Is it ethical for TV news to shill for the network?

The Rogers Media upfront in Montreal on June 7.

The Rogers Media upfront party in Montreal on June 7.

The beginning of June is a big time for Canadian TV networks. They invite journalists and advertisers to fancy parties and announce what new programming they’re adding to their schedules for the next season. In the case of Canada’s big three English commercial networks, Bell Media (CTV), Shaw/Corus (Global) and Rogers (City), that’s mainly acquired U.S. programming.

They’re called “upfronts”, and their purpose is clear.

But these broadcasters also own news outlets, and it might come as no surprise that the news side, and shows that are news-like in function, tend to cover only their parent company’s upfront presentation, even though they all announce their programming within a week of each other.

CTV’s eTalk has an entire special section on its website devoted to CTV’s upfront, including interviews with Hollywood stars hawking their new shows. CTV Toronto devoted five minutes to a live report. On, the network posted a Canadian Press story about Bell’s announcement, but not the CP stories about Shaw/Corus and Rogers.

Global News added plenty of videos to its website of interviews with big stars during the Corus upfront presentation, but these weren’t journalistic reports. They just dumped raw video from the advertising event on their website. Global News Toronto devoted a bit more than two minutes to a packaged report about Global’s fall lineup (starts at 29:49). ET Canada, of course, focused plenty of attention on Corus’s announcement and none on anyone else. Online, there was a report with a journalist’s byline, but that turned out to be a straight-up copy-paste of Corus’s press release with some light re-wording at the top. It was only after I pointed that out on Twitter that an editor’s note was added to explain that.

Rogers doesn’t have a national news network like CTV and Global, and I couldn’t find anything on CityNews about upfronts. On Rogers’s news radio station websites, there was only Canadian Press stories about the upfront announcements, mostly because those websites republish every Canadian Press story. (An exception was 570 News in Kitchener, which republished a Rogers press release and credited it to “news staff”)

None of this is new, of course. Lots of journalistic outlets downplay or ignore their competitors’ good-news announcements. But the bias is never as stark as it is during upfront week.

We all accept that this happens, but is it ethical?

Last year, Bell Media’s president was fired after he interfered in CTV News’s coverage of a CRTC decision affecting Bell Canada. The message sent was clear: CTV News’s journalistic standards have no exceptions, even when dealing with the parent company.

But are upfronts an exception?

To find out, I asked the heads of CTV News and Global News to comment about their one-sided coverage of upfront announcements.

In both cases, it was noted that the daily entertainment shows (eTalk for CTV and ET Canada for Global) do not fall under the news division, which I find interesting.

Matthew Garrow, Director of News, Local Stations, Sports, Discovery Networks & Community Investment at Bell Media, offered this statement:

We can assure you that at no point does CTV News suspend its journalistic practices under any circumstance. All CTV News staff are trained to follow the strictest editorial guidelines designed to ensure impartiality when making our editorial decisions, which are safeguarded by both the CTV News Policy Handbook and Bell’s Journalistic Independence Policy. These policies are designed to ensure that, at all times, CTV News upholds the highest standard of journalistic independence.

I asked him why, if this is true, did CTV News cover Bell Media’s announcement but not its competitors’. I got no response.

Troy Reeb, Senior Vice President, News, Radio and Station Operations at Corus, was a bit more forthcoming:

Global News was not invited to our competitors’ upfronts which, like the Corus Upfront, were private events by invitation only. That’s not to say we do not provide coverage of competing networks’ programs and events when they are in the broader public interest. We certainly do, and our archives are filled with many stories about CTV, CBC, Rogers and Netflix.

Our commitment to fairness and balance doesn’t translate into an obligation to cover everything that happens. Editorial integrity doesn’t mean you have to do a story on The Bay because you did one on Sears. Every media outlet makes choices daily about what it will cover and what it will not.

That the major networks are announcing their fall schedules is not exactly breaking news, and clearly falls into the category of discretionary coverage. That we would cover Global’s announcements and not CTV’s should surprise no one since we are in the business of serving Global viewers, just as CTV is in the business of serving theirs.

In keeping with our Global News journalistic principles and practices, I can assure you that at no time was our news division or our reporters given any directive on what to cover or how to cover it. Coverage decisions were made by Global News based on audience interest and the accessibility offered to key players in the fall shows.

The point about not being invited to competitors’ upfronts is valid. (Maybe that would change if they covered each other’s announcements more?) But that doesn’t stop news outlets from reporting what’s announced in press releases and posted online.

And while news organizations have been self-promoting since the dawn of time, in an era of vertical integration, it’s not just CTV talking about CTV and Global talking about Global. It’s about CTV News, eTalk and BNN talking about CTV, Space and Discovery Channel, while Global News and ET Canada talk about Global, Showcase and Food Network, and Breakfast Television talks about City, Viceland and Sportsnet.

And those independent broadcasters not owned by the big media companies? Don’t expect to hear about your programming on the evening news, because they’re only in the business of serving their viewers.

