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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Clara Hughes, National spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk Day. (Bell)
Clara Hughes, National spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk Day. (Bell)

Public editor: Why covering good news is so challenging Add to ...

One question I’m often asked by readers is why is the news so negative? Murder and mayhem, political battles, the housing market. Of course, much news by its nature is negative; what went wrong, what is causing debate in society, what stands out. Planes landing safely is not news.

But there is much more to news, and that is what these readers want. They aren’t just interested in IKEA monkey-type reports, but in consequential stories about good work being done by individuals, community groups and companies. And Canadians are themselves very committed to good works. According to Imagine Canada, formerly the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, we are among the world’s more active volunteers – 46 per cent of adults take part.

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The Globe and Mail covers these positive stories and has been rightly commended for its coverage of mental-health issues. But The Globe fell down dramatically last week with a story about Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk initiative. The campaign raised millions for mental-health services when Bell donated five cents for every tweet or message mentioning the campaign. (Bell’s parent, BCE, owns 15 per cent of The Globe.)

The article about the campaign included a very cynical headline: Bell’s Let’s Talk Campaign Cashes In. And the story said that behind the institutions that benefited from the millions raised, Bell’s marketing machine was a winner. The article also referred to critics on Twitter and quoted one who described the campaign as a “cheap ploy.” The tweeter in question describes himself as a “man of deep thoughts of nonsense and malarkey.” So why would he be quoted? The fact that there are some cynical voices on Twitter isn’t a surprise.

Readers were quick to react, and The Globe did the right thing by printing several of their responses. An error is corrected on Page 2. But errors of tone or perceived bias must be dealt with in other ways, such as follow-up articles, letters to the editor or outside voices. All these methods were used for balance.

One letter from David Goldbloom and Louise Bradley of the Mental Health Commission of Canada castigated the story and said the cynicism “obscures and undermines an unprecedented commitment by a major corporation to do something substantive to improve the lives of Canadians affected by mental illness.”

Former federal finance minister Michael Wilson, a well-known mental-health advocate, was asked to write a response. In it, he described himself as “shocked by the tone. … The article distorts Bell’s motivation.”

There was also a follow-up discussion with Bell’s Mary Deacon on why the company has chosen to support mental health.

Derek DeCloet, Report on Business editor, said the original article’s tone was wrong because there wasn’t a clear understanding of what the story was about, as well as the headline and Twitter reference. “There is nothing wrong with a company which is doing something good for the community, something philanthropic, to also see a positive marketing message from it.”

And in the same vein, when an individual or a company is doing good work, journalists should not fall into a pattern that every story needs an opposition voice to balance it out. If it feels like a stretch to find someone critical, it probably is not necessary.

Sometimes there is little or no conflict in these stories, and good work by individuals or companies should stand on its own.

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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