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Tara Henley: Trump, Big Tech, polarization: The media blames everything but itself for loss of trust

Commentary

The question of declining trust in media has never been more pressing, with just 37 percent of Canadians saying they trust most news, most of the time and it’s a conundrum that the legacy media is, very wisely, now attempting to address.

Trust Talks,” a live event earlier this month in Toronto, brought together prominent news leaders to ponder the state of journalism and its future.

Unfortunately, the event wound up illustrating why trust is so low in the first place.

The discussion was moderated by CBC host Nahlah Ayed, an accomplished interviewer who found herself in the unenviable position of trying to coax some level of self-reflection out of media bosses that appeared unwilling, or unable, to offer it. The panel was made up of usual-suspects executives, including The Toronto Star’s Irene Gentle (sitting in for social and racial justice columnist Shree Paradkar), CBC’s Brodie Fenlon, and Global’s Sonia Verma, and the lineup itself cast doubt on whether the public’s specific reservations about the press would be addressed.

The turnout certainly seemed to reflect that perception. The 500-seat Isabel Bader Theatre was at best half full, and that was with free tickets, free food, and a delayed start time of about 15 minutes, which allowed for late stragglers. Judging from pre-show chats taking place around us, the crowd was largely made up of people from the same social milieu, many of whom knew each other. (Exceptions included a contingent of local journalism students, and several young activists who, during the Q&A, confronted the panelists about their coverage on the Middle East.)

CBC president Catherine Tait set the tone for the evening with her opening remarks, quoting Charles Dickens—“it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”—and then moving on to highlight concerns around social media, misinformation, the online harassment of journalists, and the irresponsibility of Big Tech. Tait made it clear, from the outset, that the event would be about blaming the media’s demise on pretty much anyone but the media itself.

Irene Gentle followed Tait’s lead, mainly focusing her comments throughout the evening on external pressures on the news, which included a range of factors from news indifference to hostility from “haters,” online harassment, Donald Trump, intentional disinformation, “deadly” disinformation, the speed of the news cycle, a catastrophic loss of advertising revenue, and atomized attention in the broader society. Bizarrely, Gentle also pointed to the negative impact of some journalistic norms, like publishing corrections, on the public’s faith in our work.

Sonia Verma, meanwhile, stressed how expensive news is to produce, and lamented the fact that Big Tech has taken the media’s advertising revenue without compensating us for our content. “You have these platforms that are not only taking our ad dollars,” she said, “but also, they don’t have any of the responsibilities or accountabilities that we do as credible news organizations.”

For his part, Brodie Fenlon laid the responsibility for declining trust on social media algorithms driven by emotional reactions, as well as on a polluted information ecosystem, political polarization, Donald Trump, the deprioritization of news on platforms like Twitter/X and Facebook, and the global phenomenon of news avoidance and news fatigue. He also pointed to people who discredit news organizations.

“There’s really compelling evidence that the more criticism there is of media — and I mean coordinated, orchestrated criticism — the more of an impact it has on the decline in trust,” Fenlon said. “Surprise, surprise, when you tell people regularly that the media are the enemy of the people, people start to believe it.”

To be fair, though, the night was not without glimmers of hope.

Gentle admitted that the media had been overly credulous in its embrace of social media, when we should have perhaps been more critical.

Verma called for more diversity of thought in newsrooms. “A healthy newsroom is a newsroom where there’s healthy debates, and people with different points of view,” she said.

Fenlon, to his credit, also acknowledged that our media has an issue with viewpoint diversity. Diversifying our newsrooms means racial and cultural diversity, he said, “but also political and geographic diversity, because a lot of people don’t see themselves, either in the newsrooms or in the coverage.” He went even further, later in the discussion: “Most newsrooms now, because of the pullback from local, tend to be in large urban centres, with good transit. We, as journalists, I mean, our journalists will disagree with this, but we are well-paid, when you compare ourselves to the average income in this country. Politics can be progressive in newsrooms.” (Verma also conceded that media bubbles are a real issue.)

