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Public editor: How government tries to define the news agenda

Ontario's Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty holds a press conference in the Ontario Legislature on Monday October 15, 2012, after resigning.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

If you haven't read this great behind the scenes look at a government trying to control the media, I encourage you to do so. Written by investigative reporter and former Queen's Park correspondent Karen Howlett, it lifts a veil on how governing parties try to throw up roadblocks to keep reporters away from negative coverage.

And in this great multimedia look by editor Stuart Thompson at the more than 1,300 emails from Ontario Liberal staffers concerning the closing of two power plants, you can see in the narrative section the efforts made to divert attention.

In this case, the then Premier Dalton McGuinty's office tried to deflect with a good news story on banning tanning beds by people under the age of 18. They also tried very hard to keep ministers on their "key messages" and not be drawn into conversations with journalists. And another effort was to "leak" details suggesting Mr. McGuinty might run for the federal Liberal leadership – a false story.

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This practice isn't exclusive to Mr. McGuinty's office, it is tried by governments everywhere. Major statements are often delayed to late Friday afternoons to avoid the week of questions. The leader might not be available to answer any questions, they may head out of town away from the regular political reporters or they might go to a friendly source for the interview.

As Ms. Howlett writes although most papers including The Globe and Mail carried the tanning beds story, that diversion didn't last. Reporters from many organizations went right back to pushing hard about the high cost of scrapping the gas plants.

The Globe's Editor of News and Sports Sinclair Stewart notes; "Governments have always sought to define the news agenda, and often this means concerted efforts to deflect attention away from unflattering coverage. Although the Globe did cover the tanning bed story, it did not deter Karen from continuing to push for answers on the critical issue of the gas plants file."

If you want to write to me about this or any other issue of The Globe and Mail's journalism, please email me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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