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We no longer trust newspapers and it's their fault

Image: flickr/Jason Verwey

Does the public have the faintest clue about how journalism works? Or does it understand all too well, and finds it wanting? Who is responsible for articulating journalism's value to society, and ensuring that our media are operating ethically and in the public interest?

It's a question raised by the Ontario Press Council in its recent ruling endorsing the Toronto Star's controversial story of a video that apparently shows Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine and making racist and homophobic remarks under the influence.

After receiving several complaints from the public, the press council concluded that the story was reported responsibly but "the robust and extensive journalistic standards that good newspaper reporting should meet are not well known or understood by the public." It said "this lack of knowledge is contributing to the disconnect between the parties and should be of some concern to the newspaper."

The onus, it said, should be on the press to demonstrate to readers that it reports responsibly and follows appropriate journalistic practice.

That's exactly what I wrote more than 15 years ago in Yesterday's News (Fernwood 1998), a hard-hitting and factual critique of the newspaper industry that unfortunately failed to ignite the professional debate I hoped for. The internet wasn't killing newspapers, I contended. Newspapers are killing newspapers. They're doing it to themselves because they're falling out of touch with their readers and have lost the will to be accountable.

"When the motives and agendas of newspapers are hidden from us," I wrote, "when they arrogantly refuse to explain their behaviour or listen to another side, when their sense of independence seems to isolate them from their communities, when they are owned and edited by people without local roots, then we don't have to be malicious to conclude that they are in business to make money and not to serve the public."

"Newspapers have lost our trust," I continued. "And when we think they're just in it for themselves, we stop excusing their faults. We see them as evidence of a conspiracy or sloth or worse: the general decline of a service that has become too profitable, too out of touch and too arrogant for its own good."

No one listened then, and no one's really listening now, if this reaction to the press council's criticism by the Toronto Star's public editor is any indication.

Kathy English, while praising the council for a "smart and thoughtful decision," refused to accept that her newspaper should take all responsibility for the public disconnect with journalism.

We're transparent about what we do, she said. Don't we publish our Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide on the Star's website? Well, yes, it's there now. But it was a different story in 2009, when I asked her if she would share the paper's policy on reporters using confidential sources.

Research I had done on the coverage of terrorism turned up copious examples of newspapers, including the Star, quoting "sources" without giving readers any indication of why they were granted anonymity, whether they were in a position to know what they were talking about, or who they represented. Some of the reporters in question were unable to tell me if their papers had policies about granting confidentiality. If they did, they certainly hadn't followed them: The majority of sources used in the reporting of the Toronto-18 terror case were anonymous. Asked if the Star had such a policy, and if so what it said, English said she couldn't tell me. The Star's lawyers didn't want to give outsiders any ammunition in case they were planning lawsuits.

Talking today about the Ford story, English says the Star "went to great lengths" to explain to readers why it was in the public interest, what was done to verify the information, and how the reporting conformed to standards. Well, that's just not true. There was no editor's note published when the story ran, explaining any of that. Details about how the paper tried to get Ford to comment were not presented until weeks later, at the press council hearing.

English also said she spoke with many people who judged the paper's coverage to be unethical and unfair. Almost invariably, despite her experience and desire, she failed to create any measure of understanding -- an admission that should send alarm bells off in the offices of publishers and editors across the country.

I agree with English that newspapers shouldn't accept 100 percent of the responsibility for the lack of public trust in journalism, but they surely need to accept the majority of it. The rest might just be the job of the press council, which has fallen on hard times since it was created in 1972 with a mandate, among other goals, to "serve as a medium of understanding between the public and the press by reviewing all complaints, offering explanations of its decisions and supporting the role of the press in a democratic society."

Unfortunately, the council has taken no steps to educate the public, and a majority of daily newspapers in the province no longer are members.

And by the way, English is misleading when she asserts that "the panel that scrutinized the Star's reporting has no connection to the Star's newsroom" and that the press council operates entirely independently. The Star, as the member newspaper with the largest circulation, happens to pay most of the press council's bills.

If newspapers are going to bridge the differences they seem to have with us, they need to tell the truth about themselves a lot more than they've been willing to. Starting now.

Image: flickr/Jason Verwey

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