In a Time of Crisis, Journalism Needs to Be a Check on Power More Than Ever

Canada is still in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis and unfortunately, on top of begging for masks to wear, it seems that some journalists are also begging for boots to lick.

At a recent press conference, I was disturbed to hear two separate journalists ask the leading question, in almost the exact same way: “Why not invoke federal emergency powers? Why not violate civil liberties in order to enforce social distancing?”

The Prime Minister assured them that every option was on the table and being considered but they wouldn’t be going that far — yet.

To make my personal stance very clear: The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that requires serious response from government, businesses, church groups, community initiatives, individuals, and so on.

However, the messy business of a crisis isn’t deciding that something needs to be done. We’re beyond that. Nobody sane or serious about all of this is saying we should do nothing. And, even if they did, their recommendation is already the losing one. Federal and provincial governments and the private sphere have already catapulted themselves beyond doing nothing.

The Canadian government, for its part, announced billions of dollars of stimulus to try and prop up an economy that will slow down. At the provincial level, states of emergency have been declared and schools are shut down. And most Canadians, for their part, seem to be taking social distancing seriously. Businesses have closed either voluntarily or involuntarily. Everyone who can work from home seems to be doing so.

Yet, the tone of many asking questions at media conferences given by Canadian politicians isn’t one of careful questioning and investigation, it’s one verging on an auto-pilot of panic. And if the journalists themselves aren’t personally in panic mode, that’s the sentiment they’re funneling to politicians. The implicit assumption for many seems to be that whatever is happening is needed, but more of it needs to be done.

Just as many more are binging shows on Netflix now, episode after episode, it seems that many journalists are looking to binge on government measures. Measure after measure, announcement after announcement, stimulus after stimulus, law after law, and so on.

If the government action were to stop, many questions would be asking why — the implicit assumption is more is better.

It’s understandable that many in the public want to hold their political representatives to task during this time of crisis and demand more action of the same.

However, that isn’t the role of journalists during the time of crisis.

What we need now are journalists and media who will, on the one hand, question what’s happening every step of the way: People who can properly filter information to the public free of narrative, panic, and government intent. And, on the other hand, people who are doing this with the implicit assumption that they are dealing with a powerful institution that needs to be held accountable.

Journalism is ideally a liberal institution. It’s supposed to hold authority to account. It’s not supposed to be a bunch of people running around asking questions for their breaking news alerts. In the macro, all of the day-to-day activity should add up to an institutional check on power.

Being in a country in crisis is bad, but it is a privilege to be in a country that is dealing with a crisis along with a relatively free press environment. We really don’t know how good we have it.

Some countries don’t have a free press and access to politicians for questioning and scrutiny at all, let alone during a crisis. They may call it a free press regime, but that’s a farce — the second the government doesn’t like what’s going on, or a crisis starts, they’ll put the clamp down, restricting information and the press when it’s needed most.

Indeed, it’s a privilege to live in a country where, if you want, you can get online, or in public right now (if you stay 6 feet away from others and avoid parks, of course), and start saying whatever you want about the Prime Minister — good or bad.

Journalists, for their part in a crisis, still have the right to question politicians and the right to act as an additional line of defense against, and check on, a government tempted to grossly overreact or overstep its boundaries.

So, the journalist’s job in a time of crisis is multi-faceted.

For one thing, they should be acting as conduits of information.

The public needs a solid pipeline and a steady flow of information, presented in a reasonable tone, to stay informed and make their own decisions on any matter, political or otherwise.

For journalists and the media, now is a time more than any other to remember the serious burden of responsibility that comes with making sharp divisions between op-eds, analysis, and standard articles — not just in content, but in tone, style, and approach. And even then, I cringe at op-eds and analysis that come across as if the author feels they’ve been inscribed on holy stone tablets on a mountainside. I always cringe at headlines or article leads that tell me “THE TOP 4 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW” or “THE MAIN THING YOU SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT.”

For analysis and op-ed, it’s important for journalists and the media to maintain a sense of context and proportion — they are but one voice and opinion among several.

