Requiem for investigative reporting in Canada?

jarvis-writer copyLayoffs and the threat of layoffs among Canadian journalists may be compromising investigative reporting in this country.

That was suggested by Sean Holman, assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary and a former syndicated columnist and legislative reporter for 24 hours Vancouver and the Vancouver Sun.

Holman’s take on this issue in his blog “Unknowable Country” was prompted by the recent news that Postmedia (which publishes the National Post, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen and others) laid off five parliamentary bureau staff. In an internal memo, Postmedia said  manager Christina Spencer and the remaining four staff members would be joining  the Citizen to create a “strong political desk based out of the Citizen,” according to J-Source.

That move “will inevitably compromise the newspaper chain’s ability to produce investigative public affairs reporting,” Holman said.

“There will be fewer hands to file access to information requests, fewer eyes to read public records and fewer minds to think of questions that aren’t being asked.”

But Holman went on to suggest that such layoffs may make working journalists unwilling to do investigative work “without fear or favour.”

“In my experience, it’s not uncommon for reporters to end up working for or trying to influence the officials and institutions they once covered,” he said. “For example, journalists on the politics beat have been known to eventually become government staffers and lobbyists.

“So it’s reasonable to assume that, given the instability of the news industry, some journalists may increasingly come to see the subjects of their stories as potential employers. In doing so, those same journalists may come to wonder how their coverage will affect their chances of being hired if they are downsized” — a fear that may prove to be warranted.

I know of laid-off or bought-out medical journalists who have gone to “the dark side” — working for pharmaceutical companies, PR agencies whose clients are big pharma, as well as hospitals, medical associations and other institutions that have narrower interests than most news media.

“Given the instability of the news industry, some journalists may increasingly come to see the subjects of their stories as potential employers.” — Sean Holman

Journalists working under the constant threat of unemployment may think more about their chances of future work than about their present jobs, Holman said, affecting reporters’ “willingness to investigate the powerful, rather than just repeating what the powerful have to say.”

Holman cites a blog post by Don Martin, host of CTV News Channel’s daily  political program “Power Play,” which says the Postmedia move is a big win for the Harper government.

Fewer reporters and fewer media outlets translate into a “greater chance of bad news staying under wraps,” Martin wrote.

“The obligatory coverage of Parliament stretches reporter resources beyond the industry’s ability to dig deeper than the press release or scripted news conference. In a drought of warm reporting bodies, investigative journalism becomes a luxury, not a necessity. Add it up and that means victory for a government which has cocooned itself with communications staff programmed to deny, obfuscate or simply not respond to media requests.”

And micromanagement of information by this federal administration (and other governments) doesn’t occur in just the realms of international relations, federal-provincial issues, tax policy, etc. It’s also evident in  health, with journalists’ requests for interviews or other information refused and sometimes ignored. It’s been suggested to me that picking and choosing which reporters to favour is not not simply decided by departmental honchos who know which side their bread is buttered on, but comes straight from the PMO.~TM

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