Down with canned content

Pam Frampton
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Why the media should demand more from the government

“More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable.”— Barbara Jordan, American politician and educator (1936-96)

There’s a disturbing trend occurring within the Dunderdale government that eerily mirrors the practices of the Harper regime.

And I’m not trying to insinuate a connection between the two administrations that isn’t there — this is just a fact.

Reporters and editors often talk about it among themselves, but are loathe to complain publicly for fear of having their access to politicians restricted even further than it already is.

What I’m talking about is how difficult it is these days to do live interviews with cabinet ministers or with any other official or staffer who is the best source of the information you need.

I’m not saying we can never get a cabinet minister on the phone or in a scrum — some are quite accessible — but it is getting harder to make voice-to-voice contact.

All too often, when you ask to interview a cabinet minister, the answer is “the minister is unavailable but we will send a statement.” Or, “the minister is travelling and is unavailable.” (Oddly enough, they all seem to travel to places with no cellphone reception.)

For years now we have been denied access to senior bureaucrats with the expertise we need to tap into in order to best inform our readers of how government policies and procedures work. And if you doubt what I’m saying, when was the last time you read a story in The Telegram or watched the evening news and heard from a deputy minister? Or the fire commissioner? Or the chief medical examiner? Or the person in charge of prisons?

Not lately, that’s for sure.

Instead, our questions for the government are filtered through communications staff and the response is an unattributed email statement.

The following is a fictional exchange, but the way it unfolds is  true to life. I didn’t want to single out any particular department or minister, hence the made-up names:

Reporter: I was wondering if I could interview the nuts and bolts minister about the new ratchet policy, since some members of the public are concerned it has resulted in diminished service.

Director of communications: I will check and get back to you.

Director of communications: The minister is not available to do an interview. Please see the below statement.

“Nuts and Bolts Minister John Doe said due diligence was done before the ratchet policy was adopted, it was seen as best practice in several other Canadian jurisdictions and it was designed to provide enhanced service to the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador."

Reporter: Thanks. Am I to assume the statement is attributable to the minister, or the department?

Director of communications: You can attribute it to the minister.

Is this really a useful exchange? Absolutely not, and it wastes the time of both parties.

The reporter is left with little information and with no opportunity to discern nuance or ask followup questions, as they would in a live interview.

Years ago, you could call a cabinet minister directly — at home, even — and get spontaneous and expansive answers to questions. Back then, they seemed to understand they had an obligation to keep the electorate informed.

Of course, it’s not fair to expect politicians to be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We understand why media requests need to be screened and there’s no need for us to talk to a cabinet minister at all if basic information is all that is required.

But sometimes that’s not all that is required. And more and more, we are being fed regurgitated, carefully crafted statements — often light on information — that we are expected to pass on to you, as if we were all so many baby birds in a nest. Mother and father know best: take this information and share it. It’s been pre-chewed so you can digest it easily.

That’s not only a condescending process, it’s asking us to disseminate politicians’ speaking points to the public without getting our questions answered fully.

And why should reporters have to attribute a quote to someone when they don’t know for sure if the person actually said it?

Well, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing — either that or walk away with nothing — and I think it’s time we stopped.

What would happen if the media, collectively, refused to settle for prepared, emailed statements and instead reported that the minister refused or was unavailable for comment?

In Ottawa, that’s exactly what the media is being urged to do.

In June 2010, in an open letter to journalists on the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) website, the president of the CAJ, the head of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the presidents of several provincial press gallery associations called on journalists to refuse to take part in governments’ communications charade.

The letter referenced the Harper government, but the advice should apply equally here.

The letter asked journalists to “stand together and push back by refusing to accept vague email responses to substantive questions that require an interview with a cabinet minister or a senior civil servant.”

It said: “We are also asking journalists to stop running handout photos and video clips (from political events where journalists have been denied the liberty of collecting their own photos and video).

“We are also calling on journalists to explain better to readers and viewers just how little information Ottawa has provided for a story. Every time a minister refuses to comment, a critical piece of information is withheld or an access request is delayed, Canadians deserve to know.

”The media in this province should do the same.

Are there any takers?

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Canadian Association of Journalists, Parliamentary Press Gallery

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • EDfromRED
    September 01, 2012 - 08:56

    I think the local media need to pester politicians more on this egregious state of affairs every chance they get. Whenever some media scrum is called this needs to be a matter which is brought up so the excuses for unavailability can be made part of the public record. It's shocking that our so-called representatives seem to be playing hide-and-seek with the media and common people. I can't wait for the next election when we can finally send this group of spineless PC puppets packing.