Taunting, abuse, death threats: We need to speak out in defence of journalists

Article originally published in TVO Today

OPINION: The media’s relationship with the public has hit a new low. Journalists alone likely can’t fix it.

Working in journalism involves a delicate trade-off. The privilege of a front-row seat at historic events must be weighed against your work being exposed to the public. You get the thrill of reporting live during a march and landing a question that leaves a politician scrambling, but there are risks to making your inquiries public. 

Many embrace the idea of a free press until they become its subjects. Then they can feel guilty, exposed, confused by the attention — or contemptuous of the profession itself. At their worst, public responses can take the form of hate mail, attempts at public humiliation, libel threats, and more, in a tradition that goes back centuries: some legislative reporting began 100 years before Confederation.

But over the past few years, the trade-off has shifted — and mostly in one direction. Partisanship has intensified, social media has sullied political discourse, and the pandemic has deepened existing ideological fault lines while creating new ones. The spectators aren’t just yelling; increasingly, they’re coming onto the field. As grim as it may sound, it feels as if the relationship between the press and public has never been worse. But journalists alone can’t fix it.

Ipsos and Edelman both report consistent declines in public trust in journalism in Canada; the 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report pegs trust in news overall in the country at only 45 per cent, a notable 10-point drop since 2016. And the landscape has shifted tremendously in recent years: Industry job losses have led to fewer local outlets and beat reporters. Social media breeds toxic influences. Social issues have become increasingly politicized. 

I’ve been through enough scrums, rallies, crime scenes, and protests to hear the retort: What about the media itself? What about its coverage — to what extent has it contributed to the level of distrust and aggression that exists today? I can genuinely say that I don’t know the full answer to that question, though it’s necessary to find out. Media should be quick to note the above research shows a direct link between how people’s views of their politics are covered and trust overall. It can be difficult to commit to self-reflection, though, when the externalities are what they are: industry insecurity, the rising cost of living, increasing mental-health stress, the public visibility of the work, and growing hostility. But newsroom post-mortems of events small and large are essential: How was a hot-button issue covered, how did columnists and pundits contribute on social media, and how did news directors shape coverage?

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the ultimate lightning rod. For those who despise him, he embodies all the culture-war touchpoints. If the media doesn’t seem to hate him and his government as they do, then it must be complicit — reporting on SNC-Lavalin, the Aga Khan, blackface, military misconduct, Tofinogate and Rideau Hall be damned. 

From a media perspective, the convoy has amalgamated all these components into a developing, real-time case study. Several months ago, another Ipsos survey found many journalists have experienced harassment, personal threats, and increased mental stress, resulting in more contemplating leaving the industry. But this episode has turned the current into a tidal wave. You’ve likely seen social-media posts about and coverage of various incidents involving journalists reporting on the convoy: 

Although Bimman, Cossette, and others said that many interactions with protestors have been completely standard, those who break that pattern seemingly don’t face much criticism from within their own ranks. As McGregor noted, the Poirier incident was happening “to every TV network’s crew.”

I can picture reporters reflecting on all this and thinking to themselves, So when I’m screamed at and accused of not giving the protestors attention — sometimes in the very moment I’m giving it — and speaking to protestors and broadcasting their feelings, I’m actually trying to silence them, while also signal-boosting their message? On January 31, MP Pierre Poilievre said the media was trying to silence protestors, prompting the CBC’s Ellen Mauro to respond, “The media has literally been talking to protesters every day since last week.” 

Regardless of the media’s share of the discourse, I fail to see how a reasonable person could not be troubled by what we’ve seen over the past two weeks or could conclude that journalists in any way deserve this level of ill will, intimidation, interruptions, and threats. As Global’s Ottawa bureau chief Mercedes Stephenson remarked in her own thread: “You are not entitled to contact journalists and threaten physical harm, surveillance, and non-judicial trials. Sexual and gendered slurs aren’t a critique.” 

We’ve arrived at a critical point in the rhetoric, as separatist and populist factions continue to sprout and expand; one Ontario MPP tweeted, “MSM can’t deny the inevitable. When we’ve won, should MSM be dismantled?

As disturbing as this new low is, the prospect of the situation getting worse is very real, and I’m not convinced this has been addressed as forcefully as it could be. Those willing to criticize coverage should be equally willing to denounce abuse against those providing it, especially when it happens in plain sight and real time. We need not just journalists but also reporters from across the spectrum, pundits, and elected officials to speak up.

One of the key findings of the Reuters report was that political divides fuel mistrust. In such a political and partisan climate, the convoy shows how heightened antipathy can go from tweets to the streets. I’ve traditionally been of the “nobody else is going to save you” camp. But we would all benefit if, even for a short period, all those who — for a variety of reasons — critique the media issued full-stop condemnations of journalistic abuse. 

On February 2, Parliament unanimously passed a motion reaffirming “the primordial and essential role of journalists in a democracy and deplore the attempts to intimidate them in recent days as part of their coverage of the events in Ottawa.” If you agree with the old saying that politics is a blood sport, don’t be surprised if journalists express genuine concern that the metaphor will become all too literal. As the Globe and Mail’s Rita Trichur said Monday: “Some people complain about ‘cancel culture,’ but some of us actually worry about being killed.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a protestor had allegedly spat on Alex Boutilier. In fact, the protestor threatened to spit on him. TVO.org regrets the error.

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