Ottawa view: Journalism could benefit from a ‘quality control’ function

This column, serving as Strategy's window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.Several months ago a thundering headline on the front page of The Globe and Mail's Report on Business section suggested $30 million was...

This column, serving as Strategy’s window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.

Several months ago a thundering headline on the front page of The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business section suggested $30 million was somehow unaccounted for in the coffers of a well-known Toronto advertising agency.

Wrong-doing was clearly implied.

After several short paragraphs, however, it became clear that the headline was misleading.

The $30-million discrepancy was easily explained: new management, for whatever reason, had chosen to emphasize lower ‘billings’ figures (money which simply flows through the books on its way to the media) than had been previously used as a means of expressing the agency’s size.

This kind of ‘inflation’ is common practice among those in the business who wish to add heft to their images.

The Globe’s non-story sullied not only individual reputations, but also the good (okay, fragile) name of advertising.

Which raises the question, what differentiates journalism from advertising?

For one thing, accountability. Advertisers have no hidden agenda. Their objective is to sell.

Sure, any and all manipulative tools will be used to get you to buy, but consumers do at least have their guard up. Advertising is accountable to the bottom line. If it’s a ‘non-story,’ no product moves. The advertiser suffers.

No so in the ‘news’ (as opposed to the clearly identified editorial comment) business.

As George Bain, in his entertaining polemic Gotcha! How the Media Distort the News, puts it:

‘Information, the stuff journalism trades in, is an essential consumer product, but with the rare distinction of having to meet no standard of freshness, wholesomeness, purity or absence of toxicity, either before it goes to market or while it remains there.

‘No licence is needed to produce it and no prior examination of the product is performed. No back label is demanded on which the natural ingredients are listed with all additives that may have been introduced during the process.’

Market journalism answers to no professional code of ethics. Press councils and in-house ombudsmen are paper tigers. The media are bound only by their own consciences and libel laws.

In fact, journalists are the only consumer goods sellers who get specific protection from regulations in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While not held in reverence, journalists do enjoy a largely undeserved reputation as objective defenders of the public interest.

Introduction of the Charter, according to Bain, served only to elevate them from self-appointed watchdogs, to constitutionally sanctioned watchdogs.

The meaning of ‘freedom of the press’ has, in the process, been hijacked. It now constitutes a unique perquisite, as opposed to a public guarantee of free-flowing information.

With this perquisite comes responsibility. Theoretically, media management must perform a ‘quality control’ function to ensure that the consumer is not sold rotten goods, tainted by dishonesty, unacknowledged bias, inaccuracy, neglected facts and the like.

The problem, according to Bain, is that management, anxious not to thwart the journalists’ freedom of expression (and ever conscious of increasing audience), neglects its responsibilities.

Eric Malling’s handling of the ‘Tuna-gate’ affair is held up as a particularly egregious example.

In sum, Bain paints the news business as quite an ordinary one – much less disciplined than accountancy, somewhat more creative than selling ‘natty gents’ furnishings’ – and badly in need of deromanticizing, demystifying and deglamorizing.

Most viewers, listeners and readers, when exposed to advertising, react with a healthy scepticism. Ironically, the product which surrounds the ads gets little or none of the same scrutiny.

The Budget…Please

For months, unhappy rumors about the federal budget have, like gallows shadows, covered Ottawa’s landscape.

Despite Feb. 27′s unhappy news, it does, thankfully, lift a cloud of uncertainty. How will spending cuts affect Ottawa communicators? There is no consensus.

On the one hand, programs will disappear and with them promotion dollars.

On the other, thousands (10-20) depending on who you listen to) of ‘permanent’ national capital jobs will be lost.

This could mean many more opportunities for contractors. On balance, my guess is that business will not suffer.

Nigel Beale is president of Nigel Beale and Associates, a communications firm, and operates the Ottawa offices of News Canada, a news distribution service. Reader feedback is encouraged and Beale can be contacted at (613) 241-9900 (phone); (613) 241-9477 (fax.)