Exploring Objectivity in Canadian News

By Son Ha Tran

Pressure on journalists to get stories and get them quickly leaves no time for curiosity says Gerry Bowler, who taught history at the University of Manitoba for more than 25 years. That pressure, he says, is just one of the factors that is contributing to bias in political reporting in Canada.

Bowler, who is a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says the educational system and news media are turning future citizens into liberals or at least forging their thoughts into liberal perspective.

A prolific opinion writer, in newspapers across Canada, Bowler contends that educational systems, especially journalism schools, were responsible for the left-wing attitude.

“The faculty of journalism schools are increasingly academically left-wing theory-dominated.”

“If we take a look at the syllabi in some of the journalism schools, you’d find an increasing amount of emphasis on a particular set of left-wing issues, and a particular set of left-wing attitude,” he says.

“Certain kinds of professors at journalism schools want their future journalists to drink from a particular intellectual fountain.”

Bowler says schools were likely to build “social justice warriors” rather than “passionate observers and recorders”.

“They want to make the world a better place and they think journalism is a branch of social justice, a branch of left-wing politics,” he says. “But usually it isn’t.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists provides ethical guidelines that state while “Editorial boards and columnists or commentators endorse political candidates or political causes. Reporters do not.”

But, Bowler says, another important factor that creates news media bias is revenue.

“It’s far easier for journalists, to fall into the established narrative than looking for things that would challenge the narrative.”

However, Jeffrey Dvorkin, a lecturer, and director of the Journalism program, Department of Arts, Culture, and Media, University of Toronto, says publications and reporters were not to blame for the faults of political bias.

“The idea that the media is biased is an effort by certain political parties to put journalism on the defensive,” Dvorkin says. “Because, frankly, the worst thing you can say to a journalist is that  they are biased.”

Dvorkin says the bias in political reporting didn’t really start from the publications’ side but it might begin from the audience’s side.

“The audience has increasing influence because of social media and the digital culture.” Which, Dvorkin says, have allowed them to publish, to express, and sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s damaging.

“People in the digital era are becoming more and more suspicious and doubtful about laws and institutions,” he says.

The combination of weaker media cultures, stronger social media presence and the increasing level of suspicion of institutions had given people the idea that media is biased.

“I don’t think they are biased, in fact, they’re trying very hard, in most cases, to do a fair job,” Dvorkin says.

Those news organizations which thoroughly distinguish between evidence-based news reporting and writers’ opinion were the balanced publications.

“That’s a good sign of unbiased reporting, the Globe and Mail does that, the Toronto Star does that, so does the CBC.”

“They have commentary on their websites, but those commentators never do reporting…Those three organizations are doing a very good job in helping the audience understand the difference between fact-based reporting and opinion.”

However, Dvorkin says he’s concerned that news publications striving for unbiased reporting would affect the quality of the news.

“They’re making a very strong effort to be fair,” Dvorkin says. “The question is, are they willing to be critical enough to the government or any other parties.”

But Bowler thinks differently.

“It is no surprise, it turns out, that most of the media in Canada have a leftward-leaning tendency, such as CBC, Toronto Star, Maclean’s, and nearly all of the television networks,” Bowler says.

Bowler also emphasizes that the proportion of right-leaning publications was “much smaller.”

“Canadian newspapers, televisions are presenting overwhelmingly leftward topics, including gay rights, climate change, crime, immigration, very little of challenging the established narrative,” he says.

Bowler is concerned that the dominance of the left might possibly reshape the audience perception and public opinion.

“If the news media are continually left-leaning then the range of acceptable views of all the topics are going to move to the left,” Bowler says. “In Canada, at the moment, it certainly makes a lot of left-wing opinions.”

Kevin Metcalf, promotions and communications coordinator of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, says controversy is likely to pose bias in the audience’s perception.

“Reality is any controversial subject, publications are struggling to balance between what people want to read and what people need to read,” Metcalf says. “If there isn’t bias, people will still assume that there’s bias because the topic itself implies conflict and controversy.”

Metcalf says the role of journalism is providing fair and accurate treatment on every single subject.

Partisan news consumers drive publications to have a “single-minded approach” to a story rather than favouring the “public appeal.”

“It is something that consumers can have short-term benefit from and it also benefits the media outlets,” Metcalf says.

But Bowler contends journalists cannot be “completely objective” and sometimes, bias is inevitable in reporting as it’s a human endeavour.

“Objectivity is an impossibility, but the effort should be to get as close to objectivity as possible,” Bowler says. “When I pick up a newspaper, I’d like to have the facts I need rather than a constant intrusion of a particular narrative.”

Metcalf, however, emphasizes the need to “reflect opposing opinions” and diversity in reporting and says the role of editors is typically fundamental in the sense of avoiding bias.

“Diversity of sources is always the best. The more sources, the stronger journalistic content could be,” Metcalf says.

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