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Editorial: The watchdog can’t become the lapdog

It has become increasingly common, especially during the pandemic, for institutions to issue statements rather than grant interviews — and it’s a trend that must not become the norm

We are concerned by what appears to be a trend in how institutions, particularly public ones, manage news media.

In our view, it has become all too common for bodies like local governments, police services, and educational and health-care institutions to issue statements instead of granting interviews, or to request a list of questions instead of speaking with a reporter.

It is a trend that, if allowed to continue unchecked, runs the risk of delegitimizing an already threatened industry — no, more than an industry, a central tenet of a free and just society. Such a society is not achievable if those in power do not have to justify their actions or decisions.

One of the most important mechanisms our society created to keep institutions honest is a robust and relevant news media. This is not pure idealism on our part, although we are certainly idealistic in regards to our place in the world.

We are not exaggerating when we say the business of news is threatened. Make no mistake, news media in most communities are shadows of their former selves, with their news teams slashed and much institutional knowledge lost. You just do not see many old reporters any more.

And that is, if a community still has any local media at all. Canada is dotted with growing ‘news deserts’ where there is no local coverage or what coverage exists is provided on a regional basis, which only really skims the surface, lacking depth and context, key elements to public understanding of the how and the why of things.

It is hard to build the trust and credibility necessary to be effective in this kind of environment. 

And distrust of the media is now common, in part because of this hollowing out of local, community news media. But more so, we feel, because of the evolution of news at the national and international level, in particular internet and televised news where the 24-hour news cycle has resulted in an unholy union of reportage and opinion such that the biases of a particular site or channel align with or become the biases of their audience, strengthening polarization and stoking the fires of partisanship.

This environment feeds not only a blanket distrust of media but also a distrust between people of different political outlooks, and sadly, distrust in objective facts themselves. How are we to make any rational decisions if we can no longer agree on what a “fact” is?

And understanding the how and why of decision-making is important as governments have proven themselves broadly incapable of limiting their own power. Their tendency is to wrest control where they can.

Part of that control comes from consistent messaging and massaging public opinion in their favour. If institutions feel they do not have to submit to questions from reporters, if instead they only interact with the public through carefully crafted statements and stage-managed media events, they can act with impunity. 

If reporters can’t ask questions and if institutions no longer respect the media’s position as a voice of the people, institutions can and will run roughshod over everything from human rights to taxation to environmental concerns.

We are sure that anyone reading this can point to instances where news reporting righted a wrong or exposed corruption, effected change for the better, helped raise money for a cause or galvanized a community to action.

The very existence of relevant media has an impact. Communities without a local news source usually pay higher taxes and countries with robust media tend to be more just. Why? Because someone is watching.

If all media can do is report only the information that authorities want reported, a powerful bulwark is lost. Facts become irrelevant. Truth becomes indistinguishable from fantasy. And the news becomes solely a mechanism of control.

We, as media, are not perfect. We know that. We make errors. We are often used as tools of manipulation. We are not infallible. But we make our errors in public and correct them (again, in public). 

Governments, however, and other authorities tailor information for a desired effect, or hide damaging or uncomfortable facts from the public. They are often aided in this effort by former reporters who offer media training to organizations on how “to change the conversation”. 

That manipulation is held in check by media’s ability to access information, to ask hard questions, to observe and report.

Certainly, the relationship between media and institutions must be, in some ways, antagonistic. But in that antagonism was always respect, grudging to be sure, that the media acts as the people’s eyes and ears in the corridors of power.

A free and just society can only exist when those we’ve chosen to act on our behalf can be held to account. They will not hold themselves to account, history proves this out. That is why documents like our Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the U.S. Constitution expressly mention the necessity of a free press.

A reasonable distrust of the media is healthy, but if the powerful treat news organizations as lapdogs rather than watchdogs, we all lose. No question about it.'s editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.

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