There’s an old saying in journalism that a good story always starts with a good question.
It’s an adage journalists across Canada and, indeed, around the world embrace when they go to work every day. Some simple but timeless questions, such as “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how,” act as reference points for reporters to scrutinize public records, query datasets, and interview public officials and others in positions of power.
Journalists ask these questions because democracy demands accountability. It is part of the journalist’s ethos to seek and report the truth, bear witness, and explain complex events so society can make informed choices.
But without a common foundation of facts and shared understandings, order slowly begins to disintegrate. In its place, rampant falsehoods and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire with the expressed aim to undermine trust in our institutions — which includes journalism.
The product of this troubling reality was nakedly on display last month when a mob of violent insurgents, some with weapons but all emboldened with poisoned minds, unspeakably overtook the U.S. Capitol — whilst threatening to shoot reporters, inscribing chilling phrases like “murder the media” on a door, and tying ordinary camera cords into nooses.
These infamous images will not easily fade into memory. Nor should they. Instead, they should serve as sobering reminders about how democracy is an ever fragile project and that a free press is not something that can ever be considered guaranteed.
In recent weeks, many observers have rightly laid plenty of blame at the feet of social media companies for incubating hyper-partisan online environments that have aided and abetted civil discourse’s decline into the depths of delusion.
At the same time, however, if we are truly being honest with ourselves, the events we witnessed on Capitol Hill last month should also provoke important questions about how some of journalism’s long-standing shortcomings helped play a role in the carnage we witnessed.
Take the well-circulated Twitter threat from Adam Davidson, a staff writer at the New Yorker, for example. In a series of pithy tweets, he denounced journalistic culture’s presumption that legitimate arguments exist on “both sides.” Falling into that trap, he says, played an important role in normalizing Donald Trump and his followers, while also legitimizing their lies.
There is a growing concern among journalists about whether the historical standard of “fair and balanced” can continue to prevail over simple “right and wrong,” writes @caj president @Brent_T_Jolly. #cdnpoli #cdnmedia #DiversifyYourSources
Another question that has been raised is the issue of industry diversity, or lack thereof, and whether newsrooms are adequately equipped with the proper resources, life experiences, and nuanced cultural understandings needed to tell stories from communities that have traditionally fallen outside of the media’s gaze.
“I’ll just say I think (a) big lesson of the Trump presidency has to be diversity isn’t something you do because you think it’s going to make you feel better and you think it’s going to be a nice thing to put in a glossy pamphlet in HR,” said Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, on a recent episode of WNYC’s On the Media.
“Diversity is necessary to telling stories that are accurate and that are fair.”
In the weeks since the Capitol Hill insurrection, I’ve had many engaging conversations with colleagues about how some of these faults and blind spots have manifested themselves in Canada. Two examples that readily come to mind include the 2019 Quebec mosque shooting and the rise of hate-filled far-right movements across the country.
But what has become abundantly clear from these discussions, too, is there is a growing concern among journalists about whether the historical standard of “fair and balanced” can continue to prevail over simple “right and wrong.”
Certainly, journalism cannot go back and rewrite chapters of our collective story that have long since passed. But what we can do as journalists is work together to hold uncomfortable — and necessary — conversations about how we can respond to the many threats that serve to undermine the credibility of our craft.
Two discussion points at the top of that agenda must include identifying new ways to push back against the sweeping groundswells of online misinformation and disinformation, and reconciling traditional notions of journalistic objectivity with calls to better serve democracy.
And so, the critical question that rests before us must be: Where do we go from here?
Ultimately, how we choose to respond in the days and weeks ahead will be critical in deciding how we hope to see journalism’s story unfold in the years to come.
If we can learn from past mistakes, I remain optimistic we can find a way to ensure the future of journalism can be more equitable, accurate, fair, and constructive. Indeed, by working together, I believe we can ensure that the truth will always win.
Brent Jolly is the national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.