Notably, all three leaders advanced few arguments framed around identity politics.

Still, the event was ultimately unsatisfying, heavy on platitudes and light on specifics.

And anyone who interacts with the public regularly knows that most people don’t distrust the media for vague reasons, but for extremely specific ones. (This was borne out by several questions from the audience, which referenced stories by outlet and date, quoting the exact claims and the exact language that they took issue with.)

One cannot help but wonder, then: Why was there so little discussion throughout evening about specific news coverage? Why were there so few acknowledgements of mistakes that have been made?

Why not ask ourselves: How was our coverage of the pandemic, a once-in-a-century crisis? How did we do on controversial stories like the lab leak theory, lockdowns, school closures, and vaccine mandates? Were we critical enough of government? The expert class? Corporate power?

While we’re at it: How did we do on the racial reckoning of 2020?

And, now that the dust has settled—and the Public Order Emergency Commission has released thousands of exhibits and hundreds of hours of testimony—how does our coverage of the trucker crisis, and the invocation of the Emergencies Act, stack up to the available facts?

One also can’t help but ask: Why was there almost no reference at the event to common complaints from the public? Let alone any inclusion of its critics on the panel. (Fenlon made a nod to such accountability at one point in the conversation: “We’re not actually, and I’ll put myself at the front of the line, we’re not very good when questioned ourselves.” One way that Fenlon could have demonstrated a desire to remedy this, in real time, would have been to unpack a few of the trends in complaints that the CBC’s Ombudsman has documented.)

Here are some other key questions that we in the media should ask ourselves:

How do we respond to members of the public that believe that we are no longer just reporting the facts, but actively trying to influence their opinion?

How exactly are we in the media doing on bias? How many conservatives are employed in our newsrooms, or journalists from working-class backgrounds, or people without university degrees, or those with rural or religious backgrounds? And how do we think through the claim that the media is overly influenced by “woke” ideology?

Without asking ourselves such difficult questions, we can’t get to the crux of declining public trust in our work.

So it came as little surprise, then, that the leadership on stage the other night did not have much to offer in the way of concrete solutions, beyond fostering media literacy in the public, essentially urging it to do a better job of seeking out and supporting our journalism. Such a sentiment, of course, comes across as condescending and fundamentally dismissive of both the public’s intelligence and its good intentions.

The thing about trust, I’m afraid, is that it is a two-way street.

If we in the media want the public to listen to us, we must first listen to them. And if we expect the public to trust us, we’re going to have to start by trusting them.

This column originally appeared on Lean Out with Tara Henley.

Joanna Baron: Censuring an NDP MPP for pro-Palestine comments is not a free speech issue

Commentary

Is there anything more Canadian than the fact that a Member of Provincial Parliament who issued a statement after a barbaric massacre of innocents in Israel, in which she (checks notes) neglected to mention the atrocity at all, criticized Israel, and edified the violence as justified retaliation, was kicked out of caucus by her party not for completely lacking a moral compass but for contributing to an “unsafe work environment” and undermining “collective work”?

To recap: on October 10, as the world was still reeling from images of bleeding and brutally murdered Jewish babies, grandmothers, and young women, the now former NDP MPP for Hamilton Centre Sarah Jama took to X to respond. Jama stated that she was “reflecting on her role as a politician participating in this settler colonial system.” She accused Israel of apartheid, using chemical warfare against Gazans, and referred to “retaliation rooted in settler colonialism.”

Jama is 29, but she still has the fervour and guilelessness of an even younger university activist. Earlier this year after winning a byelection in Hamilton Centre, she apologized after retweeting a post calling an Islamic Jihad terrorist a “martyr.” I know her type well: watching the likes of Jama contort language to justify the suicide bombings of pizza parlours and buses during the Second Intifada was a canon event for me as a McGill undergraduate which profoundly shaped my worldview.

