Blog by John Miller

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No one trusts us

Journalists in English Canada are fond of saying they're independent seekers of truth, beholden only to the public and trained to operate ethically and responsibly in the public interest.

But most people don't believe them.

There's proof: A new Ipsos Reid poll, done for the Canadian Journalism Foundation, shows that 84 percent of Canadians either believe our journalists are guilty of the worst ethical lapses, or else are unsure whether they are or not. We're talking about phone hacking and paying police for tips -- scandals that erupted in the British gutter press earlier this year. Only 16 percent of Canadians believe these things do not happen here.

Talk about a public relations problem! No wonder readership and viewership of mainstream news continues to fall off the table. People see journalists as pauns of the empires that employ them -- unethical and ruthless cost-cutting corporations hungrier for profit than any kind of public good.

What's interesting are the shackles people want to put on those journalists, who they clearly do not trust.  Fifty-six percent of the 1,014 people polled by Ipsos believe that journalists ought to be accredited by some kind of industry-wide standards body before being allowed to work in the news media. A distinct minority agree with the status quo, which is no accreditation and voluntary, not mandatory, standards.

The poll's findings are important because the government of Quebec is poised to introduce legislation this fall that would, for the first time in Canadian history, designate the status of "professional journalist" to those accredited by such a standards body. It was recommended by a report written by Dominique Payette, a former CBC journalist who is now a professor of communications at Laval University. Members of the Quebec association of journalists voted overwhelmingly to endorse Payette's report. But in English Canada, the Canadian Association of Journalists has just as strongly opposed it. The CAJ took particular issue with Payette's contention that the public is confused about the role of journalists and needs to be able to know who to trust.

I have blogged earlier here about my view of Payette's findings (Cone of Silence, April 22, 2011). I think she makes a good case that the economic model journalism is based on is broken and not enough resources are available to cover the news people require to be good citizens. Some of her remedies are extreme, like state subsidies to support starting salaries, but stem from her convincing argument that the state has an interest in preserving coverage of a wide range of issues, even if private corporations do not. By comparison, the CAJ's arguments are knee-jerk, defensive and flawed.

The Ipsos poll seems to confirm that Canadians are indeed confused about the role of journalists. I am a critic of media practices but I know for a fact that phone hacking and paying police for tips would never be countenanced in any professional newsroom in this country, and any journalists doing those things on their own would be summarily fired.

In its recent brief to the Quebec government, the CAJ says its proposal would divide journalists into classes, backed by legislation, and give one group rights and privileges denied the other. It calls this a fundamental interference by government in true freedom of the press, a statement I regard as being overwrought. “Government, no matter how noble its intentions, cannot help journalism under this proposal without subverting it,” said CAJ president Hugo Rodrigues. “We believe this proposal is a mistake and should be withdrawn.”

The CAJ argues that "lawyers have licensing bodies, as do other professional designations such as accountants and physicians. Yet there are highly unprofessional lawyers and accountants, as there are trustworthy ones. A title does not protect the public from unethical or unscrupulous behaviour."

The question is, what would? Membership in the CAJ? I am a member and always have been, along with approximately 800 others. But most Canadian journalists do not belong to their own professional association. Membership on a provincial press council? That is voluntary, not mandatory, and the country's largest publisher, Sun Media, has pulled all its papers out of the two largest councils. Neither the CAJ or press councils are very effective as a result.

Here's a provocative suggestion: If freedom of the press is too sacrosanct to be tainted by the hand of government, then it's time for media owners, top editors and journalists who consider themselves professionals to step up and make membership in the CAJ and press councils mandatory, to make those institutions more proactive and open, to charge them with drawing up a code of professional conduct, and to make a concerted effort to educate Canadians that we enjoy the most accountable media in the world. Furthermore, when a good idea is raised (like Dominique Payette raised in her interesting report), those ideas should be vigorously debated in a national forum.

To understand just how far from that we stand, I attended a conference on the law and ethics of investigative journalism at Osgoode Hall Law School on October 14. Dominique Payette was one of the speakers. She said it was her first invitation to speak outside Quebec in the nine months since she released her report.

Better get your act together, Canadian journalism. Others are stepping in to set the agenda.