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Another lesson about trust and the role of the media

This week's Market Squared looks at how the refusal to answer questions following a terrible incident in Texas has important lessons in the role of the media for Guelph
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There were a lot of questions coming out of Texas after some rather horrific current events there. For the last week, media have tried to get more details about the events of the day; old information was withdrawn as incorrect, new information was offered and then some of those new details were also withdrawn.

How the narrative has changed, and the refusal to answer specific questions about that narrative, has been disappointing, disturbing, and unfortunately, not at all surprising. But the state of unaccountability in Texas didn’t just happen overnight. One doesn’t get into the business of public service with the intention of taking the “public” out of it.

In many places, on both sides of the border, the refusal of people in authority to be responsive to reporters and their questions is the result of the collapse of power in local media, and the decades-long effort to undermine trust in the media generally. It’s something we’ve witnessed here in Guelph.

We saw recently in the case of a disgraced coach at the University of Guelph, and the arrest of a sitting Member of Parliament in Guelph, two instances where Guelph stories of national importance were broken by national media outlets. When those outlets tried to follow up, these institutions gave very terse no comments, or directly told us to stop asking.

National correspondents for the Globe and Mail or Global don’t have to live here. We do.

Then there’s the trend this past provincial election of candidates, particularly the candidates of one political party, refusing to give media interviews or appear at local debates. For many political operators, the best way to avoid gaffs or having your candidate defend unpopular policy is to have them avoid talking at all, and sadly, it seemed to work!

(Post-election note: One wonders how this election strategy will translate in the next session of the legislature. Is Premier Doug Ford now emboldened to not take questions and block press access as he sees fit? Will his MPPs continue to be unreachable by even local media outlets? Stay tuned…)

But this not just a provincial, or political party phenomenon. There are exactly three members of city council who have never accepted an invitation to appear on the topical community radio show I co-host on CFRU called Open Sources Guelph. As an obsessive completionist, I can’t express the frustration felt these last four years only ever getting 10 out of 13.

Of course, you don’t really need to engage in old-fashioned ideas about access journalism with the existence of the internet. Mayor Cam Guthrie, even though he’s been a frequent guest on OSG, has been very good at creating his own media ecosystem, posting council meeting updates on social media, and interviews with community leaders on YouTube. Even the City of Guelph itself has a podcast.

Now none of this is to say these things are wrong, the mayor and the city administration are perfectly allowed to engage and use the same tools of free expression we all have access to, but I wonder how many people out there conflate Guthrie’s Facebook Live recaps of a council meeting with a news story about what happened at a council meeting. That these things are treated the same way.

That may not matter when leadership at city hall seems competent and genuine, but what happens on the day when something happens that exposes gross institutional negligence? Who will you trust one day when some random FOI search reveals a damning piece of information about the City’s ignorance and how it cost money, or, worse still, lives?

The absolute worst piece of corporate speak is the phrase “our media partners” because we’re only partners when city hall, the university administration, the police, and other institutions need something. When media exercises its accountability role, we’re suddenly not partners any more, we’re a mosquito buzzing around looking for a place to land in order suck out precious blood.

But it’s not institutions that give the media power, it’s the people. I’m not saying you have to trust the media implicitly either, but at the end of the day it’s our job to be on the lookout for corruption and deceit. We also openly embrace that as a community effort, and we need your help to do the job right.

In Guelph, there are more people working in the communications department of city hall than all the working reporters in this city combined. Again, that’s not wrong, but it is a sign of how outgunned we are when the day comes when you need desperate answers about a matter of importance, and city hall isn’t as transparent as it once was.

No one wants to think that our “institutional partners” are obfuscating with a specific intent to deceive, but we don’t live in a world where a politician can say, “Take my word for it.” We can’t. that’s the point.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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