Yes, in many cases they are justified in considering themselves more informed and having more expertise than many in the general public. However, that still does not make any of what they’re saying the official word of God, and none of them should assume so lest they fall under the self-deception of unparalleled uniqueness, importance, and intelligence. The idea is to create as broad a forum of discussion and analysis as possible for the public to sort through, not to show people what’s what and try to make them feel inferior1.

When it comes to standard news articles, please just report the information and I’ll decide for myself how to prioritize its worth and level of concern in my own mind.

However, being a conduit of information isn’t a call to be an empty vessel for quotes from politicians and to take everything at face value. There’s obviously a filtration process and a pushback that needs to happen2.

So, another major tenet of journalism in crisis should be questioning and applying skepticism to all information and claims they get from official sources.

A cornerstone of a journalist’s general approach needs to be a skeptical and adversarial attitude to power and those who hold it —in a crisis, that’s the government more than ever.

Unfortunately, over the years, thanks to the efforts of government PR and communications teams and busybody, bootlicking useful-idiots in the general public, the ideal of the crusading journalist questioning everything has taken a large share of punches. The connotation that now comes with the questioning or challenging journalist, for many, is one of unnecessary meddling and troublemaking or, at the very best, being skeptical to an unreasonable level.

This is an incredibly silly attitude to have about the ideals of journalism. Some specific so-called journalists or news outlets do deserve criticism of that sort, and others have completely ditched any journalistic integrity in favor of straight show business and political cheerleading, but calling those out can be done on a case-by-case basis. On the whole, the ideal of the press as an institution that challenges authority needs to be cherished in a liberal society — especially a highly divided and technological one where most of the population does not have the time or motivation to do that. Even if, in practice, many journalists and outlets aren’t up to the standards of this ideal, that says nothing of the merits of the ideal itself.

Just because we live in a society that isn’t being run by North Korean despots doesn’t mean the government simply knows what’s best or that their decisions shouldn’t be questioned. Unfortunately, some journalists seem to think that questioning just means putting a question mark at the end of their sentence.

So, back to how I started all of this.

Some of the journalists at Justin Trudeau’s press conference have been absolutely disappointing, and shame on them.

Many are not even bothering to frame leading questions with a little more grace, along the lines of something like “Will we see stronger measures in the coming days?” or “What else does the government have in store for the crisis, both economically and for social policy?” Instead, they are reflecting the worst possible sentiment of panic during a time of crisis: Assuming what the government is doing is correct, or at least on the right path, and jumping right to arguing either about the details or asking when more is coming.

Two journalists asked Trudeau: “Why NOT invoke the emergency measures act” to contain people and enforce social distancing? Someone actually directly asked why civil liberties should not be violated at a time like this — assuming the premise. Others went on to ask the Prime Minister, eagerly, when the next measures would be announced for economic aid and stimulus.

I suppose it didn’t occur to these journalists that the questions at this time should be something more along the lines of: “Do you think the government should ever get to a point where it violates civil liberties to enforce social distancing measures? How do you balance our freedoms with safety in a pandemic?” Or, on the economic front, “How and why are you concluding that another economic stimulus package will be needed? What are the long-term impacts of this?”

Just a few days ago again, a journalist at Justin Trudeau’s press briefing brought up the fact that another politician has called for harsher quarantine and lockdown measures, specifically at the border, and then jumped right to saying something like “What is the progress on this and when will we see this?”

The question was not designed to see whether Trudeau himself thought that the call for the measures were justified, or whether such measures would be justified. The question simply assumed that what a politician was calling for probably made a lot of sense, and the “challenge” to the Prime Minister was to ask not if but when we could expect similar action.

It appears the “We’re all in this together” sentiment has poisoned the minds of some professional journalists and media personnel to the point where it is simply assumed that the government should do anything and everything in its power in the short-run, without stopping to ask what exactly is in its power and whether it would be a good thing if done.

 In other words, some are calling for the government to shoot first and ask questions later. If politicians don’t appear to be eager to do this, some journalists are asking why not.

This is completely backwards and, quite frankly, absolutely scary in a time like this.

The Prime Minister’s job isn’t to hold journalists at bay and restrain their worst instincts in favor of more consideration and analysis, and to assure them that more will come if necessary.

