Journalism and Democracy in the Chronicle-Herald Strike

The strike at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald (hereafter CH) is dragging into its 14th week. Events over the past couple of weeks show how the strike is important, and not just for those directly involved. It shows how labour disputes are often as much about struggles over whose expertise within, and authority over, the work process is recognized, as they are about pocketbook issues like wages and pensions. And it shows the importance of responsible journalism for a functional democracy.

First, the backstory: The paper’s newsroom workers have been walking the picket line (and producing an online paper of their own) since January 23rd. A few weeks ago, the CH put out a particularly inflammatory story, stating that Syrian refugee children at a Halifax elementary school were “choking, pushing, slapping and verbally abusing their fellow classmates,” and that school staff appeared to be doing little, if anything, about it. Over the weekend, the CH first (without explanation) edited the story, taking out some of the details, and then deleted the story entirely their website with a terse apology. The story presumably remains in its original form in the paper edition. I won’t link to the CH site while its employees are striking. But if you are really curious, the original story is reproduced, along with an angry critique, here. Tim Bousquet at the Halifax Examiner took it apart in a post, focusing on factual inaccuracies and the failure to adhere to professional and ethical standards. The Halifax Typographical Union, which represents striking CH workers, issued a statement about this. The Superintendent of the Halifax Regional School Board also made a public statement, addressed to all school board staff.

As Bousquet’s post makes clear, whoever was responsible for producing the story failed to adhere to some of the basic standards of journalistic integrity: a failure to verify claims, lack of balance, lack of context for granting interviewees anonymity, and unethical treatment of the children who were at the center of the story. And as both his post and the HTU statement make clear, these failures have to be put in the context of the CH labour dispute. The HTU statement puts it plainly:

“Both [the story writer and editor] were hired and assigned according to the skills and abilities that management deems appropriate for the job.”

This gets to the heart of the point about expertise and authority. Unions, by definition, are comprised of people who have a kind of work in common. What they share is not just an interest in getting paid decently by a common employer, but also inside knowledge about how the work process actually functions. Unions claim a particular kind of knowledge or expertise, and, through collective bargaining over working conditions, try to gain some authority over how their members’ work is done.

If it wasn’t clear before this schoolyard story was published, it is now: the professional judgement of reporters and editors (the authorization of their expertise) is essential to producing a reliable, high-quality newspaper. If this weekend’s (non-)story turns out to be a turning point in the strike, it will be because it demonstrated that fact. And if it isn’t a turning point, then (as the CH apology for the story makes clear), that is because the CH owners have opted for a business model that doesn’t rely on producing a reliable, high-quality newspaper.

This points to the implications for democracy: this strike is important beyond the struggle over expertise and authority in a particular workplace. At a work site, it matters whether the people who are making the decisions understand how the system works. If you want effective workplace safety regulation, for example, you need an understanding of how the system actually works, so that you can appropriately determine risks. The same principle is true for political systems. If we want “government by the people” to be effective, then the people should be reasonably well-informed about how the system (society) operates. That a functional mass democracy requires a free press is obvious. If reporters are censored or otherwise constrained or unduly influenced by state officials, then the people (their audience) will not have a clear sense of what is really happening, and are more likely to make bad decisions based on that misinformation. But a functional mass democracy also requires responsible journalism. Reporting that is sensationalist, coloured by partisan or other axes to grind, or not fact-checked, can similarly lead people to make bad decisions. The ways in which this particular story seems to have inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment is a case in point.

My view of the CH before the strike was that it was a decent, though certainly not great, newspaper. Whatever its flaws, though, it is the newspaper of record for the province. The province’s media ecosystem includes (unfortunately increasingly consolidated) community newspapers outside of Halifax, and an impressive array of more critical/adversarial/alternative outlets like Examiner, the Halifax Media Co-op, and the Coast. But, with the possible exception of the CBC, only the CH has the depth of resources to provide a more or less authoritative account of provincial happenings. Such ongoing authoritative accounts not only reflect what is happening, they are also important drivers in constituting “us” as a distinctive community.

So journalism, particularly at a newspaper of record, is a public trust. And the failure to protect that trust can have seriously damaging consequences for democracy and good governance. It puts those journalists, at least potentially or occasionally, at odds with newspaper owners and managers, as newspapers in North America (CH included) are generally private businesses, which means they need to turn a profit. Or at least contain losses to within what owners are willing to spend.

Bousquet speculates that

“The point of publishing the article seems to have been to get content out, possibly content that generates wide discussion, and never mind the ethical considerations.”

Attracting eyeballs to advertisers, without regard to broader or longer-term consequences, is certainly a way to run a content-providing business. But it isn’t a way to run a reputable newspaper.

PS. The influential One NS Report tells us “IMMIGRATION IS ESSENTIAL” (p24) for the future of the province. The Report frets about the number of Nova Scotians who “do not see immigration as the preferred route to population growth.” (p7) And its default mode is to scold those with such bad attitudes, in contrast with the bold and innovative entrepreneurs and visionaries. But attitudes are cultivated. They flourish, or not, in particular cultural environments. One ironic outcome of this episode is that it shows how business elites’ relentless focus on improving the bottom line can produce just the kind of attitude that the report laments.

Andrew Biro is a Professor in the Politics department at Acadia University, and a Research Associate with the Nova Scotia office of CCPA. His work focuses on the intersections of critical theory, environmental politics, cultural studies, and political economy. Blog: andrewbiro.wordpress.com (where a version of this blog post was first published), and on twitter @andrewbiro.

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