It’s nice that no official orders were given from on high to manipulate news coverage. But if you’re a journalist at one of these organizations, how much freedom do you really have to choose not to cover your parent company’s press event, or to cover your competitor’s?

I certainly wouldn’t want to test it.

7 thoughts on “Is it ethical for TV news to shill for the network?

  1. Howard Barrett

    Excellent article and point of view!.
    This is clearly an ongoing and growing practice on both sides of the border.. If you observe major US broadcast networks in the past 2 years alone, the use of any, to all, of the following has been growing exponentially;
    > Integration/uptick on ‘up-fronts”-as you’ve pointed out.
    > use of broadcaster morning news personalities on same networks’ late night talk shows as ‘celebrities’ /often…
    > use of broadcaster morning news personalities on same networks’ “event programming”-ex. the Oscars/Emmys/Grammys/Golden Globe,..etc
    Is this just “good marketing’/promotion…or…in the US case, fear of heightened growth of traditional TV competition and alternatives,including streamers like Netflix,, Amazon…and specialty Cable networks– as consumer”eyeballs” keep diversifying and major broadcaster ratings decline?

  2. Patrick Benoit

    “We can assure you that at no point does CTV News suspend its journalistic practices under any circumstance.”

    Wow. A lie. When CTV announced its fall line-up, I watched the piece on CTV Atlantic, CTV Toronto and I’m pretty sure I saw it on CTV National News too. I used to love Canadian TV. When CFCF 12 and ATV were just affiliates of CTV. Now, it’s so clear that everything is just one Bell commercial – from their Let’s Talk stuff to their news. I hope someone else buys CTV or at least the channels in the east and puts them back to the way they were in the 90s.

  3. dilbert

    If there is one thing to learn from the insane media concentration in Canada, it is that ethics just don’t enter into any of it. It isn’t just the ethics of the individual companies, rather it’s the group think that permits them to as a group do things like reduce staffing, reduce programming offerings, and generally not to compete with each other in a meaningful way.

  4. Mike

    CBC is no different as they promote upcoming Marketplace episodes and other CBC programs on The National. There are exceptions as most if not all media report (promote) that CBC will broadcast the last Tragically Hip show.

  5. Jason

    Stations covering their networks upfronts is no different than doing a story on a new or returning program. In fact, as a viewer I am interested in seeing what networks are going to air what shows so rather than searching online its nice to have a summary of what they’re going to air plus its always cool to see local reporters interviewing big celebrities. What annoys me is turning on CTV local news at noon or six and seeing them interview the latest team eliminated from The Amazing Race Canada or the chef eliminated from Masterchef Canada. I get it if they’re a local team but shamelessly plugging network shows every week on newscasts ticks me off. That’s what the morning/talk shows are for. Even if newsrooms technically have the final say on what stories they air, I wouldn’t have the guts to tell people at corporate that I found it unethical to cover upfronts or something else. I might be able to justify not airing it on a particular day because of a busy news day or breaking news but it would find its way on to the news.

  6. Ted Duskes

    I think it boils down to – when is “non-news” news?
    This is happening in all areas of media. A fine example of print “upfront” was practiced by The Montreal Gazette, when they were using “Local News” headings to plug the Like it Buy It advertising program (in May 2015).
    I complained bitterly and they used all sorts of mini-tactics to try and work around it, but it was all a sad effort to continue the plugs.
    What it takes to stem this tide is complaints to the associations which theoretically police the news outlets.
    In Quebec, it is the Le Conseil du Presse. The replies I received from the Gazette (and I mean the “she” at the top) were so self-serving that I took the time to complain to Le Conseil.
    They had their adjudication of the complaint May 2016 and decided that the Gazette skirted the lines between news and self promotion and censured them.
    The Gazette was supposed to print a copy of the decision in their paper within 30 days of the decision (unless they chose to appeal – which it seems that did not). So far no printing of the decision.
    But at least I have the knowledge that someone somewhere took the time to complain and that the complaint was taken seriously by the Conseil. It does seem that the Gazette (and Postmedia) have a similar outlook as does Bell.
    They feel they can do what they choose and the public will just tolerate it.
    What we need are more people to make more complaints to the “overseer organizations” and follow through with those complaints.
    Otherwise, these perversions of “newscasts” and news “articles” will just be fruitful and multiply..
    And that would be a shame.

  7. joanne

    Many years ago, a directive was indeed given from above, not only here in Canada but across the main US networks as well. The directive was clear: “you WILL promote people and shows on your own network.” This order did not exclude news or talk shows or entertainment shows. ALL shows, from The View to CTV National News (that quote saying otherwise is fantastic!) to CBC National News, the Tonight Show, The Social and every other tv programme on the air right now. Most of the time, it is laughable. As a previous poster said, CTV News interviews the castoffs from a chef show or a race show. That is not news. Even the poor boys at HNIC have to stop their hockey play by play to promote some stupid nonsense show coming up. How embarrassing for them! So please do not think this is a news issue or a Canadian issue. It is about content and how it has been dead for a veeeerrrry long time.


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