Opinion » Editorial

Media literacy in the Trump era



Last week, hundreds of newspapers across the United States—along with the Toronto Star—published an editorial to defend media freedom.

The Boston Globe's editorial and opinion department led the initiative—under the headline "Journalists are not the enemy"—in an attempt to shed some light on the role of the free press in a democracy.

Since his inauguration at the beginning of 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump has made a concerted effort to discredit the media—largely because many journalists were doing a really good job of exposing his blatant lies and misdeeds. Rather than having to answer to news stories that painted him in a negative light, he simply began to hurl the phrase "fake news," at established, trustworthy publications as a way to dismiss their reporting.

It's incredibly troubling—whether you work in media or not—because it's working. According to an Ipsos poll released this month and published in the editorial, 48 per cent of Republicans believe "the news media is the enemy of the American people." Around 12 per cent of Democrats and 26 per cent of independents also believe that statement.

It's a line that Trump himself has touted—that the media is the enemy of the people—again, in his efforts to control the message being released by his administration.

"But that's America's problem," you might say.

Except, it's not. Ontario's newly elected provincial government under Doug Ford is already showing signs of using Trump's tactics to dismiss journalists who are trying to hold them accountable.

Not only has an Ontario minister recently used the term "fake news" in response to a news story on a broken election promise, but even more chillingly, earlier this month the premier recruited staffers to applaud during a question-and-answer period with reporters in order to drown out their questions.

But let's get more local than that. In Whistler, Pique has been lucky—or, dare I say, worked hard to earn locals' trust over the last 25 years. The vast majority of comments our stories elicit are about the content of the stories we report on, not the reporting itself.

That's not to say that constructive criticism isn't welcome, but what's not encouraged is empty rhetoric—which also happens from time to time.

The biggest issue we face as media in Whistler is a lack of media literacy. (This isn't unique to our town. Rather, it seems to be unique to the current generation.) What that means, for example, is many people don't know the difference between a column—which is an opinion piece representing the views of the columnist only—and a news story—which endeavours to show both sides of an issue in a balanced manner.

In all honesty, it can be confusing. This space, for example, is billed as an editorial, but editorials traditionally don't have a byline (meaning the name of the author). Rather, they usually serve as the opinion of the paper, as decided by an editorial board. Pique, however, takes a different approach using this space for the editor (side note: I am only filling in for our regular editor) to reflect on an issue in the community.

Another aspect of this job that often seems unclear to people is how, exactly, reporters go about writing stories. While there is great debate in journalism school about how best to achieve objectivity—and if that is indeed completely possible—reporters at Pique certainly do their best to represent both sides' perspectives fairly and accurately.

At the same time, stories depend on things like the amount of information we're given access to or can turn up, who will do interviews on the record, who returns phone calls by deadline.

But the biggest misconception about how reporters—at least in this newsroom and the other newsrooms I've worked in—operate is we truly view ourselves as serving the readers, and no one else.

Sure, we like to see our newspapers thrive, but the editorial department and the advertising department are completely separate entities. Purchasing an ad does not buy you editorial coverage, for example.

While we work in a for-profit industry, that industry is designed to ensure reporters are able to think about how to best serve their communities, not the bottom line.

Journalists are facing a lot of new challenges in the current climate—not the least of which is helping readers navigate the way our work is meant to be consumed. All of us—in Canada and the U.S.—must do a better job of ushering our respective communities into this new era.