On October 18, Ontario legislative house speaker Paul Calandra moved to censure Jama’s “disreputable conduct” and authorize the speaker not to recognize her until she retracted and deleted her comments and apologized in the house. In response, Jama apologized—and then pinned her original statement to the top of her X profile, an act perceived by many in Queen’s Park as defiant. She also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Doug Ford accusing him of libel. 

That brings us to this week, when NDP leader Marit Stiles finally announced that she would eject Jama from caucus for the aforementioned “unsafe work environment” and the undermining of “collective work.” In the same session, the PC party supported the censure motion, which would prevent the Speaker from recognizing Jama until she apologizes publicly and on screen. The NDP dissented; the Liberal Party abstained. The vote count was 63 to 23.

While it seems commonsensical that a parliamentary motion preventing an elected member from speaking, and even compelling her public apology as a condition precedent for doing so, carries free speech implications, the reality is more complicated. The idiosyncrasies of parliamentary privilege—a doctrine developed as a hedge against authoritarianism—mean that while Jama may have a moral claim that her right to free speech has been violated, she has no such legal claim.

Parliamentary privilege is the idea that legislators bear inherent privileges, which courts cannot review or interfere with. Parliamentary privilege covers an expansive swath of activity, including the power of legislatures to regulate their own internal affairs and the power to discipline their members as they see fit.

As Justice Fregeau noted in Alford v Canada, a 2022 case brought by law professor Ryan Alford challenging provisions of a federal act for encroaching on parliamentary privilege:

[t]he effect of a matter falling within the scope of parliamentary privilege is that its exercise cannot be reviewed by any external body, including a court…parliamentary privilege recognizes Parliament’s exclusive jurisdiction to deal with complaints within its privileged sphere of activity, thus providing immunity from judicial review.

This means neither Jama’s statements nor her colleagues’ chosen actions in addressing them could be challenged in a court. 

Another recent example of the bright line of parliamentary privilege shielding a legislator’s actions from judicial review was Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s 2022 refusal to testify after being summoned to give evidence at the Public Order Emergency Commission, despite almost certainly possessing relevant evidence about the response to the Ottawa convoy protests. Whatever the political consequences, the court decided that as a sitting member of the legislature, his decision was immunized from judicial review while the legislature was in session.

Parliamentary privilege historically evolved as a shield against the improper meddling of the executive—in particular, zealous kings and queens. For example, in 1629, King Charles I ordered two parliamentarians imprisoned for alleged seditious statements made in Parliament. Parliamentary privilege evolved in response to executive overreaches like this because for Parliament to effectively act as a prophylactic against totalitarian rulers, parliamentarians had to be free to speak their minds without fear of reprisal from the Crown.

These rules appear to jostle uncomfortably with the (correct) proposition that the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada. However, Parliamentary privilege and Charter rights including the right to freedom of expression are both parts of the constitution. In Nova Scotia v. New Brunswick Broadcasting, where journalists challenged a ban on video cameras in the legislature as a violation of their free expression rights, Justice McLachlin explained that it is a “basic rule” that one part of the Constitution cannot be abrogated or diminished by another part of the Constitution (and thus the legislature’s decision to forbid recording could not be reviewed by a court).

Though all Canadians enjoy the right to not have our speech censored directly or indirectly by government action, this doesn’t mean parliamentarians can’t be subject to discipline from the legislature or their party. Bluntly, the right to free speech does not equal a right to speak in a session of the legislature.

Legality aside, even if the legislature has full purview to censure Jama by way of motion, that doesn’t mean they ought to. Silencing Jama is likely to render her a heroine for progressives and provoke sympathy that she doesn’t deserve. The optics of a young Black woman made the whipping girl of Queen’s Park by its old, white, ham-fisted leader Doug Ford are not good. Instead, Queen’s Park should let Jama continue to spout her apparent apologias for terror and let voters express their disapproval of them at the next election.