The news of Martin Baron’s retirement this week brought a major problem for journalism into greater focus.
Mr. Baron, the exceptional executive editor of The Washington Post, in speaking with The New York Times about his decision, said the biggest challenge to journalism today was the “level of conspiracy thinking that has become entrenched with a substantial portion of the American public.”
That’s also true, though to a much lesser degree, here. During the past month, with sustained lies from U.S. officials about who won the presidential election culminating in the violent attack on Congress, I have seen a rise in complaints from those who don’t believe the results.
While I think the vast, vast majority of Globe and Mail readers and Canadians believe the election was fair, there were a few who complained to me about fake news, a stolen election, etc., and wanted to argue at length that there was evidence of massive electoral fraud, when it was proven there was none.
So how, as Mr. Baron said, do you have a conversation without agreement on a common set of facts?
While we may not have the same divisive politics or partisan media here, we are influenced by the same problems that come from a lack of control over social media.
Earlier this week, in Canada, a report called for giant social-media companies such as Facebook to have content moderation practices and act responsibly. The federally funded report by the Public Policy Forum’s Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression noted that these platforms are causing democratic harm and are highlighting sensational and extreme views. It argued for greater legal controls and actions “to ensure their services do not cause harm to individuals and groups.”
In an opinion piece for the Ottawa Citizen, Edward Greenspon, president and chief executive of the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum, wrote about the “dark side to the Internet. Governments the world over have been tentative as hate and disinformation seep into our body politic. … Democratization being used against democracy represents one of the central paradoxes of our times. The Internet has become a propagandist’s dream, loosening the grip on reality of tens of millions of people at a time, as we saw in the aftermath of the Nov. 2 U.S. presidential election.”
While attention must turn to social media, mainstream media must also learn from and react to this growing distrust and the lack of agreed upon facts. Top of the list is to be fair, accurate and responsible and show readers how journalists do their work.
Beyond that, media should get outside its bubble and show more emerging views and reasonable opinions.
On the U.S. election, perhaps the best thing to silence the conspiracy noise is to change the channel and move on with coverage of the Biden administration, and more importantly, put more attention on major Canadian issues. I heard from several readers early this month who described Trump news fatigue and asked for fewer stories on the U.S. impeachment battle and more Canadian news, including some uplifting stories.
Of course when major news happens in the United States, it is important for Canadians to know what is happening to our closest neighbour and why, and as you have seen, Globe coverage has moved to much more Canadian news.
In terms of giving readers a voice, I’ve written about The Globe website’s reader comments – and The Globe’s position that they should be a place where strong opinions can be debated but personal insults and attacks not allowed.
The Globe’s community guidelines have been updated at this link. Along with more explicit guidelines comes some positive and negative enforcement: The Globe will more frequently feature top comments that exemplify the productive and civil discourse readers expect from others in The Globe community. And those who don’t follow the guidelines will be put in a temporary penalty box or banned entirely.
In response to the few readers who hold onto their “alternative facts” about the U.S. election results, I have shared actual facts about the vote counts and the courts’ response but to little or no avail. It is always worth trying for a civil debate, but it is more important to keep reinforcing the facts.