehow. Hughes has been doing non-stop interviews today. She was on Canada AM. She was on CP24’s breakfast show. She was on the Marilyn Denis showShe was interviewed on CFCF. And that’s just daytime. There’s an entire channel online devoted to this stuff.

And, of course, during the actual commercials, Hughes appears again – over and over – in ads paid for by Bell talking about the campaign.

It doesn’t stop with CTV, though. My own newspaper The Gazette has two pages devoted to this subject today, one of which has a giant ad featuring Hughes and the Bell logo. I’m sure it won’t be hard to find other examples in other media.

Fighting mental illness is a laudable goal. No one with even a trace of a soul can stand up and say they oppose this campaign. I salute Hughes and Bell for their efforts, and wish the campaign success (though I’m not quite sure what that would mean – they’ve already said they’re spending $50 million over five years, so are the donations in excess of that, or did they just estimate how much it’ll cost them? UPDATE: The money from this event – more than $3 million – was in fact in addition to the $50 million they’d already pledged)

This also isn’t the first time that a big, rich company has bought news for a good cause. Newspapers often have pages devoted to issues chosen by advertisers. They have various names for this, referring to them as “partnerships” or “joint ventures”. “Directed content” is my favourite term. A step beyond the advertorial, the content is presented as news, it doesn’t talk about the advertiser directly, and the advertiser has no say in the content of the news pieces themselves, other than their subject.

Oral B and Listerine sponsor coverage of oral care. Big oil companies sponsor articles about the environment to greenwash their image. Banks and other financial institutions sponsor entire sections on the importance of RRSPs. It is, in the eyes of the publishers and advertisers, a win-win: the news outlet gets much-needed advertising money, the advertiser gets to see its logo all over the place, and the issue gets public exposure.

The only drawback is the crumbling wall between editorial and advertising. The precedent is established that an advertiser can get all sorts of journalistic outlets to contribute to its campaign, provided it’s for a good cause (or something that can be interpreted as a good cause), and that big media companies will use the power of convergence to please those advertisers, if given enough money.

Most importantly, it means that issues advertisers want to bring up – whether because they want to appear charitable or because it is in line with their business interests – get more exposure than those nobody wants to spend money on. People who want their causes to get news coverage are better off pleading to large corporations’ marketing departments than to journalists. And good luck getting anyone to pay attention to a cause that puts one of those big corporations in a bad light.

To be clear, I have nothing against this cause. Bell is spending a lot of money it could have just as easily given to its shareholders or spent on ads lauding its services. I don’t think the good PR that will come from this will bring in more than $50 million in new subscribers. And I hope the campaign is very successful and helps a lot of people.

But I think it sets a bad precedent when a company like Bell can simply dictate to all its divisions, including news, that a certain topic is covered on a certain day. It’s hard not to think of that as a slippery slope.

UPDATE: A response from Bell worth reading. And another blog post that goes a bit farther than mine, suggesting this is more of an advertisement for Bell than a campaign for mental health.