Being a print journalist in English Canada these days makes one about as popular as a venereal disease inspector for the public health department. Unfortunately, in the eyes of a growing number of people, being a journalist is a lot less important. If you think that’s funny, it’s not. The straight hard fact is that the newspaper industry in this country is in deep trouble. No other industry is allowed to operate with as few government controls yet is in more serious trouble with the consumer over the quality of its product. At stake is the financial fortunes of the newspaper chains, the editorial quality and very purpose of the newspapers themselves, and the public credibility of hundreds of reporters and editors across the country. At last count the readers, reporters and editors were losing.
The issue is quite simple. Newspaper readers and those we report on don’t trust us. They don’t trust our accuracy. They don’t trust our journalistic judgment. All too often their distrust is more than amply justified.
I write, I think, with a fair degree of authority. I have spent 22 years as a newspaper and television journalist.
But don’t just take my word for it.
There is Clark Davey, the down-toearth career journalist, now publisher of The Vancouver Sun. “We have a credibility gap with the consumer. The root of the problem is that the public sees the world in a way the papers don’t reflect.”
What is there left for us in the press if we have lost the public trust? It is not that we don’t know it. Every day — sometimes several times a day — we stare truth in the eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. Actually, the situation is worse than that. It is like being told you have cancer and refusing the treatment because you don’t believe it. Slowly it just keeps eating away until soon it has destroyed you. Then it is too late.
Two questions arise. The first is—why does the problem exist? The second—what are the publishers doing about it? Let me first deal with the reasons why. There are few, if any, incentives to becoming a good reporter or staying in the business. The profits of the chains continue to grow. The papers keep getting bigger and heavier. The work becomes less challenging. The salaries paid reporters and editors are a national disgrace. Thomson Newspapers pays a young reporter with a degree in journalism and some experience $160 a week to start. A veteran with 10 years on the job might make $300 a week. In Toronto, the top rate for a reporter with five years’ experience under a union agreement is $450 a week. Is it any wonder that many good reporters and editors leave to work in television, government or private industry? Not only is the pay significantly better but so are the hours. And the challenge is often greater.
‘Newspaper readers don’t trust us’
There are other equally important factors that have a lot to do with a lack of professionalism. Ethics, like standards, are either ignored or twisted to suit the circumstances. Most on-the-job training is done not by design but by trial and error and usually at the peril of those involved in the story. The fact is publishers spend more money on gimmicks to boost circulation than they do on improving the standards and qualifications of their own reporters and editors. Many papers don’t maintain libraries sufficient for a reporter to do even the most basic research. I have worked on six daily newspapers in 17 years. Only The Spectator in Hamilton invested anything in my training. Twice I was sent on courses—one was a two-week seminar on investigative reporting at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Yes, I will always be grateful. I was extremely fortunate. Very few reporters in Canada get a break like that.
Could it be that another reason people don’t trust us is our double standard of public conduct? Canadians read not long ago how Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed accepted a number of free personal trips on Air Canada and CP Air. Yet some journalists think nothing of accepting $2,000 in cash from American Express through the Travel Industry Association of Canada for having written stories in their papers that promote the travel industry. The definitions of editorial excellence and journalistic integrity vary from newsroom to newsroom and reporter to reporter.
What are the publishers doing? For the most part they ignore it. They always have. But now they are too busy shaping the journalism of the 1980s— changing the very role and function of the daily newspaper as most Canadians have come to know it. Newspapers have become gigantic, inoffensive, booster-laden shopping guides. Stuffed between the ads are puff pieces about fash' ions, specially written recipes, and real estate stories that describe the Leonardo da Vinci-style homes that sell at prices most Canadians will never be able to afford. Our role is not to upset you any more—instead we must seduce you into a world of fantasy.
The market research department of the Sunday Star in Toronto asked its readers not long ago to “Tell us what you think about your new Star.” It didn’t ask readers if they wanted more in-depth or analytical stories. They asked this question under the heading “News Section” (are you ready?): “On the back page of the front section there is a color poster of the rock group Supertramp. It is part of a series of posters that will be published. Would you or anyone in your home collect these posters?” That question was asked in the Sunday edition of the largest circulation daily newspaper in Canada. No wonder the public finds us neither creditable nor trustworthy.
Gerry McAuliffe is a free lance journalist who specializes in investigative reporting.
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