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Commentary: Corporate interests infringing on editorial integrity in newspaper endorsements

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Journalism depends on freedom of expression. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” This means that the government will protect the right of the media to say what they believe. Although the government is supposed to protect these fundamental freedoms of Canadians, they are currently under threat by large corporations exerting their influence within the media. Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey, whose company that owns over a dozen newspapers across Canada, made the decision that all Postmedia newspapers would run editorial endorsements for Stephen Harper in the 2015 federal election. If the editorial boards of some of Canada’s biggest newspapers cannot defy corporate control and express their own opinions, then readers and writers should view editorials with skepticism.

A newspaper’s editorial board produces editorials. Discussion and debate is intended to result in an editorial that presents an honest and united opinion on an issue. Paula Simon, a columnist from the Edmonton Journal said that the editorial decision to endorse Harper came directly from Godfrey. This means readers have to doubt whether endorsements represent honest editorial opinions for the National Post or for any of Postmedia’s newspapers. These include the Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, and the Ottawa Citizen, all of which endorsed Harper.

These endorsements were all presented as the honestly formed opinions of the editorial boards, but the company’s actions demonstrate that these editorial boards did not have the chance to form their own opinions. Andrew Coyne was the head of the editorial board for Postmedia’s flagship national paper, the National Post, and was acutely affected by the executive decision to publish the endorsement of Stephen Harper. Coyne reluctantly agreed to sign off on an editorial endorsing Harper, but wrote a dissenting column that the publisher refused to publish. Coyne had the clout to resign as editor and continue his career, but a less-established journalist may not have had that option. Coyne will continue as a columnist but this incident demonstrates how little power he had over the editorial voice of the newspaper; he felt his only option to express himself was to resign as editor. Removing the editorial board’s autonomy to form opinions entirely defeats the purpose of editorials by stifling the voice of the editorial board.

Millions of people in Canada consume newspapers, and a political endorsement can influence the perspective of many readers—they at least offer to challenge one’s political decisions. Effective journalism relies on an honest dialogue between writers and readers. Top-down endorsements diminish the space for discussion by reducing the variety of perspectives that are published.

Editorial boards in Canada should demand freedom. When newspapers are instead forced by their ownership to uphold the narrative those corporations establish, their worth to readers and writers alike is diminished. Coyne’s actions are a hopeful reminder that journalists can and do fight for their opinions to be heard, but the future of independent journalism in Canada depends on readers questioning what they read, and on writers demanding their right to free expression.

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