From the Desk of Regan Ray
Associate Editor
The Canadian Journalism Project

News? Not in our back yard ...

By Don Sellar

Don Sellar is a retired journalist whose career as a reporter and editor included 11 years as ombud at The Toronto Star. He lives in Port Hope, Ont.

Former Report on Business editor John Stackhouse replaces Edward Greenspon as <i>Globe and Mail</i>'s editor-in-chief.
Former Report on Business editor John Stackhouse replaces Edward Greenspon as Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief.

It's a fact. Bedrock journalistic principles and news judgment can quickly fall by the wayside when media outlets or their corporate interests are in the news, especially in an unflattering way.

Faced with the spectre of embarrassing their own nameplate, editors sometimes lose their customary zeal for tracking down a good story that just happened to break in their own building.

Ah, but who could blame an editor for cowardice if his or her job is on the line in such an awkward situation? Good mainstream media jobs are quite hard to find these days.

For sure, it takes guts to bite the hand that feeds.

So when circulation is in the dumps, financial losses have reached alarming proportions, and the publisher or other senior officials are set free to pursue other interests, hard-hitting or insightful news stories are rare.

In such circumstances, go along and get along becomes the rule of the day. Certainly, such adverse events do not inspire the same kind of hardnosed story the newspaper or TV network would run about a failing automaker or fallen celebrity.

And yes, folks, such a double standard in news coverage doesn't escape the attention of acute readers and viewers, not to mention advertisers and, of course, newsmakers who are usually forced to play the game under more stringent rules.

When an editor-in-chief is replaced within a day of unveiling a remake of his newspaper's new online edition (Edward Greenspon, Globe and Mail), and is nowhere to be heard from in the paper's news coverage of the event, what are readers to think? To me the absence of a quote or no-comment from Greenspon in the Globe's story was evidence of a story deliberately not told.

Such juvenile subterfuge is all so transparent, and the message clear. We control what we print about ourselves. Let some other media outlet dig up the real story. Our unflinching eyes are trained on the woes and shortcomings of others, not ourselves.

But this is not a kiss-and-tell piece about awful inside-the-walls things I saw in 40 years of newspaper journalism.

It's simply a cry for editors (and their corporate bosses) to do a better job covering themselves. If the news about your journalistic enterprise is bad – rotten circulation, a bad quarter – tell it straight. You'll earn respect for doing so.

So please, when the rival paper in town has won six National Newspaper Awards this year while your gang picked up only four, maybe your news story ought to mention the fact. Translation: The Toronto Star's news story on the NNAs was less than gracious about the Globe's supremacy this year at the annual awards gala.

In general, don't treat your own media outlet differently from the way you cover other institutions: large corporations, government, the police, crooked charities, incompetent doctors, bad teachers and so on.

Such even-handedness, however, won't come easy, given the competitive spirit that is supposed to drive the best journalism. It takes a courageous editor to assign a fearless reporter to tell the real story, the boardroom be damned.

Once, as ombud at the Star, I remember writing a brief column item that simply recorded the headlines the city's four daily English-language papers used to describe the latest circulation figures during a hot newspaper war.

All the headlines could be defended as more or less accurate. And they were vigorously defended, to be sure. But each told the circulation story in a self-serving, misleading way. I ran them in my column, side by side, without comment, simply to illustrate how easy it is to slant a news story.

The column item drew little response. Except for one reader, a senior executive at Torstar Corporation, the company that owns the Star, who phoned to ask, "What was the purpose of the item?"

In my view, anyone who would deliberately ask such a question doesn't deserve to collect a fat media paycheque .

That gentleman's inappropriate phone call reminded me of a real newspaper executive in another era, the 1960s, when I was just beginning an unspectacular career as a newspaper hack.

The man's name was Basil Dean. He was publisher of the Edmonton Journal. I was a staffer at The Gateway, the student newspaper at the University of Alberta.

I will never forget plowing through the Journal that day. Buried on an inside page was an odd little news story about a misdemeanor that wouldn't have been included on an urban police blotter.

"Publisher Fined $10 for Speeding," the headline said. The publisher, I later learned, sat down at a typewriter in the newsroom that morning and wrote the story himself. He asked an editor to run it.

In today's world of newspapering, such a display of ethics would likely be ridiculed. But not by me.

[Disclosure: In the interests of journalistic transparency, J-Source notes that Ideas editor, Janice Neil, and Ed Greenspon, a subject in Don Sellar's column, were married for many years.]

9 June 2009 — Return to cover.
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