The journalist’s job now, and always, when dealing with government, is to question public officials and politicians if more is in fact necessary and, furthermore, to get them to justify every single step they’ve made so far. And, if the steps they are making turn out to be justified, hold them accountable to see if they are being done correctly.

Of course, the Prime Minister isn’t really restraining anybody. He’s putting on a calm front to try to communicate to everyone that rational people are in charge.

Well, I won’t take comfort in that until someone asks the questions that get the answers that make me feel that way, and right now nobody is doing that to a satisfactory level.

When you’re trying to nudge the government in a direction it’s already heading in, and the Prime Minister is telling you to wait up, you’re not doing journalism. You’re trying to get headlines and just lobbing sentiments at politicians for them to bat back for your pull quotes.

We need journalists doing the hard work of questioning things, reporting, and challenging, even when it may go counter to some widespread sentiments of panic and “common sense.”

This is not the time to relax on a bunch of assumptions and givens — things that “all Canadians would obviously want.”

This is the time for the hard questions. It’s not time for a faux-worried tone and faux-comradery with the prime minister and other leaders while groveling at their feet asking when their next announcement will be.

COVID-19 will eventually pass. There will be a world to live in after this, thanks to the efforts of those who responsibly social distance, the tireless work of healthcare workers and medical experts, and other essential workers.

However, what might not come to pass so easily are the consequences that we have to live with if too much emphasis is put on the short-term and not the medium- or long-term. The government is not powerless or benign. They have, in their hands right now — as they always have in actuality — the power to completely wreck the public purse and the economy with wrongheaded fiscal measures, and to destroy civil liberties with draconian social measures.

The biggest difference between now and a few months ago is that more incentives are in place that can encourage politicians to proceed with destructive measures, and more barriers are removed to allow that to happen more easily than ever before: A crisis that they will not let go to waste; opposition parties and members of government that would not risk their careers to look like the “bad guys” truly challenging a government trying to respond to a crisis; a worried public in which the majority are not medical or policy experts, and will cling to every word from the government from here on out; and finally, certain journalists who have apparently assigned themselves to be the Ministry of Information for the government during the time of crisis by acting as the mouth piece for the government, playing the role of cheering squad for any policy that’s announced, and simply asking the question of when more of the same will happen.

People are asking for action from the government. Many in the public seem comfortable with anything the government will do during this time. Journalists shouldn’t be — that’s not their role.

Some might tell me that dealing with the government from this perspective is not objective and that sometimes, the idea is to blindly ask questions about everything that comes at you without a framework. Well, maybe that’s right in some instances for other subjects.

However, when you’re dealing with a powerful institution, the assumption should be that you’re dealing with a coercive or violent institution — a center of authority that reigns high up in a power dynamic and structure. So, the assumption should be that the government must justify its course of action and its methods. The burden of proof is extremely high for them.

With minimal justifiable exceptions, they aren’t supposed to act first and then ratify or verify with the public. They need to prove first that they are doing, or about to do, things based on logical assumptions, the evidence of experts, and with minimal re-election consideration.

Canada needs to be a place worth living in after COVID-19, and if you’re a journalist who’s only focused on the now of headlines, pull quotes, tweets, and simply reflecting the panic you feel around you, please get out of the way — you’re not helping an investment in the now that will pay dividends in the future.

Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

–Bob Dylan

1. I’ve already seen some offer the idea that the media is in fact doing a good job at covering a spectrum of opinion by covering what different political parties are for, against, or debating about at this time. Assuming that’s true, this is still only reporting on differences in mainstream political opinion, hardly touching the call for a wide discussion on public policy. Consider, for example, that debating about whether to send “boots on the ground” into a middle-eastern country conflict or simply doing airstrikes may be a difference in name, but hardly a serious alternative or a serious debate of dichotomy.

2. This filtration process often works in such a way to serve and support those in power anyway, but that’s not the subject of this piece.

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Alex Aragona

About the Author: Alex Aragona

Alex is a business and marketing professional residing in Canada. He also hosts The Curious Task podcast. He is the founder of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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