An Inside View on the Future of Responsible Journalism

The Max Bell School welcomed speakers for a panel discussion which explored the demands and responses of responsible journalism in dealing with the challenges of hyper-polarization.

While struggling to preserve the trust of its readership, mainstream American media has been faced with a series of crucial concerns regarding journalistic conduct. How are journalists to cover Donald Trump’s statements without potentially contributing to a normalization of his views? Should the media report on the activities of far-right nationalist or far-left groups when doing so may provide them with undeserved legitimacy? In response, people like NYU professor Jay Rosen have asserted that this is no time for balanced journalism; instead the media simply need to “declare their biases” as transparently as possible. But what does this mean in practice?

The Max Bell School of Public Policy sought to address these pressing questions by hosting a panel on October 30, 2018 entitled “Responsible Journalism in the Age of Hyper-Polarization”. Assembling journalists from varying professional backgrounds, the school invited Phil Gohier, editor-in-chief of Vice Quebec; Mark Lloyd, Professor of Professional Practice at the Max Bell School and former CNN journalist; as well as Jennifer Ditchburn, editor of Policy Options, to share their thoughts on the current challenges facing responsible journalism.

Opening the discussion was Chris Ragan, Director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy, who highlighted the school's new MPP program and stressed the school’s commitment to engaging with members of the public on important public policy debates. He outlined the oft-repeated story about the continuing decline in the consumption of traditional news outlets, the rise of partisan sources and the subsequent polarization of public opinion. While “the broad strokes of this narrative are well-documented in the United States”, Ragan asked “does this general narrative apply in Canada?”.

In his opening remarks, panel moderator Andrew Potter, a former journalist and Associate Professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, answered this question by delivering part of the recent survey commissioned by the Max Bell School which examined what Canadians want from their news. The survey revealed that Canadians, unlike their American counterparts, do not suffer as severely from “truth decay”. As explained by Potter, while Canadians tend to consume different media based on their political leanings, “we continue to live in a common world of facts… Canadians generally have a common worldview”. He added that Canadians maintain high levels of trust in mainstream media, yet they do not support federal financing of this media, posing an important policy conundrum. 

Beginning the panel discussion, Phil Gohier argued that when tackling fringe political groups, journalists must report information deemed to be of public interest, even if this means putting inflammatory views into print. He spoke from personal experience, explaining how last May, Quebec far-right group Atalante raided Vice Quebec’s office and threatened a journalist after an article on their activities was published. Adding to this discussion, Jennifer Ditchburn pointed out that social media now offer a wide-reaching platform for marginal groups to disseminate their views, making it harder for journalists to ignore, especially when they tie into larger political debates. This is even more the case, as pointed out by Mark Lloyd, when the views of these radical fringe groups are being shared on Twitter by the US President.

Speaking about the issue of excessive “both side-ism”, Jennifer Ditchburn recalled how a commitment to balance sometimes meant that news outlets would actively count the number of stories published about each candidate. For Ditchburn, limits should not be imposed on the number of negative articles published about a particular party in order to maintain a facade of objectivity. Abandoning objectivity and revealing biases, as suggested by Jay Rosen, is a somewhat limited solution according to Ditchburn. She noted that journalists, beyond their personal biases, continue to remain unaware of the structural biases inherent in journalism, including the legacies of colonialism.

“Politicians think about the biases being liberal or conservative, or in the United States, Republican or Democrat, but the biases run way deeper than that… the solution is to train journalists better in seeking out the truth,” said Ditchburn.

As politicians may often distort the truth, Phil Gohier reiterated Vice’s commitment to fact-checking and clarifying “untruths”. He signaled how the Trump era poses a unique challenge, as the President has continuously declared the press his fundamental enemy. According to Gohier, journalists find themselves stuck in an impossible limbo; any attempt to debunk the President’s falsehoods is seen by his supporters as proof of mainstream media’s desire to destroy him. Continuing on this topic, Mark Lloyd reminded everyone that presidents going after the press was nothing new, although it was nonetheless a scary time given the unforeseen high levels of animosity held by the public towards the media.   

“If there has ever been a time we needed an objective and robust press it is now. As inarticulate, partial, incomplete, inaccurate, as all the things that the press may be, even the best press, we need the press now, at least in the United States, more than ever to try and keep track of what’s wrong, to count the number of lies, to call them lies and try and to be upfront and honest about it,” said Lloyd.

Discussing the value of trust in journalism, Lloyd pointed to the strong connection between public policy and maintaining a responsible press. For him, a publicly funded press can act as a countervailing force against commercialized media and broadcasting, which prioritizes advertisers over citizens. According to Lloyd, Canada has benefitted from the existence of a public broadcasting company, which sets the standards for journalistic conduct and which in turn influences private media. Ditchburn continued this discussion by arguing a strong nation-wide public press contributes to a level of social cohesion in the country and that its potential loss is a policy issue that continues to be neglected by politicians.

Ending the panel was a series of thought-provoking questions from audience members. One member voiced his concern regarding the capacity of political leaders’ to be the drivers of their own content without relying on the press. For Ditchburn, the answer was that for journalists to compete, instead of covering every PR stunt, journalists should turn their attention to deeper issues, but that this remained difficult given financial constraints. Another audience member criticized the performance of the CBC, arguing that it often fails to provide the content desired by the Canadian population. For Lloyd, this was an issue related to the lack of adequate financial support given to the CBC, including service for minority and indigenous communities.

Following the success of this first panel, which attracted a packed house, the Max Bell School of Public Policy will continue the conversation with a second event entitled “Which Media Can be Trusted in the Digital Age”, taking place in Toronto with the collaboration of the McGill Alumni Association of Toronto. 

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