I’m not sure which was harder to watch last semester: the Globe and Mail vilifying six average undergraduates for nothing worse than trying to teach first years about diversity, or the number of students who bought the hyperbole. It’s still a mystery to me why we’re so willing to accept an image of our Alma Mater as a democracy-hating master of puppets, but I did learn one thing from the experience: even the national media is looking for a flashy front page. Gone are the days when good reporting was the mark of a good newspaper. Sensationalism is now the only way the corporate media can keep readers’ attention away from the Internet.
Campus media learned a lesson too. Much of the Globe and Mail’s information was gleaned from a terse editorial the Journal wrote on the Intergroup Dialogue Facilitation scheme a week earlier, after the Gazette originally reported the new program a week before that. We could debate whether the Journal or the Gazette share any responsibility in the torrent of angry dialogue that followed, but the fact is, had the Journal not editorialized on the IFs, the Globe and Mail likely wouldn’t have followed suit.
This is not to say the Journal shouldn’t have written an editorial on the subject, or that there’s any subject that should be taboo for its writers or for any media publication. But what this incident demonstrated—and others this semester, including the Mantle scandal and the CUSA cystic
fibrosis-only-happens-to-white-men mess at Carleton—was that even campus media services cannot afford to be naïve. To leave the slightest room for misinterpretation is to open the floodgates of sensationalism. Any ambiguity left by a university journalist is fodder for the seasoned professional searching for a cover story or the radical without a cause itching for a riot. It isn’t fair but that’s reality.
Once upon a time, reporters believed that it was enough to strive to publish facts with as little bias as possible, and that printing a newspaper was a purely informative (read: innocent) act. Contemporary society understands that this was never actually the case. While a media service can strive to be as objective as possible in their writing, a decision concerning what to report and what not to report—be it a whole story or a small detail—can have disproportionate political consequences, regardless of the decision-maker’s motivation. Information is power. In the new democracy, newspapers can be more powerful than governments. Just consider that the most significant evidence that compelled the US into Iraq came from a mistaken article in the New York Times about Saddam’s WMD.
True, most media services don’t have any tangible accountability—they hire and fire reporters and editors at will and they answer to no one but their investors. But the Lockean concept of an egoist paradise, where everyone serves the common good by working for his or her own individual benefit, is long dead. We need to start thinking about the kind of social responsibility Mohammed Yunus has been talking about. While media services aren’t accountable the way an elected government is, they can and do have an ethical responsibility to the people they serve. That’s what reporters should be thinking about when they write, instead of the recognition they’ll get for having a story on the front page.
Is it paternalistic to argue that the media should consider the control it has over the people? I’m not saying that the media has asked for this power, or that they should use it to manipulate a democracy through public opinion. But every well-intentioned journalist has to realize that, regardless of her intentions, and regardless of whether the people he reaches should read more critically, what gets published has political ramifications. Maybe the journalist isn’t responsible for the way others act on her writing—the way Nietzsche wasn’t responsible for Hitler—but as I see it, an article isn’t worth putting in print if its adverse repercussions outweigh the importance of its message, and it’s just negligent to ignore what written words can accidentally accomplish.
It’s not just about the reporter who puts the words on the page, either. We give media its power, and we seem to have forgotten that we can take it away just as easily. Media sources do abuse their influence; they sensationalize to get attention; and sometimes they even make honest-to-God mistakes. Your responsibility to read critically may have gotten lost in the torrent of information that’s pelted at you daily, but it still exists. If you find an ambiguity in an article you read, it might be better to admit you don’t know what really happened than to make assumptions that might be false. And if you think something written on the front page of the Journal or the Globe and Mail smells like bullshit, trust your instincts. They may know what they’re doing, but that doesn’t make their authority divine.
Jeff Fraser is editor-in-chief of Diatribe Magazine
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